“If I had to label myself in some way, I would describe myself as a kind of traditionalist, I suppose, in terms of cinema. Clearly, I’m a victim of the films I saw as a child — which were not so much art films as pop entertainment. I’ve never been a chic director in the sense of art movies, if you will, or an auteur type of director — an innovative director like an Altman, or someone who’s more responsive to the totality, like Francis Coppola. My work is generally in the middle area of popular entertainment — large-budget commercial Hollywood films with stars, which were essentially the kinds of films I saw when I was a kid.” —Sydney Pollack, from Judith Crist’s Take 22: Moviemakers on Moviemaking (1984)
I was 17 when The Firm came out in the summer of 1993. My girlfriend wanted to see it because she was a Tom Cruise fan and had read the John Grisham novel. I had neither of those things going for me, but I figured director Sydney Pollack’s adaptation might be somewhat entertaining.
I was wrong. The Firm was enormously entertaining.
First of all, there’s the cast — sturdy, reliable veterans like Gene Hackman and Hal Holbrook, applying just the right mix of paternal guidance and intimidation to Cruise’s character; Holly Hunter, Ed Harris, and David Strathairn giving funny, memorable supporting performances; Wilford Brimley as a heavy, which is perfect casting in my opinion, since the “World’s Scariest Grandpa” coffee mug was made for guys like him; and Gary Busey in a caffeinated five-minute cameo that takes full advantage of his offbeat talent. Pollack plays to his actors’ strengths, even bringing out the best in Cruise by hammering home his character’s no-way-out dilemma.
The Firm also boasts a crackerjack score by Dave Grusin, a longtime Pollack collaborator (Three Days of the Condor, Tootsie, Random Hearts), that uses only one instrument — the piano — a rarity in big-budget Hollywood films. Though The Firm is a little too long at two and a half hours (Pollack said in 1995 that he wished he’d had more time to edit it), the energy of the performances, the music, and Fredric and William Steinkamp’s editing, as well as the changes that Pollack and the film’s writers — David Rabe, Robert Towne, and David Rayfiel — made to Grisham’s story to condense it for the big screen, add up to a terrific suspense thriller.
After I was caught off guard by The Firm, I realized I hadn’t seen any of Pollack’s other films except possibly Tootsie (1982), which would’ve been on my radar back in the ’80s because of Bill Murray, not Pollack or its star, Dustin Hoffman. My excuse for not discovering Pollack’s body of work until my late teens has to do with the films I saw as a child: like him, I’m a victim of those films in that I grew up watching mainstream, major-studio product, but I grew up in the Spielberg-Lucas era of special-effects blockbusters and action-movie sequels, not westerns and melodramas starring matinee idols. Once I realized I was way behind on Pollack’s filmography, I started catching up, reading interviews and taping things like The South Bank Show (which aired on Bravo here in the U.S. back then) that focused on his career.
Those interviews are where Pollack, who died of cancer on May 26, became one of my heroes, because he was a man who knew exactly who he was — as a director, a producer, an actor, and a person — though I’m sure he would humbly disagree with that observation with a certain amount of neurotic self-deprecation. He claimed that he was anxious every time he directed, and though the mechanics of directing must have become a little easier over the years, he still felt enormous pressure with each film he made, most likely because he directed big-budget films with big-salary stars throughout his career, and because even when one of his films flopped, like Bobby Deerfield (1977) or Havana (1990), he had worked just as hard on them as he had on hits like Tootsie or The Electric Horseman (1979).
Pollack’s self-awareness, lack of pretension, and honest assessment of his own abilities made a huge impact on me, because even though I already knew everything at 17, just like anyone else at that age, deep down I knew I had a long way to go.
When I started college in the fall of ’94 I was taking a lot of film-studies and filmmaking classes, where admitting you were a fan of Sydney Pollack was like admitting you were a fan of genocide. He beat out Akira Kurosawa and John Huston for Best Director in 1985. He made period-piece romances like The Way We Were and Out of Africa and was quoted as saying all of his movies were essentially love stories because he’d be bored if he tried to make anything else. And Tootsie contained two Stephen Bishop songs!
He was middlebrow. He lived and worked in Hollywood, not New York or London. And he made commercial movies engineered for mass consumption, never straying from that path to do a blockbuster for the studios’ sake followed by a smaller, less conventional film to satisfy more artistic ambitions, e.g., Steven Spielberg directing both Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List in 1993, or Steven Soderbergh’s career starting down the independent path with Sex, Lies and Videotape in 1989 before segueing to studio fare nine years later with Out of Sight.
