Director Sydney Pollack was an actor’s director who saw stars in uncharacteristic conjunctions and alignments. He made Robert Redford and Barbra Streisand a couple in “The “Way We Were,” Dustin Hoffman a woman in “Tootsie,” and eternal boy Tom Cruise a man in “The Firm.”
Because Pollock, who was 73 when cancer claimed him Monday, came of age as the power of studios was in decline and that of stars on the rise, he was able to see the industry in new alignments as well. He would play multiple roles in Hollywood, both behind and in front of the camera.
Significantly, the filmmaker who called himself “Mr. Mainstream” and scored his biggest critical success with the Oscar-winning “Out of Africa” was a director’s producer. His company Mirage Enterprises supported decidedly non-mainstream fare such as “The Fabulous Baker Boys,” “Michael Clayton,” “Searching for Bobby Fischer,” “Sense and Sensibility,” “Songwriter” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley.”
Trim and brusque, Pollack, initially an acting instructor, was also an actor’s actor, distinguishing himself in roles as the corruptible elder in “Michael Clayton,” “Eyes Wide Shut” and “Changing Lanes.”
It was wearing his actor’s hat that the producer/director/performer articulated the pragmatic melancholy that flowed through his ill-starred romantic movies.
As lawyer Stephen Delano, Ben Affleck’s boss in the shamefully underknown “Changing Lanes,” Pollack barks to his protege, “It’s all a (moral) tightrope, you gotta learn to balance.” When the protege asks how he can live like that, Delano replies, “I can live with myself ... because at the end of the day, I think I do more good than harm.”
Pollack was the face of Hollywood’s “generation of compromise” (as the title of a Spanish documentary nicely put it). Unlike the filmmakers of Hollywood’s golden age, he didn’t have a Manichean view of characters as good and evil, but as deeply flawed, often compromised individuals.
“They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” (1969), Pollack’s first critical hit as a director, is a Depression-era allegory of American desperation, in which a marathon dancer (Jane Fonda) competes for cash under the gimlet eye of a hard-boiled emcee (Gig Young).
Fonda and Young are two of the dozen actors whose performances in Pollack films won them Oscar bids. While Young took the supporting actor prize that year, Fonda got a bigger prize: Under Pollack’s hand, she transformed herself from sexpot to serious actress.
The fatalism that tinged so many Pollack films was evident in the spy thriller “Three Days of the Condor” (1975), in which Redford is a CIA researcher who blunders into a lethal conspiracy within the Agency.
Redford and Pollack, who made their movie debuts in the 1962 feature “War Hunt,” collaborated on six films and were longtime friends and neighbors in Park City, Utah, near where they filmed the wilderness Western “Jeremiah Johnson” (1972).
Though he enjoyed a 50-year marriage (to his former pupil, actress Claire Griswold), Pollack was drawn to scenarios that explored less-ideal arrangements. “The Way We Were” (1973) is a case study in how interpersonal chemistry can be both thrilling and scarring.
In that film, he established the Pollack Romantic Rhythm: Boy Meets Girl, Boy Gets Educated by Girl, Boy Gets Overwhelmed by Girl’s Expectations. You can hear its echoes in “Absence of Malice” (where the genders are reversed) and “Out of Africa.” Even “Tootsie,” Pollack’s only pure comedy, has an undercurrent of romantic doom in the relations between Dustin Hoffman and Jessica Lange.
As Pollack grew increasingly invested in helping produce indie features, “Mr. Mainstream” lost his grip with features such as “Random Hearts” and “The Interpreter.” His last big hit was “The Firm” (1993), where he helped Tom Cruise graduate into adult roles.
Finally, Pollack was an astronomer who understood how best to present his celestial subjects - an astronomer who was himself a star.