He got his start like most pre post-modern moviemakers, via the still struggle medium of ‘50s/‘60s television. There, his approach was allowed to take root and flourish. He had actually begun his career as an actor, appearing in productions for such stalwart shows as Playhouse 90, The Twilight Zone, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Before that, he had studied his craft with the famous teacher Sanford Meisner. Not bad for an Indiana boy born of troubled first generation Russian immigrant parents. His father was a boxer turned druggist, his mother was an alcoholic who died when Sydney was 16. Now, with his own passing from stomach cancer at age 73, Hollywood has lost one of its solid cinematic artists.
Pollack first came to prominence after a stint onstage, when he co-stared with future lifelong friend Robert Redford in the film War Hunt. The two formed an instant bond and would go on to work together for nearly 45 years, Pollack directing his pal in the films This Property is Condemned, Jeremiah Johnson, The Way We Were, Three Days of the Condor, The Electric Horseman, Out of Africa, and Havana. In fact, over the course of his career, Pollack featured Redford in nearly a third of the 20 movies he made. He also worked regularly with such old school stars as Burt Lancaster (The Scalphunters, Castle Keep) and Robert Mitchum (The Yakuza), and later made two films with contemporary macho man Harrison Ford (Random Hearts and the Sabrina redux).
Like Sidney Lumet and John Frankenheimer, Pollack brought the dramatic intensity of his days in the theater and TV to the fledgling revolution occurring in film. 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.
He did so with the old fashioned romance The Way We Were, though that movie also tackled subjects like racism and political unrest. Jeremiah Johnson was a pure post-modern Western, an anti-establishment look at one man defying nature to live at personal peace. Three Days of the Condor took the Watergate hangover and cast it as part of an international intelligence Cold War malaise, while The Electric Horseman argued against fame and for those who would sidestep the spotlight to live freely, and happily. Many of the heroes in Pollack’s films defy the odds to be their own person, be it the US ex-pat caught up in Castro’s Cuban revolution, or a young associate taking on a crew of crooked lawyers.
As an actor, Pollack frequently blurred the line between good and evil. In what is perhaps his most memorable turn, he was the confused agent in Tootsie who can’t understand Dustin Hoffman’s Michael Dorsey, and frankly, doesn’t want to. Conned into playing the part by the superstar himself, the director gives an amazingly unhinged turn. In Woody Allen’s searing Husbands and Wives, Pollack is the midlife crisis middle ager who tears his bimbette girlfriend down every chance he gets. He’s horrific and abusive. When Harvey Keitel couldn’t continue on with Stanley Kubrick’s arduous shooting schedule, Pollack stepped in and essayed the role of Victor Ziegler in Eyes Wide Shut, and most recently, he was George Clooney’s image conscious boss in the thriller Michael Clayton.
Oddly enough, his peak probably came in the early ‘80s when Out of Africa took home seven Academy Awards, including one for Pollack as Best Director. He had been nominated before - and definitely deserved the statues - for Tootsie and They Shoot Horses, but the epic Meryl Streep/Robert Redford weeper was the kind of effort that Oscar is naturally drawn to. After that success, his follow-up Havana flopped, and while The Firm was a hit (thanks to Tom Cruise and the John Grisham pedigree), Sabrina and Random Hearts also tanked.
The Interpreter, a 2005 suspense piece starring Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn, was the director’s last fiction film, and first foray behind the lens in nearly six years. During his absence, which was more or less self imposed, Pollack had played producer, adding titles like The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Quiet American, and Cold Mountain to his resume. The recent death of collaborator and friend Anthony Minghella hit Pollack hard. It wasn’t the first time tragedy had hit so close to home. In the early ‘90s, Steven, Pollack’s only son with wife Claire Griswold (they met at the Neighborhood Theater in New York, and were married for nearly 50 years) died in a light plane crash.
Today, the director is survived by his spouse, two daughters, and six grandchildren. Oddly enough, Pollack himself was an avid pilot, flying his own private aircraft. It was a trait he shared with co-star John Travolta when the two appeared in A Civil Action together. In 2006, the director offered up what would be his last film - the unlikely documentary Sketches of Frank Gehry. When asked to describe the allure of the subject matter, the filmmaker was deceptively honest. Apparently, Pollack was so intrigued by his first glimpse of the famed Guggenheim Museum that he became psychologically obsessed with the architect and his body of work.
It’s safe to say that, like this love letter to an unsung builder and dreamer, most of Sydney Pollack’s films were missives to men and women marginalized and unsung - and usually undeservingly so. He championed the underdog and understood the human foibles inside the heroic. As a filmmaker, he was approachable and affable, eager to teach and pass on what he knew. While no one is suggesting his films changed the course of cinema, they did establish a kind of abject professionalism that many of his compatriots from the ‘60s and ‘70s couldn’t command. He didn’t set out to deconstruct the medium or revise it into his own aesthetic likeness. Instead, Sydney Pollack made solid, substantive films. His is an onscreen voice and a behind the scenes presence that the artform will sorely miss.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. We need your help to keep PopMatters strong and growing. Thank you.