Team Experience is looking at key Robert Redford films as we approach the release of his lauded Oscar-buzzing comeback "All is Lost". Here's Tim Brayton on one of his milestone films.
In addition to being one of the great timeless sex symbols in Western culture, Robert Redford is noted for the passion of his activism: for art, as in the creation of the Sundance Film Festival and the exposure it gave to American independent filmmaking; and for politics, as seen in the joylessly obvious message movie Lions for Lambs. But let us try as hard as we possibly can not to hold that against him, and instead rewind all the way back to 1972. For it was in that election year that Redford acted in the first of many explicitly political movies of his career, The Candidate.
The title says it all: there’s a Senate campaign to wage, and a candidate to flog, and that candidate, Democrat Bill McKay, is embodied by the most photogenic, blondest, whitest actor of the early ‘70s. Which is as much to say that the casting alone goes a long way towards explaining why the movie works, will all apologies to Redford’s skill. [more...]
The Candidate is a bitterly comic examination of the electoral process -- the next time you hear somebody complain about the way that the discourse has become poisoned, point them towards this 41-year-old film to see just how little things have actually changed! It's primarily about the way that election season has a way of carving complex arguments down to chirpy sound bites, and the selling of vague concepts rather than policies. The best-looking product wins and Redford, around ’72, was very close to the best-looking thing in the entire world. You can’t make an argument about the image-obsessed political world much more compact than “Senatorial candidate Robert Redford.”
Except for "Senatorial candidate Robert Redford flirts with Natalie Wood"
It’s probably the best use that any film made of Redford’s good looks for the interests of the story, and not just the interests of the audience. It’s possible to pay too much attention to that element of the film at the expense of Redford’s acting, which is terrific. Personally, I’m inclined to suggest it’s the best performance he ever gave, with the caveat that Redford’s career wasn’t as stocked with complex, rich characterizations as a lot of his peers; iconic co-star Paul Newman, for one.
Still, when he was on, the results are magnificent, and his performance of Bill McKay is quite a thing to behold. It's not, as the plot summaries (and even, to a degree, the script) would have you believe, the portrayal of a man of strong ideals being corrupted into something shallow and trivial. Instead, it's a more complicated and far more interesting portrayal of a man of strong ideals making the choice, over and over again, to betray those ideals for the sake of getting things done. McKay's good intentions are increasingly smothered by self-loathing and withdrawal, and Redford’s performance over the course of the movie establishes that internal conflict through increasingly fascinating physical means: his expression, which looks more and more like he’s eaten something sour, and his carriage, which sags a little more with every scene. He is, in effect, turning off the ol’ Redford charisma, right before our eyes.
It’s the right approach to this film because, unlike something in the Citizen Kane vein, this isn’t a story about power corrupting, but a political procedural, one that comes from an especially discouraged place. In 1972, liberals were only four years out from Hubert Humphrey's sound thrashing by Richard Nixon, and shortly before George McGovern's. The mood was very much that a pureblooded liberal was too noble and innocent to survive in the electoral arena, and the question that was much on the mind of political activists was how much self-sacrifice had to happen in order to win a damn election, anyway. It was thus necessary that McKay be constantly aware that he was selling himself out, rather than simply turning evil inch by inch. It’s necessary that he still be a good man doing bad things, and this is what Redford absolutely nailed in his performance: weariness, resignation, and self-mockery, of a sort exemplified by his speech rehearsal in a limo, putting on accents and screwing up the words and looking thoroughly miserable.
This all plays as much sprightlier and entertaining than I’ve made it sound, which is also partially due to Redford, who manages to navigate all that without sacrificing a sense of humor (how much is the character, and how much is the actor, is hard to say). The film is satiric and cynical, but hardly depressive; that’s the flipside to Redford’s characterization of McKay as a lost, self-loathing figure rather than a corrupt one. There’s still hope for change and redemption. By no means is The Candidate an optimistic film, but it is more about a broken system that we need to fix, rather than a broken system that we need to resign ourselves to. That message, in that year, with that actor, makes this the most politically rousing film that Redford has been associated with, and certainly the most gripping to watch.