Instead, Pollack chose to slip his personal interests and obsessions inside commercial packages and let viewers subconsciously decide what they wanted to take from the films, whether it was the gender politics of Tootsie or the government’s abuse of power in Three Days of the Condor (1975), which theorized that the CIA would create false reasons to invade the Middle East to get access to those countries’ oil fields, a scenario that was repeated on the fifth season of 24 in 2006 and, as you may recall, in real life.
Speaking of Out of Sight, in Elmore Leonard’s novel the two main characters, Jack Foley and Karen Sisco, strike their first romantic spark — while locked in the trunk of her car after his escape from prison, no less — by discussing Bonnie and Clyde, then the movie Bonnie and Clyde, then Faye Dunaway and Condor:
“With Robert Redford,” Karen said, “when he was young. I loved it, the lines were so good. Faye Dunaway says — it’s the next morning after they’ve slept together, even though she barely knows him, he asks if she’ll do him a favor? And she says, ‘Have I ever denied you anything?'”
In the movie, Karen (Jennifer Lopez) adds that she didn’t think it made sense how Redford and Dunaway’s characters slept together so soon after he kidnapped her, which is a nice wink at the audience that Out of Sight will take it a little slower before putting Lopez and George Clooney in bed. But when I watched Condor again recently, Redford and Dunaway’s quick coupling made a little more sense in terms of Kathy (Dunaway) being attracted to the dangerous situation she finds herself in despite, or because of, the fact that Joe (Redford) is a complete stranger, and Joe needing to know that he can trust one person in the world, and at that particular moment in time a complete stranger is easier for him to trust than a friend. Plus it’s Redford and Dunaway — like Clooney and Lopez, it’s not hard to imagine a mutual physical attraction.
In some ways Soderbergh and Clooney are the new Pollack and Redford, Soderbergh having directed Clooney in six films in nine years (three of them being the Ocean’s Eleven movies), Pollack having directed Redford in seven films over the course of 24 years, with the rugged leading men playing characters whose emotional development ebbs and flows from one film to the next. In addition, Pollack acted opposite Clooney in last year’s Best Picture nominee Michael Clayton, which he produced along with Soderbergh, and he coproduced Leatherheads, Clooney’s recent turn as actor-director.
Pollack continually sought to illuminate universal concerns and personal feelings in the middle ground of Hollywood filmmaking, a tricky balancing act he successfully managed during the ’70s and ’80s. I imagine he enjoyed the irony of working and succeeding within the Hollywood system while often making films that centered on characters fighting “the system” and winning small victories, whether it was Redford taking on the CIA in Condor, Sonny Steele (also Redford) rebelling against the corporation to whom he’d sold his soul in The Electric Horseman, Michael Gallagher (Paul Newman) standing up to the media in Absence of Malice (1981), and Mitch McDeere (Tom Cruise) turning the tables on his law firm, the FBI, and even the Mafia in The Firm.
With those films Pollack made the modern-day equivalent of westerns, with a brave sheriff cleaning up a corrupt town and redeeming himself in the process. He gave equal time to the female stars of his love stories, and it’s Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman who carry Out of Africa (1985) and The Interpreter (2005), respectively, not Redford and Sean Penn. And once you’ve seen Jane Fonda’s performance in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969), you won’t soon forget it. She gives that film, and Pollack, credit for getting her out of the sex-kitten typecasting she’d been experiencing up to that point because of films like Barbarella.
During my freshman year of college I was surrounded by Stanley Kubrick acolytes who worshiped The Shining and A Clockwork Orange, two movies that never did much for me, I’m afraid, though I seem to be one of the only people I know who liked Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut (1999), which stars Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman alongside Sydney Pollack, who took the part as a favor to his director friend after Harvey Keitel had to drop out during filming. But if Kubrick and Pollack were friends, did that mean Kubrick actually respected Pollack not just as an actor but as a director? I’m sure the Full Metal Jacket fans I went to college with that year didn’t like to dwell on it too much, or the fact that, like Pollack, Kubrick often worked with some of the biggest stars in the business.
