Redford and Fonda

A couple of years ago I was browsing through YouTube when I found a clip of Henry Fonda receiving a lifetime achievement Oscar in 1981. Fonda had never won a competitive Oscar, although he would do so a year later for On Golden Pond. Presenting Fonda this honor was a man who would win an Oscar of his own that night, Robert Redford.

I recalled that clip after seeing Captain America: The Winter Soldier. (Obligatory spoiler alert: if you have not seen Captain America: The Winter Soldier and don’t want to know anything that happens, please stop reading.) Co-star Samuel L. Jackson said on “The Daily Show” that he had no idea how Robert Redford ended up in the movie. He’s not the only one. I had grown used to Redford only appearing in movies sporadically, and even then often in ones he directed, such as Lions for Lambs and The Company You Keep. Then last year he starred in All is Lost, in which he has almost no dialogue. This year, it’s Robert Redford in a comic book movie? That couldn’t be right.

Still, the biggest shock was yet to come. Redford plays Alexander Pierce, one of the leaders of S.H.I.E.L.D., the quasi-government agency that employs Captain America, Nick Fury, and some of the other Avengers. At first, you don’t know where Pierce is coming from. Then, at his home, his maid walks unannounced into a room where Pierce is talking to a covert operative. He looks at the maid, says “I wish you would have called,” and then Robert Freakin’ Redford shoots the maid in cold blood. That was truly one of those “Wait, did that just happen?” moments. It’s been a long time since filmgoers had their movie star perceptions shaken that way.

Actually, it was 46 years ago, when Henry Fonda starred in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West as a ruthless mercenary. So ruthless that he guns down a child in the opening scene. Fonda later recalled that he originally appeared on set in contact lenses and heavy makeup, wanting to separate the Henry Fonda persona from his new evil character. Leone made Fonda throw the disguise away. The director explained that he wanted audiences to see that it was indeed Henry Fonda playing the cruel villain. That might not seem like much now, but imagine a 1968 audience. Fonda always seemed to embody understated decency, whether as Abraham Lincoln, Tom Joad, Wyatt Earp, or Mr. Roberts. As Fonda blew away the kid, Leone was blowing away preconceptions. You could also argue that it reflected how the turbulent 1960s questioned traditional values. If Henry Fonda was the bad guy, then who or what could ever be trusted?

Usually it’s not like that. Films play into what we know about the star’s core persona and go from there. When Clint Eastwood threatens some punks in Gran Torino, we don’t question what we’re seeing. That’s not because of the character he was playing, but because it was Clint Eastwood. In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, we believe that Indy’s father had sex with a hot blonde half his age. Why? Because it was Sean Connery.

Redford’s core persona fit the 1970s perfectly, even as he moved into the 1980s. He was a good man struggling to maintain his values in a corrupt world. Think The Candidate, Three Days of the Condor, All the President’s Men, Brubaker, or even The Natural. Now, in Captain America, he is the corruptor. As with Fonda, he morphed into the character he traditionally fought against. Directors Joe and Anthony Russo said they cast Redford to hearken back to the 70s thrillers they were trying to emulate, including Three Days of the Condor. Of course, they could have done the same thing by having Redford play a kindly mentor, as he did 13 years ago in Spy Game with Brad Pitt. To the Russos’ credit they took a chance instead, as did Redford. Their gamble paid off because it fit the tone of the film. Captain America, a loyal soldier, is discovering that what he thought he’d been fighting for has grown rotten to the core. For that to have impact, you had to feel, along with the Captain, that something pristine had become sullied. What better way to do that than to have Robert Redford turn to the dark side?

Star personas are fun and comfortable. They are part of what going to the movies is about. But these personas are not sacred. They can and should be shaken and even reinvented if need be. Just as Fonda did many years ago, Redford proved that movie stars come and go, but the great ones still find ways to surprise us.

Adam Spector
May 1, 2014

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