Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Sydney Pollack, a Studio Man With an Indie Heart

Yesterday I watched Sydney Lumet's director's commentary on the DVD re-release of the 1976 classic "Network," and Lumet noted that after the film wrapped, the cinematographer moved out to Hollywood and started working for prominent directors, citing Sydney Pollack as his lone example. Hours later, I read the news that Pollack had passed away at the age of 73.

It was not surprising that Lumet, a New York-based filmmaker who started in live television and mostly stayed clear of the studio system, would tap Pollack, who also started in live television but who became a successful Hollywood director and producer, as the living embodiment of quality. Despite their different career paths, they were (and Lumet still is) two of the best filmmakers in the business.

I'm sure Pollack would be proud to be remembered in this way. He was always a Hollywood director and producer with impeccable taste. Pollack only directed 19 narrative feature films over the last 45 years (and only five since 1990), but his credits include some of the best-known, successful and critically acclaimed movies of their eras: "They Shoot Horses Don't They?", "The Way We Were," "Three Days of the Condor," "Absence of Malice," "Tootsie" and "Out of Africa," just to name a few.

Pollack moved seamlessly among genres, just as capable at directing a Robert Mitchum crime thriller like "The Yakuza" as a Dustin Hoffman comedy like "Tootsie" or a sudsy love story like "The Way We Were." Which makes sense, when you consider that Pollack was the consummate actor's director, and his movies boasted a who's who of Hollywood's biggest stars of each era in which he worked, ranging from his frequent leading man Robert Redford to (in chronological order) Jane Fonda, Barbra Streisand, Faye Dunaway, Al Pacino, Sally Field, Paul Newman, Dustin Hoffman, Jessica Lange, Bill Murray, Meryl Streep, Tom Cruise, Gene Hackman, Holly Hunter, Ed Harris, Harrison Ford, Sean Penn and Nicole Kidman.

Two of Pollack's films in the early 1980s, "Absence of Malice" and "Tootsie," were major influences in shaping the kind of filmmaker I aspired to be. It would seem, on the surface, that a tense drama about the fallout from a reporter investigating a liquor warehouse owner whose father was a mob boss would have little in common with a comedy about a struggling actor who cross-dresses to get a soap opera role. But both movies were driven by real characters, not easy-to-peg, two-dimensional, cardboard cut-outs. It was the people on the screen that engaged you, and Pollack, along with the spot-on screenplays, brilliantly shaped stories around these interesting, engaging characters.

Pollack's work with Newman, Field and Melinda Dillon in "Absence of Malice" is about as good as it gets in film: Newman, with his barely contained anger always lurking just below the surface of his proud, controlled alpha male exterior; Field, slowly realizing the human carnage of her actions as a reporter, but unable to stop being one long enough to really see what is happening in front of her; and the horror on Dillon's face as she discovers that her darkest secret had been plastered onto the front page of the local newspaper. Pollack captured moments that were seered into my filmmaking consciousness: Dillon, early in the morning, going from lawn to lawn collecting newspapers in a heartbreakingly futile attempt to stem the spread of her secret; Field learning what it is like to be the other side of the notebook when her colleague slips into hard-nose-reporter mode while debriefing her about her experience with Newman's character; and Newman moved to near violence against Field as he confronts her after he experiences a tragedy.

And as dark as "Absence of Malice" was, a year later, Pollack directed Hoffman in a performance of pure comic brilliance, playing a difficult, perfectionist actor so desperate for a last chance that he auditions for a soap opera as a woman. The last-straw showdown between Hoffman's character and his agent (played by Pollack) should be screened in every film and acting class as a primer on how to play comedy in a smart and real way. I can't imagine improving on Pollack's handling of Hoffman's dogged insistence that he couldn't sit down while playing a tomato in a commercial (because tomato's can't move, of course) and his boasts at his ability to play vegetables at an expert level, as well as the agent's had-it-up-to-here decision to tell Hoffman's character he's alienated everyone in the business.

It's not surprising, given Pollack's way with actors, that he, too, was an exceptional performer. One thing I loved about Pollack was that he clearly acted because he wanted to, not because he had to, and yet while his appearances were rare, he was equally likely to take a small part in a film directed by a legend as he was to step into a sitcom. He was a successful Hollywood director without a trace of attitude about appearing on television. Aside from playing Hoffman's agent in "Tootsie," Pollack's most memorable movie turns include Tom Cruise's contact to the underworld in Stanley Kubrick's last feature "Eyes Wide Shut," a philandering husband in Woody Allen's "Husband and Wives," and the commanding head of a corporate law firm in "Michael Clayton." He also recurred as Will's father on "Will and Grace," as well as popping up on "King of the Hill," "Frasier" and "Mad About You" (not to mention on "The Sopranos").

As an actor, Pollack always enjoyed an easy-going, natural demeanor in his performances, often adding heart to an otherwise not-so-lovable character. Despite being Hollywood royalty, Pollack had perfected the art of being down-to-earth on the screen.

In the 1990s and 2000s, Pollack turned his attention to producing, bringing nearly 40 movies to the screen during that time. Many of the movies were lower-budgeted, independent projects, in which he used his clout and skill to get smaller stories made, including two movies I especially liked an awful lot: "Searching for Bobby Fischer" and "Sliding Doors."

Sydney Lumet was right to single out Sydney Pollack as an example of quality. I will miss Pollack, both as a filmmaker and as someone who enjoys watching movies and television. I will miss his understated performances on the screen, as well as the character-driven movies he was partial to shepherding into movie theaters. Do yourself a favor and add "Absence of Malice" or "Tootsie" to your Neflix list. You will see why the film world is a much poorer place today than it was yesterday.