Despite the blowback from those classmates, my admiration for Pollack as a director continued through the years. They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is a haunting depiction of a Depression-era dance marathon that, in addition to Fonda’s heartbreaking but tough performance, features Gig Young, who, when I watched the film a second time, reminded me of Greg Kinnear, the former talk-show host who got his big-screen break playing Harrison Ford’s younger brother in Pollack’s remake of Billy Wilder’s Sabrina (1995).
Horses may be Pollack’s most visually ambitious film, but he didn’t consider himself a visual stylist or an auteur; above all else, he was a craftsman. His focus was always on story and performance, the two elements that draw us into a film and keep us there, not “Hey ma, look at what I can do!” camera tricks. If you’re thinking about who’s behind the camera then you’re not thinking about the story or the characters who are guiding you through it. Pollack understood his purpose behind the camera, even if — like any other director — he couldn’t predict what audiences would want to see.
He started out as an actor, studying in New York City in the 1950s under the legendary acting teacher Sanford Meisner, then becoming his teaching assistant. He appeared in some Broadway plays and anthology TV series like Playhouse 90 and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and while working as a dialogue coach on a John Frankenheimer film called The Young Savages in 1960 he met Burt Lancaster, who thought Pollack would make a good director because of his ease with actors on the set. (He ended up directing Lancaster in three films in the late ’60s.) Soon Pollack was directing episodes of TV shows like Ben Casey and The Fugitive; he won an Emmy for his direction of a Chrysler Theatre installment called “The Game” in 1965.
At least one critic I came across while reading obituaries and remembrances these past few weeks thinks Pollack’s most daring work behind the camera was during his TV years, and though he didn’t talk much about those years in the interviews I read and watched, I don’t think it was because he looked down on TV or saw it simply as a means to an end of becoming a film director. Pollack was openly critical of his own work — another admirable quality — and he may have felt a little embarrassed by his youthful pursuit of keeping the camera moving as much as possible, later realizing the audience just wants to be told a good story, and if it’s there, then any visual flourishes are icing on the cake. Pollack said that his work on his first feature film, The Slender Thread (1965), was too much like his small-screen work, but he praised the performances of its leads, Sidney Poitier and Anne Bancroft.
From the beginning he was directing big names, giving audiences the “star” performances they liked to watch, like in The Firm, but adding new layers to established on-screen personas, helping to create flawed male and female characters who fall for each other but often don’t end up together at the end of the film (see 1999’s Random Hearts, 1973’s The Way We Were, Out of Africa, The Interpreter, etc.).
Trish Deitch, a former story editor for Pollack’s production company, Mirage Enterprises, wrote on The New Yorker‘s blog that “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.” She added, “Though Sydney named his production company Mirage Enterprises after an airplane he admired (he was a pilot, and loved to fly), the meaning comes through: You see it there, it’s what you want more than anything, and yet when you go to finally put your hand on it, it’s gone.”
In college I thought, That’s just Pollack’s way of avoiding a traditional happy ending. But now that I’m older and the self-absorbed idealism of my teens and early 20s is behind me, I realize something — he’s right. Life does work that way. Love doesn’t conquer all. Pollack captured that truth on film time and time again.
Many of his films are circular, meaning that the main character, often played by Redford, goes on a journey that leaves him neither richer nor poorer than he was at the beginning of the narrative, though he is wiser, even if he can’t make the ultimate changes or sacrifices that would allow him to “get the girl” and stay with her. Pollack quoted T.S. Eliot on Inside the Actors Studio in 1994 when asked about the circular pattern of his films — “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time” — and said that a dance class focusing on preclassical forms that he took in his 20s led to his particular approach to structuring screenplays.
One of those forms had an A-B-A pattern, allowing themes and movements introduced at the beginning of a piece to eventually return at the end. Even the films of Pollack’s that don’t end on an ambiguously melancholy note are circular: Mitch and his wife, Abby (Jeanne Tripplehorn), leave Memphis and move back to Boston in their beat-up car as The Firm fades to black, and Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman) is once again an out-of-work actor at the conclusion of Tootsie.
For many critics and movie lovers, Tootsie is Pollack’s best film. Shockingly, it’s also the only comedy he ever directed, although The Electric Horseman, Sabrina, and 1968’s The Scalphunters, one of his films with Burt Lancaster, have comedic elements. I use the word “shockingly” because even though Pollack had never directed a comedy before, Tootsie is one of the all-time greats, ranked second on the American Film Institute’s list of funniest American films (right behind another cross-dressing classic, Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot), and Pollack comes across as a natural conducting the comedic mayhem, making sure each joke nails its target, as if he’d been doing it for years. More than a quarter-century later, Tootsie is still laugh-out-loud brilliant.
