Sydney Pollack, Filmmaker New and Old

Posted by Kendall Harmon

Sydney Pollack’s career as a director blossomed in the 1960s and ’70s, but in many ways he was a throwback to an earlier era in American movies.

The story of the New Hollywood, dominated by a wild bunch of ambitious, iconoclastic would-be auteurs, is by now overgrown with nostalgia and legend-mongering, but Mr. Pollack’s place in that legend suggests continuity rather than upheaval. The vitality of motion pictures has always been sustained by craftsmen with a modicum of business sense and the ability to tell a good story. Mr. Pollack, who died on Monday at 73, was never (and never claimed to be) a great innovator or a notable visual stylist. If he could be compared to a major figure from the Old Hollywood, it would not be to one of the great individualists like Howard Hawks or John Ford, who stamped their creative personalities onto every project, whatever the genre or the level of achievement. Mr. Pollack was more like William Wyler: highly competent, drawn to projects with a certain quality and prestige and able above all to harness the charisma of movie stars to great emotional and dramatic effect.

Just about any film by Robert Altman or Martin Scorsese, for instance, will be immediately and primarily identifiable as such, no matter who’s in it. But if you think of “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?,” you’ll remember Jane Fonda, so desperate and defiant and sad as she pushes herself through a Depression-era dance marathon. “Tootsie” is Dustin Hoffman’s movie. “This Property Is Condemned” will conjure up Natalie Wood and Robert Redford, oddly cast but nonetheless generating Southern Gothic heat in an overripe Tennessee Williams scenario. And it is Mr. Redford who defines Mr. Pollack’s oeuvre nearly as much as the director himself. Over nearly 25 years, from “This Property Is Condemned” to “Havana,” they worked together on westerns (“Jeremiah Johnson,”); love stories both sweeping (“The Way We Were”) and intimate (“The Electric Horseman”); paranoid thrillers (“Three Days of the Condor”); and high-toned literary adaptations (“Out of Africa.”)

My favorite scene in all the movies is Mr. Pollack and Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie arguing over the latter's skill and demeanor in playing a tomato. Read it all.

Filed under: * Culture-WatchMovies & Television

Posted May 28, 2008 at 5:34 pm [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]

1. Intercessor wrote:

We have truly lost an immense talent. It is sobering knowing that Mr. Pollack’s gifts have been silenced. I offer my prayers for him and his family. Thank you Mr. Pollack for the cinematic joy that you shared with us.

May 28, 6:09 pm | [comment link]
2. Dan Crawford wrote:

I admired his work as a director and an actor - I look at all the movies he directed and each one would easily make my top 50 list. I recently saw Michael Clayton and was again impressed by the great intelligence and subtlety he brought to his acting roles. I agree with Intercessor that seeing one of his movies was to experience pleasure at something well-written, well-crafted and well-photographed and to enjoy professional actors bringing all their skills to bear in the roles they played. Sidney Pollack never insulted your intelligence and made you appreciate how good movies could be. And he also brought a moral sensitivity to the stories he filmed (even Tootsie) that is appallingly lacking in so many of today’s movies. I suspect as the years go by, his stature will grow. And such a quiet, unassuming man. May he rest in peace.

May 28, 9:15 pm | [comment link]
3. writingmom15143 wrote:

The tomato scene is my fav as well…And my 2nd favorite scene is when Dustin Hoffman and Bill Murray are having a discussion about what DH should wear to go see Jessica Lange…And DH has a problem with everything BM suggests.  Then DH says something like..
I can’t wear that…The horizontal stripes make me look too hippy and BM says…We’re getting into a weird area here.

May 29, 12:38 am | [comment link]
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