Remembering Sydney Pollack

May 27, 2008

Suddenly, whatever Indy 4 grossed or what DVDs come out today seem not to matter in light of the passing yesterday of the gifted director and actor Sydney Pollack, one of true gents in a movie industry notable for the absence of what Sydney had—humor, warmth and a non-showy way of letting his talent out. Sure, he won an Oscar for directing Out of Africa, and his 1982 Tootsie with Dustin Hoffman in a dress deserved that year's Best Picture golden boy way more than the solemn, self-important winner, Gandhi. But the open secret about Sydney Pollack was that he was the go-to guy in Hollywood for a filmmaker in a bind. Pollack and his Mirage Enterprises producing partner Anthony Minghella—both dead from cancer within two months of each other—were always there to help other directors realize their vision. I had a habit of annoying Sydney whenever he announced a new directing project.

"Are you acting in it?" I'd ask. Every since Tootsie, in which Pollack played the agent to Hoffman's out-of-work actor, I have been jazzed by Pollack's work in front of the camera. He's hilarious in Tootsie, seing Hoffman in a skirt and heels for the first time and saying, "Oh, God, I begged you to get some therapy."

Later, Pollack would act, brilliantly, for Woody Allen in Husbands and Wives, Stanley Kubrick in Eyes Wide Shut," and most recently with his pal George Clooney in Michael Clayton. My personal Hall of Fame for Pollack the thespian came on the last season of The Sopranos when Pollack played Dr. Warren Feldman, a trustee in jail for murdering his wife, and then her aunt and the mailman because he "had to fully commit.''

Still, it's Pollack's work as a director that gave him the most satisfaction. Until his cancer diagnosis nine months ago, he had planned to direct HBO's smart, funny Recount, which debuted this weekend. Strangely enough, for all the awards heaped on Pollack for Out of Africa, I always found his The Way We Were the superior romance. Every Sex and the City fan remembers Carrie and her friends watching the end of that weepie where Barbra Streisand stands in front of Manhattan's Plaza Hotel and brushes the hair off of Robert Redford's forehead before she says goodbye to him for the last time. Carrie even re-enacted that moment with Big in front of the Plaza. And for suspense with a political bite, no 1970's paranoid thriller, with the possible exception of Alan J. Pakula's The Parallax View, can beat Pollack's Three Days of the Condor, with Redford starring as a CIA operative who begins questioning his motives in a post-Watergate America.

Still, there's no better way to honor Pollack's talent than by taking a look at a few of his movies (on DVD) that didn't have the highest profile. I'd start with these:

They Shoot Horses, Don't They (1969): It's the tale of a bruising 1930's dance marathon viewed as a microcosm of a world spinning out of control. After his potent work in This Property Is Condemned (1966) and The Scalphunters (1968), Pollack saw Horses put Jane Fonda on the map as a serious actress and win him his first Oscar nomination for directing.

Jeremiah Johnson (1972): The second of the seven Pollack movies that starred his friend Robert Redford, including the misbegotten Havana. This western, shot in the Sundance Kid's Utah backyard, has grown in resonance with the years. Redford's mountain man is one of the indelible roles of his career.

The Yakuza (1974): A totally underrated pulsepounder in which Pollack brings out the best in old lion Robert Mitchum as an American taking on the Japan's mafia. Working from a script by a pre-Chinatown Robert Towne and a pre-Taxi Driver Paul Schrader, Pollack is at his stinging toughest.

Absence of Malice (1981): Despite Pollack's energetic direction, I had qualms about this film on its first release. But the story about a journalist (Sally Field) being fed a bill of goods by the feds to put the squeeze on a person of interest (an outstanding Paul Newman) has killer reverbs for the present. Once again, Pollack is ahead of his time.

Sketches of Frank Gehry (2006): A documentary about the great architect Frank Gehry with interviews conducted by Pollack, who's known him for years. Instead of treading easy, Pollack uses Gehry and the documentary form to investigate the highs and lows of the artistic process and ends up revealing much about himself as well. The heart of Pollock resides in this movie.

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