The film’s script went through many drafts on its way to the screen, picking up contributions from writers like Larry Gelbart, Elaine May, and Barry Levinson along the way, and it was Pollack’s job to take the best scenes and the best lines and make it seamless, which he did. Or, as screenwriter William Goldman wrote in 1994 about Steven Spielberg getting snubbed at the Oscars in ’83 when he didn’t win Best Director:
My feeling is that there may well have been an overlooked director that night, but it sure wasn’t Spielberg. For me, both E.T. and Gandhi were beautifully directed, and it comes down to which moved you more. But if ever two directors were comfortable, they had to have been [Gandhi‘s Richard] Attenborough and Spielberg: They were working in areas of their greatest strength — the pitch was right down Broadway. Why? Because Attenborough was aflame with a twenty-year dream that landed right in the center of his liberal imagination, and Spielberg was dealing with childhood fantasy.
But there was another director nominated that night — Sydney Pollack. Who had done close to two decades of fine films. Who had never won. And who is wonderful with actors and can do action and can sure do drama — but who has no skill at comedy. And all he directed that year was Tootsie, now and forever one of the greatest comedies. I would argue then that if anybody should have been recognized for achievement in direction, Pollack had one hell of a case. He could have directed Gandhi. He could have directed E.T. But neither Attenborough nor Spielberg could have come close to Tootsie.
Not only did Pollack direct and coproduce Tootsie and mold the screenplay into its final shape, enhancing the love-story subplot that makes it almost impossible to not fall in love with Jessica Lange’s character, he also plays Michael Dorsey’s agent, George Fields, and I’ll be damned if he doesn’t shine just as much as Hoffman, Lange, Murray, Teri Garr, and Charles Durning. Not bad for an actor who hadn’t appeared on-screen since 1962 in War Hunt, his first film as an actor as well as the first for Redford, his future cinematic alter ego. Pollack’s comic timing and delivery are so dead-on in Tootsie that it’s no wonder Woody Allen came calling ten years later to have Pollack play one of the leads in his 1992 film Husbands and Wives. (His one scene in Robert Zemeckis’s comedy Death Becomes Her, also from ’92, in which he plays Meryl Streep’s doctor, is the best scene in that film. Again, perfect timing, perfect delivery.)
One of Tootsie‘s greatest virtues is that it’s a celebration of acting and actors and all the craziness that professional make-believe entails. Pollack as a director embraces small moments in the film’s opening montage, such as Michael reciting a monologue at an audition only to notice that the director and producer are talking their way through it offstage; he interrupts himself to say, “Pardon me, but is my acting interfering with your talking?” (Pollack paraphrased this line in a 2006 advertisement for Cingular that played in theaters.) Michael loves acting more than anything else, and the reason he’s such a pain in the ass to work with is because he cares about getting it right even if his directors and fellow actors just want “good enough.” The montage also shows Michael teaching acting to eager students, just as Pollack had done in the ’50s, and pushing them to keep working at their craft no matter how many times they encounter rejection. It makes perfect sense that Tootsie would be the film that brought Pollack back to acting after a 20-year hiatus.
But he didn’t want to play George Fields. Aside from a few walk-ons or voice cameos in the films he directed, he had given up acting once he became a director. It was Hoffman who insisted that Pollack play the part instead of Dabney Coleman (who was recast as Lange’s boyfriend and soap-opera director), because his Method-actor instincts told him he wouldn’t be motivated to put on a dress and audition for a soap opera as a woman if a fellow actor played his agent and told him “no one will hire you”; only if someone who wasn’t his peer, who had clout and power, played his agent and told him “no one will hire you” would Hoffman then put on a dress. Pollack’s response: You’re being paid a lot of money to put on a dress and pretend that Dabney Coleman is your agent, not your peer, Dustin, so you will put on that dress.
But Hoffman wouldn’t budge, and Pollack realized it would require less energy to play George than it would to keep arguing about it when he was already arguing with Hoffman about a million other things. New York magazine film critic David Edelstein wrote: “Hoffman’s and Pollack’s creative tension is one of the reasons that Tootsie is so flabbergastingly great: It was good for Hoffman to be reined in; it was good for Pollack to be shoved out of his comfort zone.”
