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ĎA River Runs Through Ití

By Toby Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 11, 1992


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Robert Redford has a date. He steps through the door of Livingston's 1909 Sport saloon, in Levi's and a pearl-buttoned work shirt. Then he freezes, scouting a table. His companion is blond, slender. She wears a silk blouse and linen skirt -- upscale for Montana -- and fingers her hair anxiously. This must be a first date. She's leggy yet not so tall as Redford, who scans the room, his gaze never rising to eye level. He spots a vacant corner, and the couple settle into period gamblers' chairs.

It is 9:30 p.m.; the Sport is hectic with cowboys, hay ranchers and fishermen, slumping conversationally at the mahogany bar below elk and bison heads or sitting at gingham-clothed tables wolfing blue-plate specials. Few heed Redford. He's been a fixture in Livingston since he began directing the film of Norman Maclean's Montana novella "A River Runs Through It." And Livingston is accustomed to celebrities.

Jeff Bridges, Michael Keaton, Meg Ryan, Dennis Quaid, Peter and Jane Fonda, Ted Turner, Brook Shields, composer David Grusin, Glenn Close, Bruce Weber, Tom Brokaw, Thomas McGuane, author Tim Cahill and painter Russell Chatham live or vacation nearby; Sam Peckinpah, Richard Brautigan and actor Warren Oates, before their deaths, called Livingston home. Four previous movies have been shot hereabouts, including screen author McGuane's "Rancho Deluxe," and "The Missouri Breaks," which brought Brando and Nicholson to town.

The kidding of Redford has been primarily by business wags: "Welcome Wobert Wedford," reads Main Street Car Wash's sign, and "A River Runs Through What?" demands Trower Drug.

The Yellowstone runs through Livingston. Its blue-ribbon trout water lured McGuane here in 1968, and quickly he and its legendary angling drew other writers. Three sit at a neighboring table, two of whose publications are vying for Redford exclusives. As usual, he's standoffish. "I want this film to appear just as it is," he says, "without a lot of hoopla."

Yet within time he'll grant interviews to virtually any publication that will have him, perhaps realizing the unbankability of a film about fly-fishing in 1920s Montana. But he doesn't have to like it. "The national mags would rather focus on what color my hair is than on what I have to say," he says.

Redford's hair is a straw heap of reddish-blond, frosted with white; at the moment he has little to say. His date fidgets. Redford studies the menu. They sit close, like kids at a malt shop, sipping drinks and hardly speaking. She glances at his face. It's craggy, lined and pitted with scars. The smile, when it flashes, is still brilliant. His chest and arms are powerful, but he's sprouted a belly. He's 55 years old, freshly divorced, a grandfather.

Like "Ordinary People" (which Redford directed in 1980), "A River Runs Through It" (which opens in Washington on Friday) concerns family, specifically familial communication. Published in 1976, it was called "an American classic" by Alfred Kazin, with passages "of physical rapture in the presence of unsullied primitive America that are as beautiful as anything in Thoreau or Emerson." "River" highlights two brothers -- one gently meditative, the other violently self-destructive -- who share a passion for angling. "In our family," Maclean wrote in the autobiographical novella, "there was no clear line between religion and fly-fishing." And to Maclean's father, a Presbyterian minister who alternated lessons in Scripture with those in casting, "all good things -- trout as well as eternal salvation -- come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy."

The Maclean brothers were first-generation Scottish Americans who communed in sport. Redford is a Scottish-Irish actor who communicates best through physicality. Of the Macleans, he says, "We're dealing with pride and fierce competition -- you don't ask for help, you tough it alone." He also says, "Scots have enormous difficulty in expressing feelings and emotions, and are capable of intense judgmentalness, of punishing others by silence."

One patron who's noticed Redford's silence tonight is William Hjortsberg, the Montanan whose quirky novel, "Falling Angel," was optioned by Redford before it became Alan Parker's lurid film "Angel Heart." Hjortsberg worked with Maclean as a screenwriter for Paramount on the first adaptation of "River."

"Norman was a salty old guy," he remembers, "whom I liked enormously. When I met him in 1978, his wife had died a few years before; that's why he started writing. He saw himself as this lonely guy retired from teaching literature at the University of Chicago. He was about 75. We fished the Blackfoot River and afterward he offered me a snort of whiskey from a Mason jar. I guess it reminded him of bootleg liquor during Prohibition, the era of his book."

