The cowboy boots and faded bluejeans would be an affectation on most actors, out of place in a Manhattan luxury hotel suite.

On Robert Redford, they seem perfectly legitimate. Like his weathered face and slim build, they are part of a man who has made his love for the West well-known.That love shines from almost every frame of "The Horse Whisperer," Redford's new film, which opened Friday. As he did in "A River Runs Through It," the director presents Montana as if he were worshiping some mythical, mystical promised land.

The screen version of the romantic bestseller marks the first time Redford the actor has worked with Redford the director. Both sides of him found the material too strong to resist.

"I'd always pretty well said I wouldn't direct myself," Redford says, sitting sideways in his chair with a boot propped casually on the coffee table.

"But I did it because that was a role I wanted to play."

In the movies Redford has often played variations on the lone Western man, most clearly as the widowed mountain man in "Jeremiah Johnson." Even in the buddy Western that made him famous, "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," his Kid had a core of separateness that made Redford stand well apart from the shadow of the then-more-famous Paul Newman.

Disney's Touchstone division is promoting "The Horse Whisperer" as an event film, with hopes of a long summer run plus Oscar nom-i-nations come spring. Its expectations are based in part on the popularity of the book, which has sold 5 million copies in the United States and 5 million more abroad.

But the studio is also banking heavily on Redford - on both sides of the camera.

There has been speculation that "The Horse Whisperer" is Redford's last hurrah as a romantic lead. At 60, some grumble, he is too old to play a handsome love interest, as if appeal had a shut-off valve attached to a timer.

"I look better than he does," one fellow sneered after the Manhattan press screening. He was greeted with silence and stifled grins.

Time and the Utah sun, of course, have left their mark on Redford's famous golden-boy looks since he shot to stardom in 1969, at age 31, after a decade on Broadway and the big screen.

Yet 29 years later, Redford is one of few bona fide old-style stars, an actor whose name is instantly recognizable to viewers young and old and who carries a weight beyond his latest movie.

For his part, Redford doesn't seem overly concerned with hiding his age. While cameras can be made to lie convincingly, the only difference between screen and flesh is that he's changed from a loose Western shirt to a dark-blue T-shirt that shows he's still fit and muscular.

The movie has some flattering shots of Redford - he is the romantic hero, after all - but far fewer than any other director would have given him.

"I was a little self-conscious," he says, sounding surprised to be saying it.

Having Redford behind the camera has also proved a major asset artistically. The four previous films he directed - "Ordinary People," "The Milagro Beanfield War," "A River Runs Through It" and "Quiz Show" - earned praise for sensitive direction and serious themes. That might help overcome some of the critical skepticism about the source novel for "The Horse Whisperer."

The "Horse Whisperer" was regarded as a hot movie property before it became a bestselling novel. Word of its general concept began circulating before first-time novelist Nicholas Evans had finished writing. On the heels of the huge success of "The Bridges of Madison County," which contained several similar elements, a bidding competition began for film rights to "The Horse Whisperer."

"When I got wind of what the elements were, there was enough there to interest me," Redford says. "So the studio bid on my behalf."

Though better-written than "Bridges," "The Horse Whisperer" was not the first-rate literary material Redford has usually directed. Still, the emotional story elements that struck a chord with readers are powerful.

Most of the movie is faithful to the book, but readers may be shocked that major elements near the end have been completely altered to focus the theme.

Redford believes that parts of the novel's romance detract from the more important aspects of the book.

"The elements of the story that interested me most were the healing and consciousness," he says.

In his filmmaking, Redford has always taken great pride in his artistry as well as his storytelling. In one scene, he shows Booker's emotions through his hands rather than his face or his words.

"That was to give the audience a choice (of emotions), which is something I really believe in," he says. "But it's a dangerous game to play in today's market. More and more films are effects instead of emotions.

"I like giving the audience a chance to process and digest, not just bam, bam, bam and then out. That way they can feel something real.

"Allowing the audience to discover or use their imagination is something I like, even though it's going out of fashion."