May 27, 2008

Sydney Pollack, 1934 - 2008.

Sydney Pollack
Sydney Pollack, a Hollywood mainstay as director, producer and sometime actor whose star-laden movies like The Way We Were, Tootsie and Out of Africa were among the most successful of the 1970s and 80s, died Monday at home here. He was 73....

Mr Pollack's career defined an era in which big stars (Robert Redford, Barbra Streisand, Warren Beatty) and the filmmakers who knew how to wrangle them (Barry Levinson, Mike Nichols) retooled the Hollywood system. Savvy operators, they played studio against studio, staking their fortunes on pictures that served commerce without wholly abandoning art.

Michael Cieply, New York Times.

Updated through 6/1.

I first noticed him in 1969, the year I transitioned from high school senior to college freshman, when he directed two of my favorite movies from that period: The under-rated Castle Keep and the still-potent They Shoot Horses, Don't They? He got terrific performances from ensemble casts in both films....

As for his work on the other side of the camera - well, I wish Pollack had received more props, and maybe an Oscar nomination or two, for his first-rate performances in Husbands and Wives, Eyes Wide Shut, Changing Lanes and Michael Clayton. I wish he'd had time to produce more excellent films like The Quiet American, Searching for Bobby Fischer, Flesh and Bone and Sense and Sensibility. Of course, I also wish he were still alive. He'll be missed.

Jeo Leydon.

As a filmmaker, Pollack had a reputation for being a painstaking craftsman - "relentless and meticulous," screenwriter and friend Robert Towne once said.

"His films have a lyrical quality like great music, and the timing is impeccable," cinematographer Owen Roizman, who shot five films directed by Pollack, including Tootsie and Havana, said when it was announced that Pollack would receive the 2006 American Society of Cinematographers Board of Governors Award for his contributions to filmmaking.

"He is never satisfied.... His passion is contagious. It inspires everyone around him to dig a little deeper," Roizman said.

George Clooney, who starred with Pollack in Michael Clayton, said: "Sydney made the world a little better, movies a little better and even dinner a little better. A tip of the hat to a class act. He'll be missed terribly."

Dennis McLellan, Los Angeles Times.

Ray Pride, who interviewed Pollack in 2006, has collected "10 interviews and 3 trailers."

Updates: A "Times Topics" page.

Pollack wrote two entries in the Guardian's film blog last year, one on Sketches of Frank Gehry, the other on the photography of Paul Robinson.

"A tall, handsome, immediately charismatic man, he was a director most actors loved to work with, because when he talked to them about acting he knew what he was talking about," writes Roger Ebert. "'I am not a visual innovator,' Pollack told me shortly before the release of his Out of Africa (1985), which won seven Oscars, including best picture and best director, and was nominated for four more. 'I haven't broken any new ground in the form of a film. My strength is with actors. I think I'm good at working with them to get the best performances, at seeing what it is that they have and that the story needs.'"

"Like Sidney Lumet and John Frankenheimer, Pollack brought the dramatic intensity of his days in the theater and TV to the fledgling revolution occuring in film," writes Bill Gibron at PopMatters. "His style could best be summed up by the brilliant social commentary They Shoot Horses, Don't They? Set within a Depression era dance-a-thon, and featuring fiery performances by Jane Fonda, Michael Sarrazin, and Oscar Winner Gig Young, Pollack uncovered the simmering unease of the era, perfectly reflecting the film's contemporary 1969 mirror message. His movies were like that - quiet and subtle, selling their conceits in perfectly modulated performances and expertly helmed scenes. And like his fellow filmmakers of the era, Pollack wasn't afraid to try."

"A wry worrier, he once said to me that the responsibility for directing big budget studio pictures had begun to weigh on him, making him tense and anxious; he directed only about a half-dozen films in his last 20 years," writes Richard Schickel in Time. "He became a much more prolific producer, with the pictures he made through his Mirage company tending to be smaller in scale, more eccentric, more personal than his studio pictures had been and he enjoyed godfathering them. The individuality that films like Birthday Girl and Forty Shades of Blue flung in the face of increasingly conventionalized studio production appealed to his romantic side; the business of bringing them in on time, on budget, appealed to his realistic side. Those were the poles of his sensibility."