Maclean's brother, Paul, was a newspaper reporter and gambler who was beaten to death in a Chicago alley, presumably over gambling debts. One theory about his murder is that Paul came to Norman, begged him for help and was turned away. Paul was found dead thereafter. Thus Norman's dreadful guilt. In Maclean's novella, this theory contends, Paul is transmogrified to the brother Norman cannot -- rather than will not -- save. "The book is really about loving somebody," Hjortsberg says. Redford adds: "This film is the story about a deeply loving family, but it reaches into that dark area where you don't know how to help somebody you love until it's too late."

When Paramount's option lapsed, William Hurt and Sam Shepard tried to gain the author's favor, but Missoulans William Kittredge and Annick Smith (creators of "Heartland") won "River's" screen rights, forming a partnership with Maclean. They took a script to Redford's Sundance Institute, and Redford, according to Kittredge, said, " 'But I was going to do this.' " McGuane had sent Redford the novella 12 years ago, and he'd been obsessed with its literary qualities and subject matter. And how they might translate to film. Kittredge adds, "When the steamroller starts moving, you get out of the road." He had spent two years on a screenplay for "River," jousting with Maclean while writing several drafts. When their option lapsed, Redford beat Kittredge and Smith (who'd resigned from the board of Sundance to develop "River") to the punch, purchasing rights. He promised them co-producer credit and paid them off handsomely.

Redford denies impropriety. "I wasn't aware of moving anybody out," he told Premiere magazine. Redford was at the tail end of a courtship of Maclean's family that required three visits to Chicago, an authorial visit to Sundance and Maclean's approval of the final screenplay.

Maclean died in 1991 at 87, cantankerous to the end. "He obviously didn't much want to have a movie made," Hjortsberg says. "When he read my script, his reaction was, 'These are my family and you can't treat them like this.' I tried scrupulously to be faithful to the book, more faithful than the script Redford's shooting."

Maclean's sensitivity was not lost on Redford, whose own father was uncommunicative but through sport, and who died in April 1991 at age 76. It might be argued that Redford grew uncommunicative toward him. The senior Redford was a Chevron accountant who'd been a milkman in Santa Monica, Calif., while Bob was growing up. "He had to go down last month and clean out his father's things," according to Beverly Walker, "River's" publicist. "When he said that, tears filled his eyes."

Montana may be home to the Marlboro man, but Livingston has evolved as a kind of Boys Town for lost sons. Hjortsberg, McGuane, Brautigan, Chatham, Peckinpah, Fonda and others were damaged by inappropriate fathering, or abandoned outright. McGuane has spent a career writing of the twisted relationships, alcoholism and "sadness for no reason" that constitute such sons' inheritance. For many, fishing, drinking, womanizing and the blood sports were how they connected with fathers, what grew emotional tissue.

Forward Retreat

A 1920s motorcycle on high, thin wheels swims through gravel on Callender Street as a grizzled man in coveralls rides it past horse-drawn buggies, Model T's and a fat team of Percherons hauling a buckboard. The Panaflex swings as costumed extras cross an avenue dressed in fake balconies, gas lampposts and wooden sidewalks. This is "River's" opening scene. Every trace of modern Livingston has been camouflaged. Redford watches his cinematographer, Phillipe Rousselot, gauge the exquisite afternoon light before panning sky and mountains, then gliding to the Maclean boys wandering through town.

They're supporting actors. Brad Pitt and Craig Sheffer will play the adult Macleans, with Tom Skerritt as their father and Emily Lloyd as Norman's wife. "River" is strikingly cast, but for the moment it's Redford's set that intrigues. It is perfect. Livingston's false-front buildings, wide 19th-century streets and surrounding Absaroka mountains -- where Liver Eatin' "Jeremiah" Johnson killed more than 300 Indians in 1847 -- have not required much doctoring. Livingstonians are happy to see "River" here during this depressed summer of 1991; some speak of leaving its scenery in place to lure tourists.

