Beginning in 1952 when the Cecil B. deMille Award was presented to its namesake visionary director, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association has awarded its most prestigious prize 66 times. From Walt Disney to Bette Davis, Elizabeth Taylor to Steven Spielberg and 62 others, the deMille has gone to luminaries – actors, directors, producers – who have left an indelible mark on Hollywood. Sometimes mistaken with a career achievement award, per HFPA statute, the deMille is more precisely bestowed for “outstanding contributions to the world of entertainment”. In this series, HFPA cognoscente and former president Philip Berk profiles deMille laureates through the years.
What a remarkable career Cecil B deMille award recipient Robert Redford has had. After struggling to find his footing while doing guest spots on TV series, it was his first starring role in a student film War Hunt that paved the way for his amazing career. But even after the film won the major award at the Edinburgh Film Festival, Hollywood took little notice. It was his lead on Broadway in Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park that made them aware.
In the first phase of his career, they saw him only as a screen heartthrob, although always in prestige pictures, but eventually he gained their respect as an actor when he played the Sundance Kid, a role Paul Newman would’ve played if Steve McQueen hadn’t dropped out.
In his second phase, after Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, he became the top box office star of the decade, starring in such film classics as The Way We Were, The Sting, and All the President’s Men.
His third phase saw him produce and direct the Golden Globe and Academy Award-wining Best Picture Ordinary People, which satisfied his yearning to work behind the camera. In his fourth phase, he established the Sundance Film Festival in his domicile, Park City, Utah, which has become the benchmark for discovering independent films.
In his fifth and final phase, he became a Hollywood icon extending his accumulation of award-winning and box office successes with Out of Africa and Indecent Proposal.
One of the two most famous graduates of Van Nuys High School in the San Fernando Valley (the other being Marilyn Monroe), he graduated from high school without distinction, and even his college career yielded little promise. His first movie role, a part later played by Jeff Bridges, was in Sidney Lumet’s television adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s monumental play The Iceman Cometh, in which his character goes toe to toe with Jason Robards’ Hickey.
His first Hollywood movie, Situation Hopeless But Not Serious, went unnoticed, but its prestigious co-star Alec Guinness correctly predicted that Redford “was going to be a big star.” It was his friend and fellow actor and later director Sydney Pollack who encouraged Hollywood to take notice. His performance in Pollack’s The Property Is Condemned led to roles in Inside Daisy Clover and The Chase, although his costars, bigger names like Natalie Wood and Marlon Brando got all the attention.
But then cast opposite Jane Fonda in Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park, the role he originated on Broadway, he soon became Hollywood’s most eligible leading man. He turned down a lot of the beefcake roles he was being offered, and after waiting two years, he got his big break, his defining role in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. From then on he was Hollywood’s biggest star, calling the shots, and giving new meaning to artistic independence.
His successful collaboration with Sydney Pollack continued until the directors' death. Jeremiah Johnson was followed by Three Days of The Condor, then The Way We Were, culminating in their greatest success, Out of Africa.
He earned high praise for The Candidate but it was The Way We Were with Barbra Streisand that made him every woman’s fantasy, and he followed it the next year with The Sting, which made him the biggest star in the world. Even misfires like The Great Gatsby and The Great Waldo Pepper, because of his star power, made money. Three Days of the Condor was a crackerjack thriller which took decades to be properly appreciated, but then again he hit the jackpot with All the President's Men, arguably the greatest political movie ever made.
From then on there really was nowhere for him to go but down.
The Electric Horseman with Pollack was a respectable failure, Barry Levinson’s The Natural was a nostalgic also-ran, but then he had a final success with Out of Africa, although it really was Meryl Streep’s movie. Regardless, the film won the Golden Globe and Oscar for Best Picture and became a huge box office hit.
What a run! For 13 years from 1974, he was Hollywood’s most dependable star and the impetus behind two Golden Globe best pictures. His subsequent films have all been respectable disappointments. Although he did have a huge commercial hit with Indecent Proposal. His subsequent directing efforts never quite equaled the acclaim of Ordinary People, although Quiz Show was named the best film of the year by the New York Film Critics and nominated as best picture by both the Academy and the HFPA. A River Runs Through It gave Brad Pitt has first starring role, and The Horse Whisperer introduced us to a very young Scarlett Johansson.
Before retiring this year he made one last gasp for greatness, appearing alone on-screen in All Is Lost for which he was nominated for both the Golden Globe and the Oscar as best actor. He temporarily stepped away from retirement to reprise his role in Marvel’s Avengers Endgame, the biggest money-making movie of all time.
His classic movies? So many: All the President’s Men, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Way We Were and Ordinary People.