"His death signals the end of a bridge between two Hollywood eras," writes the Boston Globe's Wesley Morris. "Or, at the very least, he was a holdout that movies could be - should be - now as they once were: serious, glamorous, feeling, intelligent, and, above all, respectful of their audiences.... Tootsie gets better every single time it turns up on cable. Just last month, I was in a video store that happened to be playing Tootsie, and damn if I didn't stand there completely hooked as if I'd never seen it before. It doesn't even matter that Dave Grusin's score still makes you feel like you're stuck in a mall elevator. The movie itself would have worked just as well in 1942 as it did in 1982. In 2022, it'll still feel as vibrant. Tootsie still works as a kind of feminist critique, watch it with a certain indefatigable presidential candidate in mind. Your brain will explode."

"In a way, Pollack the actor was the visual correlative of the Sidney Lumet worldview: tough, East Coast-direct, politically progressive, trusting the individual far more than the group," writes the Globe's Ty Burr. "[B]ecause he was a smart filmmaker and a good friend to the reigning powers of his day, it's movies like Tootsie, The Way We Were, Out of Africa and Three Days of the Condor that you think of when you think of the good movies of the 70s and 80s. Not necessarily the great movies, but the good ones: intelligent, committed, well-acted films with a sweep that flattered both their subjects and their audiences. Three Days is possibly the best of the conspiracy thrillers that studded the 1970s, the one most rooted in a realistic sense of one individual (Robert Redford as a low-level CIA librarian, standing in for you and me) peering over the abyss into the evil deeds our government can do."

"He was a bustling, vigorous presence right to the end," blogs the Guardian's Xan Brooks. "It's tempting to write off Pollack's later career, though even here he found a way to confound us. At the same time as his films were turning blandly anonymous (The Firm, Sabrina, The Interpreter), he discovered a vibrant sideline as a character actor."

"Like Alan J Pakula, he apotheosized the intelligent mainstream of Hollywood moviemaking," writes Glenn Kenny.

"When I think of Pollack, two things immediately come to mind: the sense, in his directing and acting, that it's possible to be mature and almost unshockable without being cynical or unfeeling; and that marvelously expressive voice," writes Matt Zoller Seitz at the House Next Door. "He had one of the great voices in movies. I'm really going to miss hearing it."

"Regarding The Way We Were: I think it's one of the best romantic dramas Hollywood ever produced," writes Nathaniel R.

Producing partner Anthony Minghella's "death came up like a knife in the dark, unexpected, and forestalled him. It must have left a bleak loneliness," assumes David Thomson, blogging for the Guardian.

"He was one of those rare filmmakers who seemed genuinely interested in work other than his own," writes Dave Kehr, who relates a few stories. "He was one of our last remaining links to a time when movies were not made primarily for 13-year-old boys, and I for one will miss him tremendously."

"Being at odds with much mainstream filmmaking, it is probably no surprise that my favorite film by Sydney Pollack was also one of his least successful films commercially," writes Peter Nellhaus. "It is probably not coincidental that the authorship of The Yakuza is only less convoluted than that of what may be Pollack's best film, Tootsie.... The reputation of Pollack's film has grown to the point where a remake has been listed among future Warner Brothers productions."

Online browsing tip. Die Zeit's gallery.

Online listening tip. Fresh Air revives a 1990 interview.

Jon Taplin "was lucky enough to 'go to school' with him. I had had written a screenplay called Panama and he optioned it and then spent months with me and a writer named Jeff Fiskin crafting it into the kind of political thriller he made better than anyone of his generation. We never got the movie made, but it didn't matter, because I learned about the craft from a master."

In the LAT, Susan King takes "a look back at Pollack's work both behind and in front of the camera."

"A highlight of my currently non-thriving screenwriting career was working on a script for the delightful and neurotic Sydney Pollack, who died yesterday at the age of 73. My writing partner, Richard Taylor, and I had pitched Sydney a story about high-level corruption in Washington, which was just chum for Sydney, who was fascinated by Washington, and therefore fascinated by sleaze, greed and moral failure (see: Absence of Malice, Michael Clayton, etc.)" Jeffrey Goldberg tells his story.

C Jerry Kutner recalls an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, "The Contest for Aaron Gold" - "because of the extraordinary natural performance by the actor who played the camp counselor. It was the late Sydney Pollack, and to see him in this episode is to wonder why he didn’t have the major acting career of a Hoffman or a De Niro."

FilmInFocus runs an excerpt from Helen De Winter's 2006 compendium What I Really Want To Do is Produce in which "Pollack describes how the producer's chair came to be an easier fit for him, and gives his own view on whether the prime years of his career - the 1970s - were also, as often argued, a 'golden age' in comparison to American film now."

