He’s sitting on a bar stool in Lower Manhattan, drunk, half-sleeping but perfectly erect, immaculate in his Navy whites. The woman who’s loved him since college spots him from across the room. Drawing nearer, she fingers the blond hair from his forehead and, in a reverie of desire, whispers his name: “Hubbell . . .”

Back in 1973, that moment in “The Way We Were” was the last word in romance, and Robert Redford was the first name in love objects — all the more attractive, perhaps, for being discomfited by his own beauty, for always worrying where it might lead him. When Clark Gable eyed a woman, you knew exactly what was on his mind. Redford, in the same situation, seemed to have so many things on his mind (sex often the least of them) that he couldn’t act on any of them. He could only stand there, softly anguished, as unknowable to himself as to his lover.

That twinning of beauty and diffidence has always yielded box-office returns, but in Redford’s case, was it more than a pose? Was all that romantic paralysis the truest expression of his divided nature?

Begin at the beginning: Charles Robert Redford Jr., sun-kissed child of Southern California and, equally to the point, the son of a Standard Oil exec whose career provides the ideal stimulus for rebellion. Rather than settle into the life of an organization man, the young Redford quits college and runs off to Europe to paint. Then, through some combination of whim and calculation, he enrolls in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, a fusty old institution whose guidance he tolerates only until the rest of the world takes notice.

His breakout is on Broadway — the male lead in Neil Simon’s “Barefoot in the Park” — but it’s the movies that offer the proper home for his Galahad jaw and ruminative silences. (Among male sex symbols of that era, only Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood make fewer sounds.) In “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969), Redford is officially second lead to Paul Newman, but his stillness and soft-steely gaze prove every bit as mesmerizing as Newman’s high spirits, and by the time they are reunited for “The Sting” (1973), it’s Redford who sits atop Hollywood’s ash-heap.

In approved fashion, he graduates from acting to directing and, in exchange for stewarding the domestic melodrama “Ordinary People” (1980), receives his first Oscar, beating out the likes of David Lynch and Martin Scorsese. He is king of the multiplex now. Why, then, does every success send him scurrying back to wilderness and solitude? And why does his ambition insist on following him there?

The subtitle of Michael Feeney Callan’s deeply researched life proclaims it “The Biography.” If that doesn’t invoke enough authority for you, consider that Callan, by his own account, devoted more than 10 years to the project and talked not only with Redford’s intimates but with the great man himself. At its worst, Callan’s labor reduces him to being the stenographer of Redford’s fatuousness: “I suppose I had some intuition or observation about America or Americans that I wanted to essay. . . . I was never offended by failure. In fact, risk was the lodestar.”

But give Callan credit for letting in dissenting voices and for allowing Redford’s less Galahadian qualities to shine forth: the opportunism and narcissism, the scattershot management style, the absentee fathering. Best of all, Callan’s book begins and ends exactly where it should: with that quadrant of Utah soil christened by its owner “Sundance.”

It all started with two acres of chicken-coop plot that the young actor purchased in the 1960s for a mere $500. Over time, that plot progressed into a resort, an arts laboratory, a tchotchke warehouse and — oh, yes — a film festival. Callan inflates matters by suggesting that Redford created independent cinema — as if Kenneth Anger, John Cassavetes, Andy Warhol and John Waters had never existed, let alone Bergman, Fellini and Godard — but there’s no question that Redford made indie into a brand, one that attracts corporate buyers from all over the world.

For all his championing of the auteur spirit, however, Redford has swerved resolutely clear of small movies in his own career. Is it because, as Callan’s book suggests, he is afraid of looking small himself? For instance, when he was offered the role of the drunken lawyer in “The Verdict,” Redford insisted on rewrites that would “make him more lovable so the audience would ‘identify’ with him.” In the end, the part went to his pal Paul Newman, who fully embraced the character’s limits and showed himself to be the greater, more expansive artist.

It may be, though, that the Redford paradigm will have greater staying power. Thanks to him, the American movie star must now be a citizen of the world, with all the idealism and sanctimony that implies. When we see George Clooney traveling to Darfur, when we watch Sean Penn pitching tents in Haiti, we’re witnessing the noblesse oblige that Redford, with his years of environmental activism, helped implant in Hollywood’s gold-plated heart. No question that each of these actors does good, raises money, builds awareness. Maybe the only remaining question is: How much love does one man need?

Bayard is a novelist and reviewer whose most recent book is “The School of Night.”


The Biography

By Michael Feeney Callan

Knopf. 468 pp. $27.95