Robert Redford’s Anecdote: A Study in Self-Delusion

I’ve been struggling for a couple of weeks now since my first column on David Berlinski’s work (on May 18) to do justice to the complexity and profundity of his mathematically based critique of the origins of the universe and the origins of man as he expanded on them in the course of a recent interview with me. Part of the problem is attempting to capture the subtlety and dimensionality of his thinking in the confines of a 2,000-word-long column. So for those of you-and I know there are some -who have been awaiting that, forgive me if for one further week I allow myself to be distracted by a tirade on what some might consider a less weighty subject: the mind of Robert Redford.

In particular, I would like to call attention to perhaps the single most self-deluded anecdote any celebrity has ever told any magazine. I’m referring to the opening anecdote in the May 18 New Yorker profile of Mr. Redford by Richard Rayner. Let me make it clear this is not in any way a criticism of Mr. Rayner, a writer whose work I’ve long been fond of in The New Yorker and elsewhere. It is, in a way, a tribute to him that he was able to elicit such a revealing and damning anecdote from Mr. Redford, although my sense is that because of a perhaps too tastefully reticent lack of authorial response to the anecdote, some readers may have skimmed over it without realizing the awful depth of the meretricious sentiment that oozes forth from Mr. Redford’s words.

The anecdote-about a meeting Mr. Redford “took” with John Huston and a Hollywood studio exec-appears in the first couple pages of the profile, and it’s clear Mr. Redford intends it to demonstrate his reverence for Huston as the great artist and to distinguish himself and Huston from the crass phonies of Hollywood, to whose presence sensitive artistes are tragically condemned to subject themselves.

But everything about this anecdote reeks of the disingenuous, up to and including the profound betrayal hidden at the heart of it, and it’s worth examining in detail because it tells us an enormous amount about how sheltered from self-knowledge a star like Mr. Redford-who deludes himself somehow that he’s an outsider to the Hollywood ethos-has become. Don’t get me wrong, I think he’s capable of distinctive work-in Quiz Show , certainly. But in this story at least, he’s more Hollywood than Hollywood itself.

After describing himself as a huge admirer of Huston-in particular for his masterpiece The Treasure of the Sierra Madre , and for Treasure ‘s allegory of greed as an instructive fable of Hollywood itself-Mr. Redford proceeds to tell a story about that meeting with Huston that he believes demonstrates how the two of them share an anti-Hollywood sensibility.

“An executive asked if I’d take a meeting with him,” Mr. Redford tells Mr. Rayner. “This executive had been the head of two studios, and had been made the head of another because he’d been the head of two studios. In the scheme of things, an irrelevant character, but in Hollywood a guy who was right at the top of the list. He wore an excessive amount of jewelry and was very coifed.”

Notice how pleased with himself Mr. Redford is as he distances himself from the pitifully limited Hollywood value system: The “very coifed” guy might have headed up three studios, but “in the scheme of things,” in the larger, deeper, more profound Redfordian value system, he was an “irrelevant character.” Of course, Mr. Redford, that bold irrepressible rebel, doesn’t quite have the nerve or the balls to name the guy. Could it be because, hey, who knows, he might want to get him to finance one of his oh-so-serious-and-important pictures down the line? Can’t be too careful, can we, Bob? But he’s not above taking cheap shots at the exec’s appearance, “an excessive amount of jewelry” and the “very coifed” hair.

One true sign of a simple-minded sensibility-of the Hollywood sensibility Mr. Redford purports to reject-is that the bad guys always look or dress bad, and the good guys always look, well, like Robert Redford. And he has a lot of nerve to criticize someone’s personal adornment. As if he doesn’t spend huge amounts of time and money on his pictures for special lighting to give an extra glow to his hair so that he can still be the ageless golden boy who scams young babes half his age in vanity productions (like Michelle Pfeiffer in Up Close and Personal ). As if he didn’t owe his entire career-however much talent he might have-to his own “coif.” It should be clear to everyone but Mr. Redford that his excessive animus against this guy’s “coif” is an unconscious projection of his own repressed awareness of reliance on coif to get where he is.

Anyway, Mr. Redford moves on to tell us about the meeting between him, the studio exec and Huston. “I remember thinking at the time I’d love to meet John Huston, but this didn’t feel quite right. The idea of Huston’s sitting in the face of this bejeweled character auditioning-well, it seemed absurd. But I went.” (As if the history of Hollywood isn’t distinguished by brilliant movies commissioned by bejeweled studio heads.)

He paints quite a pitiful picture of Huston, who’d come to the meeting with an oxygen tank for the emphysema he was suffering from, how “when he ran out of breath he had to collect more oxygen to carry on speaking, but he behaved bravely, as though everything would be made perfect by his spirit and his energy.”

What Mr. Redford doesn’t mention, as he depicts Huston making a pitch for a project to the studio exec, is that Huston is there to pitch him , Mr. Redford, as well. That for all practical purposes, if Mr. Redford wanted to get Huston’s script bought, if Mr. Redford wanted to get Huston enough development money to keep him in oxygen at least, all he would have to do would be to say six words at the meeting: “I like it, let’s do it.”

Instead, Mr. Redford once again tries to make the story about his distaste for the exec’s “coif.” The exec had become “extremely uncomfortable,” Mr. Redford says listening to Huston’s pitch, “and was drinking. He sat there perfectly coifed, belting back Scotch after Scotch. Finally, John said, ‘Well, there you have it, that’s the way I see it.'”