"If he could be compared to a major figure from the Old Hollywood, it would not be to one of the great individualists like Howard Hawks or John Ford, who stamped their creative personalities onto every project, whatever the genre or the level of achievement," writes AO Scott in the New York Times. "Mr Pollack was more like William Wyler: highly competent, drawn to projects with a certain quality and prestige, and able above all to harness the charisma of movie stars to great emotional and dramatic effect.... His passing is a reminder that things have changed, that the kind of movie he made, which used to be the kind of movie everyone wanted to make (and to see), may be slipping into obsolescence."

"Pollack, in his performances and in many of the movies he made or produced, always had faith in what movies, and the people in them, could be," writes Stephanie Zacharek in Salon. "His legacy, dropped in our laps at a time when mainstream filmmaking is in trouble if not in crisis, is a challenge to us not to lose faith. And, at the very least, to silence our cellphones and pay attention to what's in front of us."

Gilbert Cruz talks with Redford about Pollack for Time.

Updates, 5/28: "Sydney Pollack's death at 73 has robbed our cinema of one of its finest... actors," blogs David Edelstein. "In later years, Pollack had more life in front of the camera than behind it."

"Look through his filmography and what leaps out is its diversity," writes Geoffrey Macnab in the Independent.

"Hollywood loses its greatest mensch," writes Dana Stevens. "Slate's Bryan Curtis wasn't wrong, in a 2005 assessment, to call Pollack a 'journeyman' director; over a 40-plus-year career, he tried his hand at virtually every genre (with the notable exception of the special-effects blockbuster) and churned out his share of competent schlock (The Firm, The Interpreter, The Electric Horseman). But I can't agree with Curtis' contention that Pollack could 'take any scenario... and mold it into benign mush.' More often, he took mushy scripts and shaped them into films that were surprisingly sophisticated and adult."

"I was irked by his Oscar win for 1985's Out of Africa, just as I was ticked off that 1982's Tootsie, one of the great film comedies, went home with just one statuette," writes Robert Cashill. "Prizzi's Honor seemed the superior film in 1985. But Africa, with its magnificent Meryl Streep performance and typically excellent use of the hard-to-pin-down Robert Redford, has grown on me since then. It is that rare thoughtful epic, beautifully shot, edited, and scored (by the great John Barry). These kinds of pictures are difficult to make, and harder still to make well."

James Wolcott points to an appreciations of Pollack's performance in Husbands and Wives at the Sheila Variations and adds, "Husbands and Wives is a rarity in Woody Allenland in that it showcases two hot-wired performances, the other by Judy Davis as Pollack's estranged wife, who's like an escapee from a Philip Roth novel in her vertiginous fury." It goes on and needs reading.

Update, 5/29: The LA Weekly runs Scott Foundas's 2007 piece, now appearing for the first time in English, on Pollack's early television work.

Updates, 5/31: Online viewing tips. Pollack tells Harrison Ford what makes Harrison Ford Harrison Ford. Thanks, Jerry! And of course, there's more Pollack on Charlie Rose.

"In the 90s, I worked for Sydney Pollack as a story editor," blogs Trish Deitch at the New Yorker:

Finding the spine of a story like Out of Africa was important to Sydney for many reasons, the most important of which was that it led to what he called 'the ache.' The ache is self-explanatory if you've seen Sydney's films. It is the ache of having one chance at deep love in a lifetime of shallow loves, and losing it too early. It is the ache of perfect, private union destroyed by terrible, worldly circumstance. For Sydney, the ache was about the way that the things we hold most dear always elude us.

Via Michael Sippey.

Update, 6/1: "Sydney Pollack was one of the nicest, most congenial people I have ever known," writes Philip French in the Observer. "Much the same age, we met in 1986 when I was a member of the Cannes Festival jury over which he presided with quiet authority.... Most of his later film parts were unsympathetic, so, in 2006, he played a delightful version of himself, speaking both English and French as an American director in Paris in Orchestra Seats, directed by Danièle Thompson, another 1986 Cannes juror."

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Posted by dwhudson at May 27, 2008 12:40 AM


I never met the man but the loss feels personal...

Posted by: Richard Harland Smith at May 27, 2008 10:01 AM

He will be missed.
He was both a fine actor and a fine director.
Here is a link to some movie trailers of a few of his lesser known movies.

Posted by: Matt at May 27, 2008 10:57 AM