Sydney Pollack, that highly instinctive director of movie stars, died yesterday. His death signals the end of a bridge between two Hollywood eras. Or, at the very least, he was a holdout that movies could be -- should be -- now as they once were: serious, glamorous, feeling, intelligent, and, above all, respectful of their audiences. Pollack never made the best films -- although "Tootsie," from 1982, is still the best Hollywood has done with the romantic comedy since the genre's golden age started to tarnish in the 1950s, and "Out of Africa," from 1985, won him best picture and directing Oscars. At his strongest and most skillful, Pollack crafted overwhelming films that sent you home satisfied that you got more than you paid for, even when the star is killed at the end, the way Jane Fonda was in "They Shoot Horses, Don't They," from 1968, or when you felt like you might die from, say, the CinemaScope emotionalism in "The Way We Were," from 1973.
In 1963, Pollack arrived in Hollywood to be a dialect coach for John Frankenheimer, and his great skill as a director was giving us stars as we wanted to see them and hear them. His movies felt hyper-classical in that sense: the material was characterized not by a script or flashy direction but by the men and women in front of the camera. I wouldn't call Pollack a transparent director, but he was trained as an actor and came of age as a moviemaker working in television in the 1960s. The style he acquired was never particularly cinematic. It wasn't even always exciting, regardless of how good the movies looked. But his style seemed to be in the service of the actors, a trait that seemed true even in a movie as politically problematic as "The Interpreter," from 2005, in which Pollack coaxed an intriguingly complex performance (and accent) from Nicole Kidman. (In his documentary "Sketches of Frank Gehry," he treated the architect like a movie star, too.)
Pollack was also adept at synthesizing a film's different technical properties into an often seamless whole, so pictures like "Three Days of the Condor," from 1975, or, to a lesser extent, "Absence of Malice," from 1982, "Havana," from 1990, and "The Firm," from 1993, all displayed clean, clear craftsmanship at the center of which were, respectively, Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway; Paul Newman and Sally Field; Redford and Lena Olin; and Tom Cruise. You remember who was in a Sydney Pollack movie more than what it was necessarily about. Amazingly, a stream of politics ran through most of his films, but it never got in the way of the stars. Whenever I catch "The Way We Were" on television, the tone of the fights always surprises me. Redford and Streisand argue about communists and the blacklist the way lovers argue about their love. But the ideological issues between them are real.
At the risk of seeming terribly nostalgic -- is terribly wistful OK? -- this sort of human premium is currently missing from a lot of Hollywood movies, from the "Speed Racers" and "Star Wars" regurgitations of the world, where the actors are treated like pixels and candy and furniture. Pollack's movies were scarcely realistic (they had too much radiance), but the glow in both his romantic films and nightmare-thrillers usually came from the casting. Was Jessica Lange ever starrier than she was in "Tootsie"? Was Teri Garr ever Teri Garr-ier? And the bantering Dustin Hoffman does with the cast is different for every single actor: The performance was too busy, complicated, and inspired to resort to shtick . He and Pollack disagreed over the tone the movie was supposed to take. The actor thought it should be light. The director disagreed. The final movie wondrously split the difference (in Hoffman's favor).
"Tootsie" gets better every single time it turns up on cable. Just last month, I was in a video store that happened to be playing it and damn if I didn't stand there completely hooked as if I'd never seen it before. It doesn't even matter that Dave Grusin's score still makes you feel like you're stuck in a mall elevator. The movie itself would have worked just as well in 1942 as it did in 1982. In 2022, it'll still feel as vibrant. "Tootsie" continues to work as a kind of feminist critique. Watch it with a certain indefatigable presidential candidate in mind. Your brain will explode.
As the movie business changed -- around the time of "The Firm" the paradigm was shifting away from pure star vehicles; movies were turning more global -- Pollack started to retreat into old-fashioned material. His remake of Billy Wilder's "Sabrina" two years later was miserable purely because it was so dutifully nostalgic. It was the work of a student trying to pass to himself off as a fan. Julia Ormond was in the Audrey Hepburn part, Greg Kinnear in the William Holden role, and starchy Harrison Ford in the Humphrey Bogart role. The original wasn't perfect; but empty of cynicism and full of the oily 1990s capitalist spirit, the remake was hard to justify. (This is Pollack talking to Charlie Rose about the film in 1995.)
His "Sabrina" was the anti-"Tootsie": The stars never aligned. But you knew where Pollack was coming from. He was deeply entrenched in the history of the business that made him want to make movies in the first place. He wasn't going to retreat from the belief that the studios were capable of better and the audiences should expect more from them. You almost hunger for a trashy, wrongheaded movie like "The Interpreter," since there was a real film there to wrestle with. Pollack wanted his genre movies to make us think, even if you didn't happen to agree with their politics. His seriousness about the state of moviemaking extended to the seriousness of moviegoing. That was him in an ad admonishing you for using your cellphone during a screening.
Actually, most of his own memorable performances -- from Dustin Hoffman's agent in "Tootsie" and Tom Cruise's skeezy friend and patient in "Eyes Wide Shut" to George Clooney's sinister boss in "Michael Clayton -- blended the tutorial and the scolding. (He was usually some younger star's mentor; his last role was as Patrick Dempsey's dad in "Made of Honor.") It's a scandal, frankly, that more was never made of Pollack's performance as a midlife crisis-sufferer opposite Judy Davis in Woody Allen's very good "Husband and Wives." Everyone rightly went on about Mount Saint Judy, but he brought a lot of ache and vulnerability to the part. Liam Neeson was the sexiest thing in the movie, but Pollack ran a surprisingly not-so-distant second. Plus, he rocked a tracksuit like nobody's business.
Getting back to Pollack's classical Hollywood sensibility: It's not for nothing that he eventually teamed up to produce movies with the younger Englishman Anthony Minghella who was very much his kindred spirit -- a director eager to bridge the widening gulf between art and commerce. Like Pollack at his best, Minghella worked as though there were no continental drift at the the movies -- he excelled at big, serious adult films lit up by major stars. Minghella died in March; and with these two gone, there's every reason to lament that a certain kind of moviemaking has gone with them. The aesthetes and snobs will say good riddance to their tony, middlebrow entertainments. But without the great human care they brought to directing and producing, the middle in Hollywood gets bleaker and thinner every year.