Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Sydney Pollack - filmmaker, actor, a nice man

Good, gray Sydney Pollack is gone.

As one of Hollywood's most reliable mainstream filmmakers, Pollack made movies that the critics gently embraced - perhaps rarely with the enthusiasm they brought to, say, a Robert Altman film but also never with the rancor or sarcasm that greeted the efforts of Pollack's other peers.

He was respected and, more to the point, liked.

The difference between Pollack and other contemporary filmmakers - the secret of his shining success - had everything to do with Pollock's affable public persona both as an occasional film actor and as a ubiquitous representative of the industry he so clearly appreciated and loved.

Pollack was more than a filmmaker. For all intents and purposes, he operated as a one-man film advocacy program - directing films, producing and nurturing the work of other filmmakers, acting in movies and showing up at festivals and on TV specials to celebrate his medium.

Pollack was so smoothly good in his assorted movie performances (his most recent, and last, as Patrick Dempsey's father in "Made of Honor") that his absence was felt whenever his character wasn't on screen.

And on the small screen, he brought style - a mature, solid style - and a refreshing modesty to his appearances on any generic movie awards show (take your pick), that most obnoxious of modern movie accessories.

Meanwhile, in his role as executive producer, he supported the work of filmmakers as varied as Steven Soderbergh, Jez Butterworth, Peter Howitt, George Clooney, Steven Zaillian, Alan Rudolph, Kenneth Branagh, Ira Sachs, Philip Haas and, of course, the late Anthony Minghella, with whom he partnered in the Mirage film production company. Tellingly, Minghella preceded his friend in death just last March 18.

I trust that it's safe to say that Sydney Pollack had taste.

He flourished during the '70s Golden Age, a time when there was the Big Four - Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen - and then ... everyone else, which included Hal Ashby, Paul Mazursky, Alan J. Pakula and his former partner, Robert Mulligan, Peter Bogdanovich and Pollack. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas seemed to be in a different arena altogether, sneakily plotting the return of The Big Studio Film, while former actors such as Clint Eastwood, Warren Beatty and Robert Redford were starting to make their marks as auteurs behind the camera.

As a filmmaker, Pollack specialized in prestige think films starring Hollywood's top icons. He churned out a dazzling array of them, eventually winning Oscars as director and producer in 1985 for the Redford-Meryl Streep epic romance, "Out of Africa." Even then, modesty prevailed. He continually downplayed his prowess as a filmmaker, aware that someone like Robert Altman was perhaps more adventurous.

If I were to put together my own mini-Sydney Pollack film festival, I'd have to include "This Property Is Condemned" (1966), "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" (1969), "The Yakuza" (1974), "Absence of Malice" (1981), two of his comedies "The Electric Horseman" (1979) and "Tootsie" (1982) and at least two films in which he excelled as an actor - Woody Allen's harrowing "Husbands and Wives" (1992), which has the bonus of Judy Davis, and Stanley Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut" (1999).

Regarding his acting, Pollack was also memorable in roles on television - particularlty as Warren Feldman on "The Sopranos" and as George Truman, Will's father, on "Will and Grace." He was even better as himself when he hosted Turner Classics' "The Essentials."

Pollack's final films as a director were released back in 2005 - one which pretty much defined his artistic interests, the topical/melodramatic "The Interpreter," with Sean Penn and Nicol Kidman, and one that was unusual for him, the documentary, "Sketches of Frank Gehry."

Yes, he slowed down. Dave Kehr best explains this on his blog: "If his work declined in the 90s, it was because the pool of viable stars was beginning to dry up — imagine beginning your career with Lancaster and Mitchum, and finishing it with Cruise and Ford" (Ford being Harrison Ford).

That says it all.

As a producer, Pollack is currently represented by Jay Roach's film for HBO, "Recount." And at the time of his death, he was producing Stephen Daldry's "The Reader," adapted by David Hare from the Bernhard Schlink novel and starring Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes, and playwright Kenneth Lonergan's "Margaret," with Anna Paquin and Matt Damon.

Yes, I'll miss his films. But more than that, I'll miss the man, particulary his familiar, suede-smooth voice. I can see why so many actors shined under Pollack's direction and why so many wanted to work with him - in his role as either director or producer. He conveyed a quiet, reassuring, genuinely masculine strength. Working with him, an actor must have felt, well, safe. I know I always felt that way, whether watching one of his movies or simply listening to Sydney Pollack talk about them.

Note in Passing: Turner Classics will devote the evening of Monday, June 2nd to a mini-Sydney Pollack Movie Marathon, screening his first feature, "The Slender Thread" at 8 p.m. (est), followed by "THree Days of the Condor" at 10 p.m. and "Jeremiah Johnson" at 2 a.m. At midnight, Turner will present Pollack's final interview, conducted by former movie critic Elvis Mitchell.

(Artwork: Sydney Pollack as I will always remember him - smiling and accessible)


Axel said...

I met Pollack three years ago here in my country, Argentina. He was SO nice!
We have a long chat, regarding his work on "The Swimmer". And yes, he finished the movie, not Frank Perry. I was surprised when he told me that he wasn´t very educated on movie classics. I pointed out a lot of parallels between "The Intrerpreter" and Hitchcock´s "The Man Who Knew Too Much". Pollack said: "That was the screenwriter".
Anyway, I´ll miss the guy.

joe baltake said...

Axel- Glad to hear it. Thanks. BTW, Dave Kehr addresses Pollack's generosity and overall niceness on his blog, "reports from the lost continent of cinephilia." Check it out

j kaiser said...

Aside from his stand-out performance in "Tootsie", I will always remember Pollack for his recent PSA in movie theaters regarding cell phone usage.

"I'm sorry, is my directing interfering with your phone call? How rude of me."

Gary said...


Anonymous said...

Can you name some other directors working today (or in the recent past) who had such great success going back and forth between directing and acting? What a talent!