Redford slouches in a canvas chair on Callender's sidewalk, his head tilted toward the sun. He's won this slugfest for "River" -- and the past is his territory. He wrote in 1976, "As technology thrusts us relentlessly into the future, I find myself, perversely, more interested in the past." History is, colleagues suggest, one reason for his avid preservationalism: He cannot bear to see the past erased. His mother, Martha Hart Redford, died when he was 18. And of his boyhood haunts in Los Angeles, he's said: "I watched green spaces turn into malls, the smell of orange blossoms turn into exhaust fumes."

His boyhood was linked to Hollywood, if only its studio gates. He remembers "the painted sky" of back lots "standing out against the real sky," and actors he considered unmanly, even "girlish." His paternal grandfather was a vaudevillian, but Redford excelled only in athletics, competing in organized sports and immersing himself in the Cult of Win.

He had talent for sketching, but his passionate interest was playing baseball, especially with his father. "Baseball was a strong connection between us ... when we played catch his troubles seemed to go away." They talked while playing, a rare occurrence. He accepted a baseball scholarship to the University of Colorado, but lost it to grief over his mother's death. And heavy drinking.

Charles Redford was hardly sympathetic. He'd write of Bob, "We think of him whimsically as a combination of Tom Swift and Attila the Hun." Bob replied, "My father is an old Irishman so I don't know whether it was his sense of humor or accuracy that prompted that remark ... Hethought I would be a little more solid ... A lawyer is solid, a doctor is solid, an actor isn't."

It would be 1984 before Redford made "The Natural." That film was a paean to his father, and to the baseball they shared. It follows pitcher Roy Hobbs from a brilliant early career through a 15-year exile from which he rebounds to lead the New York Knights to a championship. Redford-as-Hobbs confesses painfully, in one scene, that he wishes his dad could have seen his last home run.

Bob had discovered painting at college, dropped out, then spent a year bumming through Europe -- studying art in Paris and Florence. His paintings were impressionistic, black-and-white washes: gloomy, disturbed. Disheartened by teachers' reactions, he returned home, bumming across America, sleeping in jails, carousing, but always sketching. He idled in Los Angeles, drinking hard, until he met Lola Jean Van Wagenen -- a blond 17-year-old from Utah. He fell for her and her large Mormon family, who talked to each other. Lola encouraged him to pursue art while studying set design at the Pratt Institute in New York. It wasn't long before he auditioned for the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and was accepted.

The Broadway version of Neil Simon's "Barefoot in the Park" made him a stage star, and its film version in 1967 made him a Hollywood mini-star. "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" would make him a superstar, with "The Candidate," "The Sting," "The Great Gatsby" and "All the President's Men" solidifying his fame.

Yet the art life called. He'd quit acting once, spending half a year painting in Europe. By the late '70s he was again digging inward. Repeatedly he spoke of leaving Hollywood: "I am retiring from films, definitely ... by or before the mid-1980s I won't be an actor anymore." In fact he'd perform in only three movies during the '80s: "The Natural," "Out of Africa" and "Legal Eagles." When his teenage son, Jamie, became ill with a physiological disorder connected to the stress of being Robert Redford's son, that heightened his introspection. "Bob had no sense that it was hard to be his son," says a family friend. "He was totally oblivious that well-intended, unconscious behavior can have an adverse effect on people close to you. There's a part of Bob that's naive, and this was a real wake-up call for him."

He retreated to the mountains of Utah, harboring plans to direct. He'd purchased rights to Judith Guest's novel "Ordinary People," and by 1979 he was ready to shoot. The final product astonished everyone. "It's no accident that he directed it so effectively," a co-worker explains, "because it's about inflicted pain within the family that's not intended."

At Charles Redford's retirement party in 1979, friends presented him with a mock Oscar. The father quipped, "Maybe Bobby will win one of these." In 1980 he did, for "Ordinary People." He took Best Director and Best Picture in a field that included Martin Scorsese's "Raging Bull." "I thought I'd lost my career in art or my way in art," he said. "I thought I would never see that again in my life."

Beyond Sex Symbol

The legend behind the pulpit reads GOD IS LOVE. Redford sits in the front pew, boots splayed out and his face corrugated with fatigue. It's 10 p.m. He's been directing since 9 a.m. The church is darkened, ghostly. A brunette masseuse (une petite amie) kneads Redford's neck and shoulders as Tom Skerritt stands before a walnut lectern delivering the Rev. Maclean's eulogy for his son:

"... And so it is those we live with and love and should know who elude us. However, it is also true that you can love completely without complete understanding ..."

