Christine and I were both very sad to hear that legendary, Oscar-winning director/producer, Sydney Pollack passed away on Monday at the age of 73. Diagnosed with cancer nine months ago, Pollack died at his home in Pacific Palisades surrounded by his family.
I had been a fan of Pollack’s mid-career movies for years, especially “Out of Africa” and “The Way We Were” — which our family watched almost every weekend on movie night — but it wasn’t until I was in film school at AFI that I got a true appreciation for what a bang-up director he really was.
The first time I saw “Three Days of the Condor” I was kind of blown away. The quintessential paranoid 1970’s political thriller, this movie not only rocked hard, but it changed the way espionage movies were made.
Starring frequent collaborator and longtime-friend, Robert Redford, Faye Dunaway and a creepy Max von Sydow as the ultimate Euro-heavy, “Condor” shot to the list of my all-time-favorite movies overnight. And even though it came out in 1975, this taut, suspenseful thrill ride is anything but dated.
In fact, the timeless stylistic influence of “Condor” can be felt even today in scores or like-minded knockoffs (“Munich” and the “Bourne” movies to name a few) and even in last year’s vastly underrated “Michael Clayton”, which Pollack co-starred in and exec-produced.
What I liked most about Pollack’s films was that they weren’t flabby. There was nothing extra, no fat, just tight action, romance, adventure or whatever and some damn fine acting to boot. If you can compare him to anyone, he kind of reminds me of John Huston, who, ironically, also acted in several of his own films.
Like Huston, Pollack was a visceral, masculine director who could take something as potentially cheesy and syrupy as “The Way We Were” and make it real and authentic. Other directors might have skated by on the sheer star power of Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford, but not Pollack.
His skillful direction — and a knockout script by Arthur Laurents and an an uncredited David Rayfiel — turned these potentially larger than life characters into living, breathing people, who we loved and hated, sometimes in the very same scene. Hell yes, you still cried at the end, but those tears were earned, baby.
A master of the silent emotional scene, Pollack also knew when to back off and let his movies breathe and this was never more apparent than in “Out of Africa”. Arguably his best known film, “Africa” — which won an amazing seven Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director for Pollack — has some of the most beautiful dialog-free scenes ever put to film.
Sure the airplane close-ups are totally blue-screened, but “Africa”, like John Huston’s classic “The African Queen” makes those lingering nature-filled silences speak volumes about the characters. I mean, wow, when Meryl Streep grabs that handful of sand at the end, you can almost feel that shit in your palm. Amazing…
And “Tootsie”? Wow…words can’t describe how influential this movie was to me as a kid. Every scene is comic writing gold. I remember laughing so hard when we first saw it that my brother and I missed most of the jokes and had to see it again the following weekend. Hilarious!
And though I wasn’t a huge fan of several of his recent directorial efforts — “The Interpreter”, “Random Hearts” and the Redford-starring bomb “Havana” — the bold, daring choices Pollack made as a producer never ceased to amaze me: “Sliding Doors”, “The Talented Mr. Ripley”, “Cold Mountain”, “The Quiet American”, “Sense and Sensibilty”, “Iris” and the mind-blowing “Michael Clayton” to name just a few. True, these movies weren’t always huge hits, but, man alive, they were always interesting.
Even cooler than his choices as a producer were the films Sydney Pollack chose to act in. Sure, his roles in his own movies always rocked — his performance in “Tootsie” alone sealed his street cred as a talented thespian in my eyes! — but I absolutely loved him in other people’s movies too.
My favorite will always be his loutish turn as Woody Allen’s newly-divorced friend in Allen’s pitch-perfect “Husbands & Wives”. Because of it’s unfortunate timing — the movie came out at the height of the Mia-Woody-Soon Yi mess — I think “Husbands” has always been kind of overlooked. But any true Woody Allen fan will tell you that this is one of his best movies ever.
And Pollack’s work here was just as worthy of Oscar attention as Judy Davis’s in my book. The scene where Pollack fights with his way-too-young-for-him girlfriend at a party is so real it’s almost painful to watch. And knowing that he was such a cool dude in person makes me appreciate his acting even more.
Sometimes, just the mere presence of Pollack in a movie or TV show lent the whole affair some class. “The Sopranos”, “Will & Grace”, “Frasier”, hell, I even liked him in “Changing Lanes” and that movie — which I half-watched on an airplane — was so God-awful, I wanted to pull the exit door open and jump out.
But I think my favorite memory of Sydney Pollack will be the time I spent listening to him speak at one of the Harold Llyod Master Seminars at AFI in 1994. Christine had snuck in with me to watch “Three Days of the Condor” on the big screen and stayed for the entire seminar.
Speaking onstage for about an hour and a half, Pollack talked about his favorite movies, his directing style, why he directs, actors, anything and everything you could imagine…and it was absolutely riveting. Trust me, I sat through a lot of those seminars, and Pollack’s was one of the best, and mostly that was due to the fact that the man, like his movies, was real.
Not only was Pollack a joy to listen to, but he projected such warmth and generosity of spirit that he totally endeared himself to both Christine and I forever more. And while I can’t speak for all the burgeoning film students that were in the theatre that day, I can tell you for damn sure that the super cool Sydney Pollack left his mark on me.
So, rest in peace, amigo. You will be sorely missed…