Thanks to Hoffman’s tenacity, moviegoers were treated to Pollack’s electric performance, which pops off the screen in his arguments with Michael (no doubt informed to some degree by Pollack and Hoffman’s off-camera arguments, making me think Hoffman realized there was some chemistry between the two that would translate well on camera, and that his “peer” argument was partially a ruse), especially in exchanges like this one:
MICHAEL: Are you saying that nobody in New York will work with me?
GEORGE: No no, that’s too limiting — nobody in Hollywood wants to work with you either. I can’t even send you up for a commercial. You played a tomato for 30 seconds, they went a half a day over schedule because you wouldn’t sit down.
MICHAEL: Yes. It wasn’t logical.
GEORGE (shouting): You were a tomato! A tomato doesn’t have logic! A tomato can’t move!
MICHAEL: That’s what I said! So if he can’t move, how’s he gonna sit down, George?!
Pollack used to say that screenwriters called him “the logic nazi” because he would constantly question the logic behind characters’ motives and various plot twists. Knowing that adds a new layer to Michael’s fight with George about the motivations of vegetables, as does Pollack’s belief that good storytelling boils down to understanding both sides of any argument, especially those between men and women negotiating the hazards of a relationship.
One reason why Michael and George’s scenes are so funny is because it’s clear that the two combatants really do admire each other no matter how angry they get. At one point Michael says he’ll get a new agent if George can’t get him out of his role as Emily Kimberly on the soap opera “Southwest General”; George is genuinely hurt, like a wife who’s been called a bad cook, out of nowhere, during an argument with her husband.
As an actor, you rarely caught Pollack “acting” on-screen. He knew his craft in that area just as well as he knew the craft of directing, and in fact some of the film critics who wrote obituaries the week Pollack died admitted they had fewer reservations about his work in front of the camera than behind it. William Horberg, a producer who worked for Pollack in the ’90s and earlier this decade at Mirage, recently wrote a remembrance for Variety‘s blog in which he mentioned how his boss nervously prepared for his Husbands and Wives audition in ’91; after delivering a few lines of his monologue, Woody Allen stopped him and said, “Okay, that’s great, thank you very much.” Horberg wrote that Pollack “was surprised, and I think a little bit insulted, and asked Woody to let him carry on, as he had devoted so much time to his preparation. But Woody called back to him, ‘No, Sydney, you’ve got the job. I just wanted to be sure you weren’t going to do any of that acting shit.'”
After Tootsie, Pollack swore off his first career once again, especially in his own films, since he said he could never fully be in the moment as an actor if he also had to worry as a director how a scene was playing. But after doing Husbands and Wives, Death Becomes Her, and Robert Altman’s The Player in ’92 — Pollack said they were good opportunities for him to spy on directors he admired — he eased back into acting on a more regular basis with supporting roles in A Civil Action (1998, coproduced by Redford), Changing Lanes (2002), and the aforementioned Eyes Wide Shut and Michael Clayton, as well as TV series like Will & Grace and The Sopranos and the pilot episode of Moonlighting creator Glenn Gordon Caron’s When I Grow Up, which never aired.
He even got over his anxiety about appearing in his own films, adding seen-it-all gravitas to his scenes in Random Hearts and The Interpreter, though he said in a 2006 interview with film critic Ray Pride that “When I act in my own movies, most of the time — people don’t believe me — but most of the time I do it because I’m producing the movie and I’m the most reasonably priced actor I can get for that role!”
Pollack never made another comedy after Tootsie. He said in ’95 that Redford and he wanted to make one together since he considered his favorite leading man to be a natural comedian, but it didn’t happen. I remember reading a wire story in 2000 about Pollack possibly directing a comedy about Hollywood, another subject, like acting, that he could’ve had fun with, but it didn’t happen either.
However, after the box-office and critical triumph of Tootsie, Pollack came to Chicago with Bill Murray in the mid-’80s with a germ of an idea of making a movie that would be completely improvised. They didn’t know how they’d do it, but for a few days they held workshops with Murray’s old Second City director, Del Close, who at the time was teaching classes at Chicago’s newest comedy theater, ImprovOlympic (now called iO).
