Goodbye, Mr. Pollack

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 31, 2008)

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I’m sure you have heard by now that we lost director-producer-actor Sydney Pollack earlier this week.

He was one of the last of the old school Hollywood filmmakers; a dependable “all purpose” director in the Michael Curtiz vein. From westerns (Jeremiah Johnson, The Scalphunters) and war films (Castle Keep) to love stories (The Way We Were, This Property is Condemned) and sweeping epics (Out of Africa, Havana) Pollack displayed a knack for effortless genre-hopping.

He may not have been an “auteur” or a flashy visual stylist, but he knew how to tell a damn fine story, and he always did so with intelligence and class. He respected his actors; you could glean that from the full-blooded performances that usually informed a Pollack film. Perhaps this was not surprising, as Pollack spent substantial time in front of the cameras as well, usually in supporting roles.

As an actor, he was most recently seen in Michael Clayton (which he also co-produced). He received critical raves for his acting in Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives (and deservedly so-he more than managed to hold his own opposite the formidable talents of the great Judy Davis). His relatively small role in Eyes Wide Shut was one of the few high points in Stanley Kubrick’s  disappointing final  film.

Perhaps his most endearing turn as an actor was when Pollack the director gave himself a plum supporting role in his gender-fluid rom-com Tootsie. Pollack played the exasperated agent of a difficult and mercurial actor (Dustin Hoffman, who some might say was basically playing himself) and got to deliver a now classic line: “I begged you to get some therapy!” While Pollack’s most audience-pleasing film, I don’t necessarily consider Tootsie his best.

Beginning with his 1993 legal thriller The Firm, Pollack’s films began to slouch more toward “product” than artifice (with the exception of his 2005 documentary, Sketches of Frank Gehry). All in all, however, he left behind an impressive legacy of well-crafted cinema in his nearly 50 year long career. A few personal recommendations:

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They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?-This richly decadent allegory about the human condition has to be one of the grimmest and most cynical films ever made. Pollack assembled a crack ensemble for this depiction of a Depression-era dance marathon from Hell: Jane Fonda, Gig Young (who snagged a Best Supporting Actor Oscar), Susannah York, Bruce Dern and Red Buttons are all outstanding; Pollack even coaxed the usually wooden Michael Sarrazin (the Hayden Christensen of his day) into showing real emotion.

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The Yakuza-I was happy when this 1975 sleeper finally got released on DVD. Robert Mitchum and Ken Takakura are excellent in this complex culture clash/gangster drama. Pollack had major writing talent on board-Robert Towne and Paul Schrader (who scripted from a story idea by Schrader’s brother Leonard).

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Three Days of the Condor-One of seven collaborations between star Robert Redford and director Pollack, and one of the seminal “conspiracy-a-go-go” films An absolutely first-rate thriller with more twists and turns than you can shake a dossier at. The film’s final scene plays like an eerily prescient prologue for All the President’s Men, which wasn’t released until the following year. The cast includes Faye Dunaway, Max von Sydow, Cliff Robertson, and John Houseman. Lorenzo Semple Jr. and David Rayfiel adapted from James Grady’s novel Six Days of the Condor.

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Absence of Malice-Before it was fashionable to take the news media to task, Pollack delivered this solid blend of morality tale and civics lesson about the straight arrow son of a mob figure (Paul Newman) whose reputation is sullied when he becomes the fall guy in an unethical federal prosecutor’s investigation. An over-eager newspaper journalist (Sally Field) is no help, with her tendency to print first, and fact check later. Newman ingeniously turns the tables on the mudslingers, whilst putting the average citizen’s alleged protection under the libel laws to the test. Scripted by ex-reporter Kurt Luedtke, and also featuring wily scene-stealer Wilford Brimley.

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The Swimmer-Technically, this film is not a 100% Pollack project; Frank Perry is the credited director, but Pollack was brought in to finish after Perry dropped out during production. Eleanor Perry scripted from the original John Cheever short story. At any rate, the end product  remains an underrated gem. A searing performance from Burt Lancaster fuels this existential suburban nightmare.

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