With the death of Sydney Pollack on Monday, Hollywood loses its greatest mensch. The presence of the gruff-voiced, gentle-faced Jew raised in South Bend, Ind.—whether behind or in front of the camera—always reassured audiences that they were in the presence of something warm and real. That anchoring presence could be felt in sweeping romantic epics (Out of Africa), paranoid political thrillers (Three Days of the Condor), and what many argue is the greatest of all American film comedies (Tootsie). Every DVD library should have a copy of Tootsie (preferably the excellent 25th-anniversary edition released earlier this year), but lesser Pollack deserves a look as well. Look past the dated trappings and check out the keenly intelligent Absence of Malice or Jane Fonda’s career-making performance in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
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’m sure I’m not the only one who remembers the scene midway through The Way We Were in which Katie (Barbra Streisand), having just been dumped by her boyfriend Hubbell (Robert Redford), calls him up and begs him to come back to her apartment, “just to see me through till morning.” So much is at play in this encounter: Katie’s raw need for Hubbell, his guilt over the part her Jewish ethnicity (coded as a beauty “of the wrong type”) played in the breakup, and the knowledge, shared by both, that she’s not above manipulating that guilt to get him back. Pollack films the scene quietly, directly, with a bare minimum of music or teary close-ups. Though The Way We Were is best remembered for its sappy theme song, at the movie’s heart is an unidealized portrait of a love affair that’s a painful, and ultimately unwinnable, struggle for power.
Sydney Pollack’s best movies tended to share this polemical element, the crossing of swords between evenly matched equals. Take, for example, an early scene in Tootsie where Pollack, playing Dustin Hoffman’s beleaguered agent George Fields, gravely informs his client that “no one will work with you.” Hoffman’s character, the unemployable Michael Dorsey, truly is (as Fields believes) an insufferable pain in the ass, and also (as Dorsey himself insists) a brilliant actor who deserves the role of a lifetime. (The fact that Hoffman and Pollack famously butted heads during the filming of Tootsie, with Hoffman wanting to play the character for broader farce than Pollack would allow, no doubt adds to the dialogue’s satisfying crackle.) “The essence to me of all good drama is argument. I can’t say that either side is a thousand percent right,” Pollack once said. In another interview, he elaborated: “Even if it’s a thriller or a comedy, it’s always a love story for me and that’s what I concentrate on, because the love stories are my surrogates for the argument; two people in conflict that see life differently.”
Pollack’s career as an actor was no crossover stunt, like Hitchcock’s cameos in his own films or the motormouthed self-caricatures Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino occasionally pop up to play onscreen. In fact, Pollack originally left Indiana and moved to New York with the intention of becoming an actor. He studied theater with legendary Stanislavsky disciple Sanford Meisner, launched his career as a film actor in the same movie as Robert Redford (1962’s War Hunt), and hoped to teach acting himself someday, until Burt Lancaster called him over on the set of The Scalphunters and advised him to go into directing. As an actor, Pollack was often cast as a representative of the Hollywood establishment, the dryly funny pragmatist willing to voice blunt truths about the crass economics of the industry. Last year’s Michael Clayton, which he also co-produced, gave him a chance to put a darker twist on that type. As the head of a law firm neck-deep in collusion with an environmentally irresponsible agribusiness client, he dismisses the concerns of the morally conflicted Michael (George Clooney) with chilling cynicism: “This case reeked from day one. Fifteen years in I’ve gotta tell you how we pay the rent?”
The last film Pollack directed, Sketches of Frank Gehry (2007), was his first-ever documentary, inspired by a longtime friendship with the architect and by Pollack’s heart-stopping first viewing of the Bilbao Guggenheim during a demoralizing European publicity tour for his 1999 flop, Random Hearts. In a 2007 interview, Pollack describes his fascination with the playfulness of Gehry’s style, “like Don Quixote got stoned and made a building … a crazy dream of a building.” Talking to Charlie Rose about the Gehry doc, he connected this dreamlike artistic process to his own: “I’ve got to know what lenses to use … how to design the set so that it’s right. What lights to use and what’s going to happen to the film if I mix blue light and yellow light. All of those things which are—which are technical and craft. But it’s a combination of craft and kind of daydreaming.” Pollack was open to making more documentaries, he told Rose, but was waiting for the right subject to come along, something he truly cared about investigating. (In order to undertake a project, he once said, “I have to be able to be curious for two years.”) What a shame we’ll never know what would have sparked Pollack’s curiosity next.