By the end of his long, successful career, Sydney Pollack was just slightly more reliable as an actor than as a director. As Dustin Hoffman's agent in "Tootsie" (that's him on the left above) he represented outraged common sense and the shrug that has seen everything. When he popped up as the gruff, soullessly capable name partner in last year's "Michael Clayton," you breathed a sigh of relief for the New York-school movie professionalism he exuded.
Pollack's final movie appearance before his death Sunday of cancer at 73 was in the recent "Made of Honor," as Patrick Dempsey's much-married father -- the only piece of grit in that empty romantic comedy's faux Manhattan playground. In a way, Pollack the actor was the visual correlative of the Sidney Lumet worldview: tough, East Coast-direct, politically progressive, trusting the individual far more than the group.
Those qualities are present in the movies he directed, too, although camouflaged behind a smoothly faceless style. Pollack would be the first to admit he wasn't an auteur -- he served his actors and the story, not any sense of artistic self. Yet because he was a smart filmmaker and a friend to the reigning powers of his day, it's movies like "Tootsie," "The Way We Were," "Out of Africa," and "Three Days of the Condor" that you think of when you think of the good movies of the 70s and 80s.
Not necessarily the great movies, but the good ones: intelligent, committed, well-acted films with a sweep that flattered both their subjects and their audiences. "Three Days" is possibly the best of the conspiracy thrillers that studded the 1970s, the one most rooted in a realistic sense of one individual (Robert Redford as a low-level CIA librarian, standing in for you and me) peering over the abyss into the evil deeds our government can do.
"Out of Africa" -- Pollack's best director Oscar-winner -- and "The Way We Were" shared big historical canvases and female characters who broke the mold, played by actresses (Meryl Streep and Barbra Streisand respectively) who did the same. That could also be said for "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?," Pollack's 1969 critical breakthrough about a grueling 1930s dance marathon that served as a metaphor for the death of the American dream. Jane Fonda's performance in that film has a ferocity that takes no prisoners and that makes the men in the film look slightly stupid. Pollack liked ballsy women, and, yes, that includes Dustin Hoffman in "Tootsie," learning what it is to be a man by dressing as a woman.
By contrast, the men in his movies are usually daunted by events, and it says something that this Jewish director kept coming back to the WASPy Redford as his hero, a reluctantly active figure thrown by those fierce women even as he's desired by them.
The one Pollack movie that sidesteps the algorithm is 1972's "Jeremiah Johnson," in which the director and his star say the hell with women and disappear into the American west to grow a beard. The movie's a fascinating halfway point between Jedidiah Smith and Hollywood hippie daydream, and a crucial document, in its way, of the changes the American movie industry went through as the anarchic 60s gave way to the corporate 80s.
Which is to say that Sydney Pollack wasn't a raging bull or an easy rider like Scorsese, Friedkin, Coppola, Spielberg and the other New Hollywood cowboys. He was from the half-generation earlier that studied acting in New York under Sanford Meisner and learned how to make movies by shooting black-and-white TV shows like "The Defenders" and "Alfred Hitchcock Presents". Pollack's first movie as director was 1965's "The Slender Thread," an eminently responsible social-problem movie about a suicide hotline staffer (Sidney Poitier) trying to talk a desperate woman (Anne Bancroft, gloriously unsubtle as always) out of killing herself.
It's not exactly a great film, but you can see Pollack the future director in every sensible frame: the woman with frighteningly "big" emotions (a figure to be both pitied and worshipped), the wary man trying to save her from herself, the middlebrow balancing act of Kennedy-era racial and gender politics, a gift for unfussy storytelling as filtered, primarily, through performance.
A Pollack movie, in fact, lives through its central performance, which is almost always about a character kicking at the walls of society: Streep in "Out of Africa," Fonda in "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?," Hoffman in "Tootsie," Redford in "Jeremiah Johnson," Streisand in "The Way We Were." On top of that performance the director explored certain themes, but always within the context of creating a compelling narrative entertainment.
"Here’s what I always try to do, and again it’s something I get my wrists slapped for all the time," Pollack told Jump Cut magazine in 1976. "I want to work within genres -- a western, romance, melodrama or spy film. And then, within that form, which I try to remain as faithful to as I can, I love to fool around with serious ideas. The westerns that I've made have not been straight westerns, by any manner. 'Jeremiah Johnson' was, for me, a very serious film. It was a western, but it was still a serious film and it entertains very serious ideas about copping out, dropping out, how far can you go? Do you have to make it work within the system or do you try to make it work elsewhere? To me, those are serious ideas, but still it’s a movie, basically an entertainment."
It's a measure of Pollack's power within the industry -- and how much he was well and truly liked by everyone -- that even as he lost his stride as a director, he remained in demand as a producer and an actor. His "Out of Africa" follow-up was 1990's "Havana," a foolhardy attempt to bring the romanticism of "Casablanca" into the modern age (Redford may be many things, but he certainly isn't Bogart). The films that followed -- "The Firm," "Sabrina," "Random Hearts," "The Interpreter" -- are polished and unnecessary, lacking the urgency that animated Pollack's earlier work. The one keeper is small and personal: a documentary about the director's good friend, architect Frank Gehry.
In front of the cameras, though, he seemed to recover something of himself (Pollack had originally studied to be an actor but decided he didn't have the looks for it). He popped up in "The Sopranos" and "Entourage," sunk his teeth into a juicy Woody Allen role in "Husbands and Wives," served as Tom Cruise's sex-club tour guide in Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut." His metier was fallen Manhattan men, alternately bitter and tickled by the things they'd seen.
As a producer, Pollack more than kept his hand in. Here are some of the movies on which he's credited as either producer or exective producer: "The Fabulous Baker Boys," "Presumed Innocent," "Searching for Bobby Fischer," "Sense and Sensibility," "The Talented Mr. Ripley," "Iris," "The Quiet American," "40 Shades of Blue," "Michael Clayton." Again, not necessarily the greatest movies of their day but ambitious and persuasive and intelligent, which makes them vastly superior to 90 percent of the movies around them.
Pollack had been part of a number of production partnerships over the years -- he joked that one of them, MJ Inc., stood for "Melancholy Jew" -- but in 1985 he launched Mirage Enterprises and in 2000 invited writer-director Anthony Minghella in as full partner. Minghella died unexpectedly earlier this year at 54, and now Pollack is gone. There are remaining Mirage films in the pipeline: "Recount," which just played HBO, Stephen Daldry's "The Reader" with Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes, a remake of "The Lives of Others" still in development. After that, the slate is empty and a particular (and for Hollywood, rare) movie sensibility ceases.
That said, I think I'll miss Pollack the actor most: The hard-nosed, kind-hearted quintessential New Yorker (quintessentially from someplace else -- Lafayette, Indiana, in his case) bringing the hero down a peg just because he's been around the block so many times.