Tuesday, May 27, 2008

RIP Sydney Pollack

The passing of Pollack, too soon at age 73, did not come as a shock. The news of his terminal bout with stomach cancer had been in circulation for some time, and was part of reports about the unexpected death of his producing partner and friend, Anthony Minghella--one of the few directors who might have replaced him as a conscientious craftsman, a rare breed anymore. Still, it is a sad farewell, coming as it did just a few months after the Oscar-winning Michael Clayton, one of his last (and best) producing credits and acting roles; the same month he appeared in his final film as actor, Made of Honor; and the end of the holiday weekend that saw the debut of the entertaining HBO movie Recount, another worthy producing credit.

His name stood for something. 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. 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.

As a director, he seemed to lose his bearings after this triumph. The one substantial hit, 1993's The Firm, is overlong and not terribly confident, more of a Tom Cruise picture than a Sydney Pollack one. In the Seventies, when he made thrillers like The Yakuza and Three Days of the Condor, he would have tossed it off in under two hours. [The latter airs tomorrow morning at 1:30 EST on Turner Classic Movies, as it happens.] His last feature, 2005's The Interpreter, is a little more like it, and his eye on its varied New York locations, including the interior of the United Nations, impeccable (pictured). Comfortable in farther-flung locales, like Japan and Africa, the Indiana-born Pollack certainly knew his way around his adopted hometown.

He continued to excel as a producer, however, with credits like The Fabulous Baker Boys (a film that gets better every year), Sense and Sensibility, The Talented Mr. Ripley, the very fine The Quiet American, and Forty Shades of Blue on a distinguished resume. Three more films are due, a silver-screen lining as it were. He was an avid and candid commentator on his work for home video (that inimitable voice!) and by all accounts helpful to cinephiles researching facets of Hollywood's past.

After Spielberg, Scorsese, and maybe Tarantino, Pollack was perhaps the most recognizable American producer-director, not necessarily because of his credits but for the acting roles that eventually followed his brilliant comic turn opposite star and sparring partner Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie. [For the viewer, their much-documented difficulties were worth every argument.] He left acting in the early 1960s, left it again after Tootsie for a decade, then returned to play gruff, streetwise New Yorkers for Woody Allen (Husbands and Wives), Stanley Kubrick (Eyes Wide Shut), and Roger Michell (Changing Lanes), among others. I just saw him last week on the IFC Channel in the 2006 French film Avenue Montaigne. And his episodes of Will & Grace, where he and Blythe Danner played Will's parents, will continue to have their half-life.

His best films as director will continue to attract audiences for their quality, taste, superb star wrangling, and expert craftsmanship. The excruciating and unflinching They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969), his closest collaboration with Redford, Jeremiah Johnson (1972), the hard-hitting newspaper ethics thriller Absence of Malice (1981), Tootsie, and Out of Africa are gems. Condor and The Way We Were are among the commendable as well. His was a generous career that spanned so much.

1 comment:

Brooks of Sheffield said...

A generous farewell. I always liked Pollack. Not so much for his films--though "Tootsie" is enough to justify anyone's career, and I always liked "They Shoot Horses, Don't They"--but because of his extremely likable acting persona. He usually played a gruff and abrasive character, but you still wanted to have a beer with him. He gave off a rough-hewn "realness," which seemed very un-Hollywood. I imagine he was much the same in real life.