“You do the work. That’s all that matters. The rest is someone else’s business,” — Robert Redford accepting his Riviera award at the Santa Barbara Film Fest.
It’s easy to forget that there is value beyond the awards race. I know, silly coming from one of the people who built the monster, but it is easy to forget – we are driven by the notion of winning. Not winning and losing but winning. This is probably true of humans all over the world. It is probably built into our DNA. But for me, it never really resonated as much as it did when watching the Robert Redford tribute at the Santa Barbara Film Fest.
I’ve been writing about the Oscars for 15 years. I started in 1999 with a one-year-old infant I was raising alone, living in a guest house in the back of my sister’s house in Van Nuys. My reasons for starting the site were twofold: track the race from beginning to end to find out why the awards went the way they did in order to discover why Citizen Kane did not win Best Picture but How Green Was My Valley did. I also started the site because I loved movies. Women aren’t really supposed to be film geeks. They’re supposed to be the girlfriends dragged along wherein the plot would be explained later, over coffee, pie and a blow job.
The Oscar watching I’ve done has, in a way, destroyed much of the love for films I used to have — when it’s a contest there have to be winners and if there are winners there have to be losers. You start to hate the winners just because they’re winning. That’s my problem to solve, not the Academy’s.
I have helped to build an era where films and performances are validated or not validated by the awards attention they receive. But the focus should never be on whether the work itself was good enough to appeal to the consensus. The focus should be on whether the consensus itself should be an arbiter of the “highest achievements in film.” The arbiters of taste reside in your own head. As Bob Dylan would say, “you don’t need a weather man to know which way the wind blows.”
But it is easy to get caught up in the contest as if it means anything. It’s a consensus vote of roughly 6,000 half-working, half-retired, middled aged, hetero white males, some women, some people of color, lots of actors, lots of British people. Their taste is reflected every year in the kinds of films they like. What do we know about them? Well, we know they like nostalgia. We know they like movies driven by actors, directors and writers, less so visual effects. We know they are fond of war movies. We know they like happy endings where the control male figure is a good guy overcoming obstacles. We know they like directors who aren’t overly praised. We know they like films that make sense. We know that they pick what they like, free of obligation to do the right thing. We know the heart wants what it wants.
The q&a was intro’d by festival director Roger Durling. If you’ve never met Durling he looks like he stepped out of a Jean-Luc Godard film. Lean body, hair swept back, trademark tinted glasses (which he needs for medical purposes, by the way). This is someone who loves film so much it took him out of Panama as a young gay man and to a place where he could immerse himself in the appreciation of it. Durling has been doing the festival now for a while. He has a knack for selecting participants who end up figured into the Oscar race. It took months for Redford to be convinced. But Redford wasn’t doing any publicity. He wasn’t doing it because he’s been acting for seven decades. He’s an actors actor. He is the last person who is going to chase Oscar. He did the requisite publicity but there was no way he was going to be . shaking every hand, doing every promo, laughing and chatting with the Broadcast Film Critics. For some people winning an Oscar at the end of your career is a meaningful thing. For Redford, he would only want the Oscar if the voters felt he deserved it.
What he didn’t realize, what he couldn’t possibly realize, was that most voters probably never watched the movie. They couldn’t confront the notion of ninety minutes of silent contemplation. All Is Lost was a ballsy endeavor, one of the standout cinematic experiences of the year, one that never could have been made without Redford. And yet, in the end, we measure success by how many people see the movie, how much money it makes, and whether it gets any awards attention. Ironic, don’t you think, when butted up against what the film is about? But in the end, Gravity sort of obliterated All is Lost by kind of doing a similar thing — one person stranded in space trying to get home. Gravity gives you answers to the questions All Is Lost asks. There is no ambiguity in what Sandra Bullock feels, thinks and does. All is Lost, however, is open to interpretation. Gravity made money, All is Lost didn’t. Gravity represents Hollywood’s modern vision of the future, All is Lost hearkens back to old school – cameras, script, actors, editing. If any juxtaposition of two movies this year illustrates how much Hollywood has changed, it’s All is Lost and Gravity’s trajectories in the awards race. Was a time when actors would reward what Redford did with that part.
Everyone knows what it takes to keep the momentum going, to get that nomination – the depths to which a person has to sink, the awful ways it makes you sell yourself out as an artist all for what, for a little more power in Hollywood? To help the others who got the film made? That’s probably the best reason. This was a man who made The Candidate and All the President’s Men — did anyone really think he was going to sell out all of that for the chance to win another Oscar?
Still, Redford finally agreed to do the Santa Barbara Film Festival. It was the only publicity he would do. The Oscar nominations were announced, Redford’s name was not among them. Heads shook, fingers wagged. And there it was — that Santa Barbara Film Festival tribute, one of the final stops before Oscar glory, hanging there, off the edge of a cliff. Would Redford still do it? That was the question. Emma Thompson had already dropped out (though frankly who could blame her). Nevertheless, I then learned Redford would attend. Really? I thought. How unusual. Doing a tribute when there is no potential Oscar payoff?
The festival hummed along nicely – there was Cate Blanchett, there was David O. Russell, there were Marty and Leo. There was a tribute to the virtuosos. Half of the ones not nominated for Oscars were no shows — Adele Exarchopolous, Oscar Isaac and Daniel Bruhl. Half of them did show up, Brie Larson, Michael B. Jordan who were not nominated, and Jared Leto and June Squibb who were.
Redford was the second to last of the major tributes. He drew a huge crowd of appreciative movielovers, filling the Arlington. “I wonder who is going to present the award to him,” someone asked me. I didn’t know. Usually there is a high profile celebrity who does the introduction, like Rooney Mara or Jane Fonda (who was down with the flu for Oprah’s tribute). Leonard Maltin and Redford began an involved discussion about everything from the business of Hollywood to the importance of his friendships with Sydney Pollock and Paul Newman. He said everyone told him working with Barbra Streisand would be a pain in the ass. But he said his time with her was one of the best working relationships he’d ever had.
After a few film clips it was clear Redford was getting tired. They skipped ahead before ending the night with the introduction of the award. Out steps Roger Durling. Durling was the one who would present the award? Maybe that meant a higher profile person had also gotten the flu. Durling was fighting back tears during his presentation, talking about how Redford was his inspiration with the Santa Barbra Film Fest because he’d wanted to do what Redford had done with Sundance, how he had pioneered the whole idea of a film festival here in the states. Durling talked about how cripplingly shy he’d been his whole life. Growing up a gay man in Panama was not easy. Redford is also notoriously shy, but he overcame that to become of the greatest actors and directors working in Hollywood, and, of course, Sundance.
Finally, Durling said that it was the high point of his life that Redford could have chosen anyone to introduce the award but that he specifically chose him. At this, Redford gave him that famous half-smile, as if to say, well who else would I have chosen? Redford said while holding his award, soon to join a shelf full of them, that he wanted to participate in the Santa Barbara Film Fest because it is about what the community had built and that community was based in large part on Durling. He believed in rewarding the strength of community. That is the real legacy Robert Redford leaves behind.
So there they were, two shy men from different parts of the world standing on stage together, facing a standing ovation, in celebration of the community spirit.
When the story of the 2013 Oscars is told, you’re going to read about how Redford, despite his achievement, failed to get a nomination for All Is Lost. You’re going to read the same about Oprah Winfrey. This will be described, somehow, as a failure on their part. You might not read about how they came out to honor a commitment when they could have easily bailed. You might not know that both of them had so much to say they never got around to talking about the Oscars.
You do the work, the rest is someone else’s business.