This is "River's" penultimate scene, and Redford's determined to make it right. "Action," he calls as the white-haired Skerritt removes spectacles, pulls at his vestment and begins ... then quietly, "Cut." Redford stares from his pew, studying the set as if it were a palette. He repeats this drill, suggesting minor variations to Skerritt and rising to check results on videotape. "Action ..." "There's a lot of Zen in directing," he maintains.

Redford's Zen-like grace, amused self-deprecation, liberal reserve and sensitivity toward the environment said much to his generation. He personified the best attributes of American masculinity. He was America's sex symbol, yet longed to be left alone.

Frontier isolationism was a major theme of 1972's "Jeremiah Johnson" (Redford's favorite of his films), but post-"Ordinary People" he explored it thoroughly within his life. He retired to Utah, spending primary energy on developing Sundance, a community that married his interests in art, environment and sport. He pledged "to take some time to put something back in the ground." Sundance was named for his character in "Butch Cassidy," but it also refers to a Plains Indian rite of purgation in which dancers commit self-immolation for the good of the tribe.

Sundance Institute nurtures independent filmmakers, gathering them for retreats that hone technique and teach the brutal business of movies. A small ski resort was built to defray Redford's expenses, for as the institute's major backer he diverted millions toward its operation. Sundance films include "The Trip to Bountiful," "El Norte," "Desert Bloom," "A Dry White Season." In off months it hosts environmental conferences.

"I'm convinced one reason Bob speaks so much about the environment," Beverly Walker, the film's publicist, says here in this dimly lit church, "is to avoid speaking about himself and his family. You know, the principals in 'A River Runs Through It' physically resemble Bob: Brad Pitt, the young rebellious Bob; Tom Skerritt, the older Bob. I think middle age is a tremendous relief to him." A fact obvious to audiences for "Havana" or "Sneakers," where the weathered and potbellied star let it all hang out. "He's no longer handsome. We suggested air-brushing his publicity stills and he said, 'Forget it.' "

Skerritt's eulogy as the Rev. Maclean at last seems spun. In a dozen takes Redford's muttered little more than "cut," his back bent and masseuse kneading his shoulders. Fatigue is overwhelming. It's as if he were filming his eulogy, or that of his dad. Skerritt makes some tiny adustment in delivery and Redford stiffens. The girl's hands fall away. Redford straightens in his pew and, with a voice barely audible, whispers, "Nice."

'Under the Rocks'

Lunchtime in Sacajamea Park: White cavalry tents shield crew and company from the mountain sun, as Redford sits alone beside his aluminum teapot of a trailer, a classic Airstream. Like "River's" props, it might as well be vintage. He's immersed himself in the Macleans' era, hanging photos of their family, reading Paul's newspaper columns, playing Norman's taped lectures and studying his letters.

Off to Redford's right, Skerritt -- in black trousers and galluses -- practices fly-casting. "River's" angling sequences have gone well, its actors coached by John Bailey, of Dan Bailey's Fly Shop, or George Croonenberghs, the Macleans' boyhood friend. Montana's native trout have been spared by hatchery and mechanical substitutes. Brad Pitt squats on the riverbank petting his hound dog, Deacon, and smoking while he surveys the Yellowstone.

"Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it," Maclean wrote. "On one of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters."

"It's that last line in the book that just rips me up," Pitt says. "I identify with Paul in a lot of ways. ... People who have so much, yet somehow just can't get it together, are very mysterious and compelling to me."

The Men's Movement seems to have captivated Redford's set. He's abandoned his customary lateness as an actor to strict hours of directorial focus. Skerritt's labored hard, admitting that "I see certain aspects of my own father in the reverend. He had that same Anglo-Saxon stiffness and unwillingness to display affection. ... He never gave me a hug and I never heard him say, 'I love you.' "

Promoting "The Natural" in 1984, Redford told Gene Siskel: "My father and I have great affection for each other, but we don't see each other much anymore. Our lives have grown apart."

If "Ordinary People" concerned family, "River" is about men: brothers, fathers, and their search for grace through sport. As Maclean suggests, neither fishing nor fish were what drew his family to the river. It was the dream of communication. "Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs."

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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