After logging out of my e-mail account the week before last, my browser redirected to the news headline "Director Sydney Pollack Dead at 73". At once shocked and saddened, my eyes flared wide as I said "no" aloud. The story revealed that he had been fighting cancer for months, a battle of which I was completely unaware. Read Ty Burr's excellent tribute to the man here.
Pollack's work first entered my consciousness when I was five. It was then that his comic gem Tootsie first appeared on our living room television set and became an instant family favorite. Not being in a position to understand or appreciate the subtlety, nuances, and adult themes of the story, I was thoroughly entertained by this winning slice of inspiration all the same.
There is no easy way to summate Sydney Pollack's career as a director. Fans never associated his name with any one category of movies, as Woo is known for action, Ford for westerns, and Hitchcock for suspense. In his 1994 appearance on Inside the Actors Studio, he was asked by James Lipton to pinpoint a common thread in his work. He paused a moment before replying, "Everything I've ever directed has been a love story at its core." The rule doesn't apply to every film he directed, but it demonstrates how much ground he could cover with a simple theme. He used the love story nucleus to great effect in the taut political thriller Three Days of the Condor, the downbeat but powerful Depression drama They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, and the sweeping epic Out of Africa, for which he won the Best Director Oscar.
He began his career as an actor after studying under Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York from 1952 to 1954. Pollack soon decided that he lacked the looks to be a successful actor and, after receiving encouragement from his friend Burt Lancaster, transitioned to directing in the early 60s. His acting background proved useful in his approach, as he consistently elicited first-rate performances from his actors, 12 of whom received Academy Award nominations for their performances under his direction, and two of them (Gig Young and Jessica Lange) won Oscars.
Despite turning his back on acting in his mid-twenties, Sydney never walked away from the craft altogether. As he proved on many occasions, he was a fine actor in his own right. Whenever he acted in his own films, as he did in The Interpreter, Random Hearts, and Tootsie, he played his roles as if he were cast in another director's film. Anyone who has ever directed a movie (or even a stage play) can tell you, that is a task that is not easily accomplished. Too often, when directors tackle vanity projects that place them on both sides of the camera, they shift the focus toward their own presence and away from the theme of the story, and lack the presence of mind to objectively direct their own performances. The Postman stands out in my mind as the most egregious example of this mistake, as Kevin Costner let his ego run wild in cooking up a turkey so abysmal, it nearly ruined his career. The Man Without a Face also suffers from this drawback, but not as badly. Robert De Niro struck the perfect balance with A Bronx Tale and The Good Shepherd, but I digress. Pollack never lost his place in the pecking order, and that evident self-awareness always came through in his work.
Even when he acted in films directed by others, he kept his ego in check and restricted his creative bailiwick to the role. I've often wondered how difficult it must be for actors turned directors to take a role under someone else's direction. It's a commitment that requires a fair amount of self-restraint, especially when said actor doubts the director's judgment. (Observe: "Now, why the hell did he the put camera over there? That's a lousy angle. What was he thinking when he cast this bozo? He couldn't act his way out of a wet paper bag. Good God, this is a long take. Say 'cut' already, you idiot!") Warren Beatty crafted a fine collaboration with Barry Levinson on Bugsy, Sir Richard Attenborough followed suit with Steven Spielberg on Jurassic Park, and Mel Gibson worked well with M. Night Shyamalan on Signs. All three men won Oscars for directing prior to taking on those roles, and yet you never get the sense that any of them interfered with their directors. (I dare not mention how Kevin Costner grossly overstepped his bounds while in production on Rumor Has It...) Pollack deserves to be included in this group, as his performances were always fine-tuned and from the heart. Whether playing an amiable friend or an amoral sleazebag, Sydney never conveyed a single moment that wasn't honest. He was at his best in roles that called for him to be funny, manipulative, and quietly commanding. Watch the subdued, effective scene in Changing Lanes when he advises Ben Affleck's young Turk attorney to spend a year defending a man's life in Texas. The gravity he conveys in that brief, memorable exchange is nothing short of magnetic.
The way he ran a production sets a gold standard for all other directors to follow. Once, while attending a family backyard barbecue, I met a man who had worked as a key grip. When I asked him who his favorite director to work with was, he mentioned Pollack's name without a second's hesitation. After complimenting him on his warm personality and angelic patience, the man recalled how much he admired the no-shouting policy Pollack enforced on set. Making a movie is stressful enough as it is with deadlines that need to be met and divine inspiration that must be tapped on a moment's notice. Any fool who runs around shouting for whatever reason, he believed, only adds confusion to what should be a positive working environment and he was absolutely right. Not surprisingly, he cultivated a reputation as a man with whom everyone wanted to work. No one he directed or acted alongside, from Sidney Poitier to Sean Penn, had anything but praise for him.
It bears mentioning that he got more out of Robert Redford than anyone else who has ever directed him. Both men made their screen acting debuts in 1962's War Hunt, and struck up an instant friendship. The bond lasted longer than two decades, and resulted in a total of seven teamings, just one film short of the De Niro-Scorsese collaboration. Though Redford's acting range is, as David Thomson succinctly stated in A Biographical Dictionary of Film, paper-thin, Pollack cast him in such a diversity of roles that, in retrospect, made him appear versatile. Unlike the De Niro-Scorsese dynamic, Pollack and Redford had a more casual work ethic. They never phoned in their efforts, but they didn't wear one another out, either. As well, most of the movies they made are not classics and they were never meant to be regarded as such; just unpretentious entertainment with a heart and a brain.
In an industry where directors are recognized as auteurs based on their distinctive styles, Sydney Pollack's body of work stands out among thousands because it doesn't. He never concerned himself with flashy camera movements, million-dollar special effects, or groundbreaking digital sound. He didn't care about being deemed the master of the erotic thriller, a visual tone poet, or the king of comedy. If any single label could be applied to his work, only one would fit: genuine. What mattered most with Sydney was the story, and it showed in everything he touched. With more than 40 pictures to his credit, the man has made his mark.
In closing, I leave you with one of the best showcases of Sydney Pollack's talents as an actor and director. Here is one of the funniest scenes from Tootsie.