The pitch ends, at which point Mr. Redford-who’s told us how much he worships Huston, how Huston’s Treasure changed his life, who’s sucked up to Huston by telling him all that before the pitch-has a chance to step in and say, “That’s great, John, let’s find a way to do it.”

Instead, Mr. Redford lets Huston hang there gasping, and tries to make the studio exec the villain of the piece. “The executive started to stammer,” Mr. Redford tells us, “saying, ‘Well, this is wonderful, we’re going to be taking a long look at this.’ He was clearly unable to make any kind of commitment, saying, ‘Hey, this sounds great,’ and then he stammered more and said, ‘Let’s do it, yes?’ And then he turned to me …”

It is at this point that we discover just who is really unable to make a commitment. Because in fact the executive, even in Mr. Redford’s prejudiced account, clearly is saying, We’ll do it if you, Bob Redford, will endorse it. He’s asking Mr. Redford to put his coif where his mouth is, to back up his professed admiration for Huston by giving his imprimatur to the project Huston is gasping for oxygen to sell. But Mr. Redford is famous for being unable to make a commitment.

So what does he do? Let’s see if we can figure out from the strange elision in Mr. Redford’s account.

“He turned to me,” Mr. Redford says of the exec, “saying, ‘What about you, Bob? Are you enthusiastic enough to get on board?’ He just didn’t know what to do. So he talked and he talked, trying to be gracious to John while extricating himself from this situation.”

Do you see the huge shameful omission in this anecdote, the black hole of bad faith? The exec asks Mr. Redford the question, “Are you enthusiastic enough to get on board?” And Mr. Redford doesn’t tell us his reply.

And why doesn’t he tell us his reply? Why doesn’t he tell us what he said when the executive asked him, “Are you enthusiastic enough to get on board?” I have a theory why: because, given the chance to get on board, Mr. Redford stiffed Huston, cut the legs out from under him, killed him in that meeting as surely as if he’d shut off his oxygen valve. He could have given Huston’s project the push it needed, but he wouldn’t risk his coif to do it, even while Huston was desperate enough to drag himself and his oxygen tank to the meeting in hopes of getting help. But not Bob, not our pure, noble Bob. Help a man he admired get funded by a guy who wears too much jewelry? Perish the thought. Let Huston die without being besmirched by further association with this excessively coifed exec.

Based on his own account, it seems to me that Mr. Redford was the one who, in his passive-aggressive way, killed the pitch, yet he has the nerve, the self-serving brazenness, to try to make it seem as if it was the exec’s fault: “He just didn’t know what to do. So he talked … trying to extricate himself from this situation.”

No, Bob. He talked, trying to extricate himself, because you, Robert Redford, kept silent when a word from you would have meant some money, some hope for a filmmaker you professed to revere, but wouldn’t risk your time, your effort, your coif for. It’s a pathetic display, particularly because Mr. Redford is supposedly telling this story to show how he’s so far above the vulgar, overjeweled, heavily coifed Hollywood phonies. When, in fact, the guy with too many jewels was clearly giving Mr. Redford a chance to come through for his idol, and Mr. Redford was too preoccupied with his self-image as Natural-unbejeweled, uncoifed-Man to do the right thing.

Mr. Redford then depicts a defeated Huston telling Mr. Redford and the exec, rather pitifully, “‘Well, gentlemen, this is all very good, but you see, I’m afraid I must go. I’m running out of oxygen.’ And he got up and left, carrying his tank with him.”

What’s amazing is how little Mr. Redford seems to be aware of how he comes across in this story. According to Mr. Rayner, “For Redford it was an illustration of Huston and Hollywood-how they played each other as in a game of poker. And Huston, according to Redford, was a brilliant card player. The secret was in knowing what not to give away.”

I think it is in that little aside, ” according to Redford ,” that the shrewd and subtle Mr. Rayner seems to give away his own awareness of how deluded Mr. Redford is, with his self-congratulatory, above-the-battle view of Hollywood poker games.

Let me spell it out for you, Bob: It’s not a story about Huston and Hollywood, and knowing what not to give away. It’s a story about you, Robert Redford, and what you were too timid to give away, the juice you could have but failed to give Huston’s project. Your failure to give the encouragement that might have given some desperately needed oxygen to Huston’s artistic career in his last days. Because you were too good, too noble to be associated with anyone whose coif differed from yours.

Now, maybe Mr. Redford went on to make up for this moment by helping Huston get his script bought elsewhere. (Mr. Redford was unavailable, in the South Pacific. His publicist, Lois Smith, said that to her knowledge, he had no further involvement with the project.) But as Mr. Redford tells this story, he obviously thinks it reflects so well on him, he hardly has anything to make up for. In fact, what’s really most revealing about this story is that Mr. Redford can tell it without seeing how selfish it makes him out to be. It’s an illustration of how heavily insulated from reality he must be by sycophants and yes men. You sense he’s probably told this story dozens of times to cronies and favor- seekers, thinking how well it reflects on his exquisitely elevated sensibility. So enraptured by Huston’s artistry, so disdainful of vulgar jewels and coif, so different from crass Hollywood is he. And nobody had the nerve to tell him what it really says about him: “Bob, you stiffed one of the great directors in film history when he was dying and you think it reflects well on you?”

It’s the Emperor’s New Anecdote.

Robert Redford’s Anecdote: A Study in Self-Delusion