Robert Redford's greatest screen roles – ranked!

As the actor and Oscar-winning director reveals his plans for retirement, we rank his 10 best performances in front of the camera

10. Brubaker (1980)

Released in the same year as his clunky but multiple Oscar-winning directorial debut Ordinary People, Brubaker showed a tougher side to Redford than anyone had seen before. As a prison warden who goes undercover as an inmate to clean up the penal system, he had to raise his game among some hardened character actors. “The movies I liked making dealt with an America that was a little different from the America that was propagandised,” he said. “There’s a grey zone that I know, and I want to tell stories about that complex part of America.”

9. The Twilight Zone – “Nothing in the Dark” (1962)

None of Redford’s early TV appearances were as haunting as his personification of death in this creepy-sad episode of The Twilight Zone. “You see?” he says, glowing handsomely and gesturing to an old woman’s dormant body as he leads her spirit into the afterlife. “No shock. No engulfment. No tearing asunder. What you feared would come like an explosion is like a whisper. What you thought was the end is the beginning.”

8. The Great Gatsby (1974)

Before DiCaprio there was Redford: he may never have exuded the pure electricity of the junior actor, and his chemistry with Mia Farrow (as Daisy) was meagre, to say the least, but his permanently distracted air was just right for Jay Gatsby. In the midst of even the most vibrant shindig, he seems uniquely alone. Fame does that to you.

7. Sneakers (1992)

This underrated techno caper-comedy, about a crack team of computer security experts, was led by Redford and features River Phoenix, Sidney Poitier and Dan Aykroyd. Redford’s occasional returns to light comedy could be spotty – Legal Eagles should be outlawed – but he’s having a blast here as the slightly bumbling former radical who has become something of a sellout.

Redford in The Great Gatsby (1974).
Redford in The Great Gatsby (1974). Photograph: Everett Collection/Rex

6. Three Days of the Condor (1975)

Redford’s most frequent collaborator was the director Sydney Pollack, with whom he made six films including the 1972 western Jeremiah Johnson and the Oscar-bait drama Out of Africa (1985). Their best, though, was this jittery conspiracy thriller in which Redford, working for a clandestine CIA group, has to be brought in from the cold after his team is massacred. Cherish the justified sense of Watergate-era dread, as well as the opening shot of Redford cycling through traffic in a goofy woolly hat and trainers.

5. All Is Lost (2013)

Redford, then 76, had only a handful of lines as the nameless, luckless soul (billed as “Our Man”) stuck at sea and sinking fast. The concentrated intensity of this one-man show comes from its star’s evident vulnerability and his (literally) weatherbeaten face. The director, JC Chandor, pinpointed the poignant power: “Everything is heightened with him being older. He’s like a bird with a broken wing.”

‘Our Man’ in All Is Lost.
‘Our Man’ in All Is Lost. Photograph: Allstar/Lionsgate

4. All the President’s Men (1976)

The actor wanted to produce this as a small black-and-white thriller with unknowns in the leads. The studio told him: “If you’re gonna do this, then you have to be in it.” Chalk and cheese look like identical twins next to Redford and Dustin Hoffman. And therein lies the restless genius of their casting as, respectively, Bob Woodward (tall, smooth, Waspy) and Carl Bernstein (short, Jewish, fussbudget), the Washington Post reporters blowing Watergate wide open.

3. The Candidate (1972)

Redford was already chafing against his pretty-boy persona when he starred as a young Democrat hopeful in this satirical comedy. The star told the studio: “I’d like to make a film about the election process – about how we elect somebody based on cosmetics rather than substance.” The result was a film with scruples – and claws.

2. Downhill Racer (1969)

This superbly stark portrait of the American dream at its coldest, scripted by the great novelist James Salter, began Redford’s one-for-me, one-for-them strategy: he agreed to mainstream fare such as The Way We Were as long as the studios also backed his smaller, more daring projects. Here, he plays an emotionally arctic skier hungry to win at all costs: a brave performance to give so near the start of his film career, when most actors would want to woo the audience, not disconcert them.

1. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

Redford’s sole Oscar nomination for acting was, rather shockingly, for The Sting, a complacent 1973 con-man comedy. But it was his first pairing with Sting co-star Paul Newman that distils the performer’s essence. Although the movie is unable to fess up to its bromantic longings – did any woman in a buddy movie ever look more like a gooseberry than poor Katharine Ross? – it’s still worth seeing for Redford’s sunny charm. Even then, it seemed to trouble him faintly, as though he was worried we might take him for a himbo. The studio did. “He’s just another California blond,” said one executive. “Throw a stick out of a window in Malibu, you’ll hit six like him.” But Newman helped win him the part. Redford got a shock when he saw the first cut. “I said: ‘What the hell is that song doing in there? Raindrops? It’s not even raining. On a bicycle?’”


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Ryan Gilbey

The GuardianTramp

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