Close enlisted Charna Halpern, the owner of the theater and a fellow teacher, and Murray and Pollack brought actors like Bud Cort (Harold and Maude), Jami Gertz (Less Than Zero), C. Thomas Howell (The Outsiders), and Murray’s brother Brian Doyle-Murray (Caddyshack). Close taught the film actors how to improvise, and Halpern says ideas began to emerge through scene work, with Pollack furiously scribbling notes all the while (in an e-mail she wrote, “I remember thinking no one will ever believe that I’m talking and Sydney Pollack is taking notes on what I’m saying”). The concept of a fully improvised movie didn’t gel, but the heavily improvised This Is Spinal Tap must’ve been in the planning stages or even in production at that time.
After he won Best Director for Out of Africa in 1986, Pollack directed fewer films as the years went by. (You could argue that he won for that film, the kind of “important” prestige picture the Academy prides itself on rewarding, as compensation for not getting the trophy for Tootsie in ’83. The Academy rarely gives Oscars to comedies, after all.) William Goldman, once again, in his essay “Who Killed Hollywood?,” has a theory about why directors like Pollack, Spielberg, Milos Forman, or even part-timers like Redford and Warren Beatty take so long to make their follow-up film after winning for Best Director (in Pollack’s case, Havana arrived five years after Out of Africa, which was his longest gap between films up to that point):
(1) These very bright men forgot one of the basic Hollywood truths: It’s only a movie. You can almost hear their minds working — “Omigod, how do I top Pulp Fiction?”
As if anybody cares.
(2) What we’re talking about here is an inflated sense of self-importance. And we’re also talking about terror. One way or another, each of these guys was an outcast — they were clerks or acting teachers or movie stars exercising their egos. And they suddenly went from having their noses pressed against the Windowpane of Acceptance to being President of the Club.
Hard to adjust to that if your success has been based on I’ll show them! And not only did you show them, they loved you for it! That’s scary. That can cripple you.
(Side note: Goldman wrote that essay in the spring of ’97, about eight months before Titanic came out and eventually raked in $600 million in U.S. theaters alone — no other film has come close since — in addition to winning 11 Oscars, including Best Director for James Cameron. How many feature films has Cameron made since ’97? Zero. His next one, Avatar, will be released in December 2009.)
Some of Pollack’s obituaries drew the conclusion that the failure of Havana — it cost $40 million but made only $9 million and was ripped apart by critics — made him more and more gun-shy about directing, that he felt out of place making commercial movies for grown-ups in a marketplace overtaken by adaptations of video games and comic books, where Hollywood’s target demographic of young males with short attention spans often treat movies as a backdrop for phone calls. But those same obituaries ignored the success of Pollack’s last feature film, The Interpreter, a thriller for adults that made $162 million worldwide. Does that not add up to a hit these days? Unfortunately, perception is everything, and the perception seems to be that The Interpreter‘s mixed reviews and good-but-not-great box office weren’t enough to justify its $80 million budget and its pair of Oscar-winning stars.
Like David Edelstein said, Tootsie forced Pollack out of his comfort zone as a director, but after he won Best Director and Best Picture for Out of Africa he may have felt, like Goldman said, that anything smaller or less serious would’ve looked like a retreat, so instead he took on Havana, another large-scale romance with Redford set in a foreign locale. But this time the audience didn’t show up.
Pollack was a director who seemed to believe that if you’re going to make big-budget movies for adults, then you need to act like one when you’re spending a studio’s money. You can’t pull a Michael Cimino and believe that the studio should spend whatever it can to help you create the Heaven’s Gate you see in your mind. Pollack admitted that he often went over budget and over schedule to finish his films, but he didn’t do so arrogantly. He felt responsible for every extra dollar spent, but with that responsibility also came the overwhelming sense in the ’90s that each film he made had to prop up its studio during the summer or holiday season and deliver the biggest opening weekend possible. In 1995 Pollack said, “It doesn’t feel as good as it used to feel, where you felt that everybody had a shot at each film finding its own audience in a certain way.” He also was curious about getting out of his comfort zone again, monetarily speaking: “I’d love to get an opportunity to make a less expensive film, a smaller film, see what that’s like. Maybe I’ll hate it. But maybe not.”
