Tuesday, February 11

The Directors: Sydney Pollack

I said in my review of Out of Africa that Sydney Pollack is the best director of his time with a superb body of work.  It's a powerful statement because there were some terrific directors during Pollack's long stay in the sunshine.  But I am sticking with it.  There are no words to say how I was drawn to his work.  He is one of the few directors about whom I could say I have seen every movie the man has directed.

He had a big personality, a cerebral sort with an everyman demeanor, a director who directed with an air of authority.  Pollack, like most directors, did his homework and when it was time to roll that film, he knew what he wanted.  He could stand nose-to-nose with the best of them.  One thing his films are certainly known for is the cream-of-the-crop stars he got to appear in them.  Actors wanted very much to work for him and once they did, most would have liked to have worked with him again.  It is a testament to his authority and control that he worked with a number of people who have been regarded as at least strong-minded if not downright difficult, such as Robert Redford, Burt Lancaster, Faye Dunaway, Sean Penn, Al Pacino, Barbra Streisand and Dustin Hoffman.  His battles with the latter during the making of Tootsie are the stuff of legend and yet each came away with Oscar nominations.

He would work with Redford a whopping seven times... This Property Is Condemned, Jeremiah Johnson, The Way We Were, 3 Days of the Condor, The Electric Horseman, Out of Africa and Havana.  Most were very successful.  Three of those films (Property, Jeremiah and Africa) are part of my 50 favorite films and if I took the time to delve further into it, I am pretty certain I don't have three films of any other director in my favorites list.  In addition to those in my top 50, I have three more of his films (Condor, Tootsie and The Interpreter) in my DVD collection.

This is no accident.  Of course I am attracted to his star-studded casts but beyond that is a guarantee Pollack always gave me which just happens to be the cardinal rule of moviegoing... the audience must be entertained.  And oh boy, could this man make movies that were entertaining.  He, too, said it was the first order of the day.  He would make big studio films with huge budgets.

He made one of the best comedies ever (Tootsie) and made a number of exciting dramas, including thrillers, social dramas, love stories, biographies, westerns and women's pictures.  Regarding his love stories he once said... I have been accused of playing the romance card too often, but I make no apologies because it engages people.  How human beings connect, how they embrace and touch and love, engages people.  And once you have that connection, the audience pays attention and all the rest works.  Sidney, you must have been thinking of me.

He would one day say... hey, I'm from Indiana.  If I get it, everyone gets it.  Born in 1934 in Lafayette, his childhood appears rather unremarkable except for one thing... his mother committed suicide when he was 16.  He knew he wanted to pursue acting and as soon as he could, he hightailed it for New York and wound up attending classes at Sandy Meisner's famed Neighborhood Playhouse.  Ultimately he would wind up teaching acting classes there for several years.  He would marry one of his students and they would remain married for the rest of his life.

Stage acting became a passion for awhile and he also took to directing television dramas.  His leap to the big screen began as an actor in a film called War Hunt, co-starring John Saxon and some handsome young, blond actor... Robert somebody.  What was his last name?

By 1965 he directed Academy Award winners Sidney Poitier and Anne Bancroft in a suicide-prevention movie, The Slender Thread.  It may not have set the critical or box office worlds on fire, but it sure wasn't at all bad, especially for a first-effort.

His films often depicted a character or characters who created a clamor over their way of life.  Bancroft didn't like her life at all in Thread, nor did Natalie Wood have much to enjoy as a smalltown tramp in This Property Is Condemned and she craved something more.  This yearning for a different type of life would be embroidered into Jeremiah Johnson, The Way We Were, Tootsie, Out of Africa, Sabrina and others. 

I so enjoyed a little comedy western called The Scalphunters, made before Pollack became the esteemed director.  Starring Burt Lancaster and Ossie Davis, they portray a fur trapper and an educated, escaped slave who come across a band of cutthroats in the great outdoors.

Pollack hit it big the next year, 1969, with the highly-acclaimed but monstrously depressing drama about marathon dancing, They Shoot Horses, Don't They?  The performances he got out of Jane Fonda, Michael Sarrazin, Susannah York, Red Buttons and Gig Young resulted in some Oscar nominations and a win for Young.  Yowzah... yowzah.  Pollack shot this Depression-era film tight and close and even donned some rollerskates and a camera and filmed some sequences himself. 

Jeremiah Johnson was up next and I will only repeat what I have said in its own posting, it is one of the finest westerns ever made.  He and that blond actor really struck gold here.

The ineluctable The Way We Were featured Redford and costar Streisand never looking better.  The magical pairing of the two stars, the story of Katie and Hubbel and their ill-fated love affair with the melody of that song in the background, played against the backdrop of the movies and the communist witch hunt hit a chord with the public and cash registers overflowed.

Luckily I could keep my uneasiness of spending two hours in the dark with Faye Dunaway at bay to allow myself to see 3 Days of the Condor and I am glad I did.  A thriller par excellence, it is concerned with trustworthiness and puts Redford and Dunaway in great peril.  Its opening scenes where everyone in Redford's company is murdered is chilling. 

The writer, Kurt Luedtke, would pen only three screenplays and Pollack would be the director of all the films based on those works.  Both would win Oscars for Out of Africa, there would be less success with Random Hearts but first up was Absence of Malice.  A thriller about a prosecutor who leaks a false story and a reporter who jumps on it, it starred Paul Newman and (I think a bit miscast) Sally Field.

Pollack resumed acting in Tootsie as Dustin Hoffman's agent.  Here is the tale of a scrappy actor who has burned so many bridges that he must disguise himself as a woman to get a job, which he does on a soap opera.  Rated the second best comedy ever by the American Film Institute, it is also a multi-layered comedy that is a lot more than a simple laughfest.  It has a lot of intelligent things to say about women and the human condition.  It was nominated for 10 Academy Awards.

Out of Africa, a brilliant peacock of a film, is the best Pollack ever did, although he trilled that he was out of his element in some ways doing a film of such sweeping nature.  He was always leery, he said, of this kind of a big film. But the African story of writer Isak Dinesen and her love affair with big game hunter Denys Finch-Hatton was irresistible.  I'm lucky.  It became my third favorite film of all time and earned Pollack two Oscars, one for directing and one for producing the year's best picture. 

The Firm, another thriller by writer John Grisham, was great, as well, and luckily I saw it before I declared my moratorium on Tom Cruise movies.   Havana, with Redford, their last collaboration, was better than it's given credit for.  Ditto, Sabrina.  The story of a chauffeur's daughter who falls in love with her rich employer is generally thought to have been better done in 1954 with Audrey Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart.  But I argue this version with Harrison Ford, fresh from his jump off Mount Rushmore, and the fetching Julia Ormond more than holds its own.

The master's final film, 2005s The Interpreter, as I recall, also suffered the slings and arrows of some critics, but I found the Nicole Kidman-Sean Penn-starrer another example of a well-written, taut, pulse-raising thriller.  It had the distinction of being the only movie to be filmed inside the United Nations.  I found it a perfect ending to the career of a gifted director. 

He said that while his main objective was making entertaining films, he liked to make ones that raised questions rather than provided answers.  Being an actor himself, he loved actors and felt that of all the contributions made by those who worked for him, it was his actors who got his attention.  He was also drawn to the editing process, which all great directors are.

Sydney Pollack died in 2008 in Pacific Palisades, California, of Parkinson's Disease.

Perfect Casting

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