Even though he was directing less and less, Pollack became a prolific producer of other directors’ films through Mirage — Presumed Innocent (1990), Iris (2001), and Cold Mountain (2003), to name a few — most of which were made on a smaller scale than the ones he directed but which always strove for thoughtfulness and truth in character. Producing offered less pressure and less anxiety than directing, and Pollack was happy to offer his guidance and experience to first-time directors whose writing he admired, like Steve Kloves (The Fabulous Baker Boys), Steven Zaillian (Searching for Bobby Fischer), and Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton). (Pollack was interested in directing Michael Clayton himself until he learned that Gilroy was also interested, at which point he stepped aside.) He also helped directors like Kenneth Branagh (Dead Again) and Ang Lee (Sense and Sensibility) make their first studio films in America. William Horberg said that Pollack considered directing 1995’s Sense and Sensibility himself, which isn’t hard to imagine, but he also noted that Pollack turned down the Bill Murray Christmas comedy Scrooged (1988) and Tom Cruise’s first Mission: Impossible (1996).
When I read that, I found it hard to imagine Pollack directing a big-budget franchise picture like Mission: Impossible in the mid-’90s, but that film does contain traces of Three Days of the Condor (which could be the reason why Pollack turned it down), and Pollack had directed a gritty samurai/gangster action film called The Yakuza (1975) before directing Condor, and some critics have noted that the Jason Bourne movies of this decade, cowritten by Tony Gilroy, take some of their quick-cut action cues and CIA paranoia from Condor, just as Michael Clayton’s anticorporate paranoia is derived partly from ’70s sources like Sidney Lumet’s Network.
Brian De Palma created some exciting set pieces as the eventual director of Mission: Impossible, but it would’ve been interesting to see how Pollack de-convoluted the film’s plot and possibly enhanced the “love story” between Cruise’s character and his mentor, played by Jon Voight. And if he could’ve thrown in a bad guy as unforgettable as Max Von Sydow’s gentlemanly assassin from Condor — one of my all-time favorite bad guys because he’s really just a man doing his job — then all the better. Pollack knew how to do action. He knew how to do suspense. And he knew how to class up the joint all at the same time.
After coproducing The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), Pollack brought aboard that film’s director, Anthony Minghella, as his producing partner at Mirage in 2000. Minghella, another filmmaker who worked at the top of his intelligence and expected the same from his audience, died unexpectedly from complications during tonsil cancer surgery in March. It was a shocking piece of news at the time, partly because I was afraid that the news of Pollack’s death wouldn’t be far behind. Though there was never any official announcement to the press about Pollack’s condition in the past year, I had a sinking suspicion something was terribly wrong when I saw a National Enquirer report online about him battling stomach cancer early this year. (Yes, it’s the Enquirer, not a legitimate news source, but remember what Tommy Lee Jones said about tabloids in Men in Black?)
Last August it was reported that Pollack had stepped down as director of the HBO movie Recount due to “medical issues” (it premiered on the cable channel the day before he died), but it didn’t seem like a cause for alarm. But then he wasn’t around to promote Michael Clayton when it came out last fall, and he wasn’t at the Oscars ceremony in February, when Scott Rudin, who won Best Picture along with Joel and Ethan Coen for producing No Country for Old Men, credited Pollack for saying “With the opportunity to make movies comes the responsibility of making them good.” (Rudin produced several films with Pollack, including The Firm and Sabrina.) If that was Hollywood’s public way of saying goodbye, then Pollack probably appreciated it — simple and heartfelt without being maudlin.
After years of making big-budget feature films, Pollack’s final film, oddly enough, was an independently produced documentary that shone some light on the mysteries of the creative process. Sketches of Frank Gehry (2005) is a portrait of the famous architect, who’d been friends with Pollack since the ’70s — they originally bonded over the difficulty of merging art and commerce without sacrificing intelligence or a personal point of view — and who said Pollack should direct it since he knew nothing about architecture and therefore could approach the subject as a layman. But Pollack knew nothing about documentary filmmaking either, therefore becoming a student once again as he learned a new craft.
In that sense he had come full circle after five decades of exploration, just as he had returned to acting in his later years, just as he had returned to TV to direct Recount in an attempt to make a smaller film. “The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” Judging by the renewed spirit of craftsmanship on display in Sketches of Frank Gehry and the quiet strength of his acting in Michael Clayton and on The Sopranos, I think Pollack knew.
A.O. Scott wrote in the New York Times on May 28 that he hopes there are “aspiring filmmakers and producers out there who dream of being the next Sydney Pollack.” I do too, but I also hope I’m not the only person who dreams of one day possessing the same intelligence and humanity that Pollack demonstrated throughout 40 years of making movies.