Friday, May 30, 2008

Sydney Pollack

Sydney Pollack
Sydney Pollack seemed to have a good life making movies. His career as a director spanned more than forty years during which he made twenty feature films . He also produced a quite large number of others and, later in his life, made a number of appearances as an actor in roles which suggested he simply enjoyed the camaraderie of film-making and production enormously. From the start of his career with the low budget two hander The Slender Thread, in which Sidney Poitier played the telephone counselor trying to stop Anne Bancroft from suiciding, Pollack routinely attracted Hollywood’s best technicians and its best actors. The consequent consumnate craftsmanship was always there on display and attracted industry awards, most notably a Best Picture Oscar for Out of Africa in 1985. He was attracted to adaptations and his sources were varied. He did everything from Tennessee Williams (This Property is Condemned), through William Eastlake (Castle Keep), Kraren Blixen (Out of Africa) to John Grisham (The Firm). His chief relationship with an actor was with Robert Redford. They made half a dozen movies together ending, somewhat unfortunately with their riff on Casablanca, Havana (1990), a rather sad and underwhelming piece that showed how easy it is to misfire. But the odd dud notwithstanding Pollack’s was a career with a lot of hits and highlights. The first big one was They Shoot Horses Don’t They in 1969 and the box office also went gangbusters for The Way We Were (1973) and the film that he’ll probably be best remembered for Tootsie (1982). Both got a lot of Oscar action. If I seem a bit reserved it’s because his films, while workmanlike and highly polished, never quite got me excited enough to want to watch them over and over again. He was no Kubrick, Cronenberg, Peckinpah or Polanski. He made more money than those peers but he tended to make safe commercial films that discussed things and told stories in an eminently sensible way - cool, polished, funny where they had to be. In some very few cases he got to be genuinely romantic though all his films had love stories entwined within them. Out of Africa was one such and some make great claims for the merits of Bobby Deerfield¸ a love story between a racing car driver and a young dying woman which meditates over death and loss. I cant say I found its elaborate story telling very affecting. If I have guilty pleasures I confess a fondness for Castle Keep and for his somewhat bizarre The Yakuza, made from a Paul and Leonard Schrader script clearly derived from watching countless Japanese movies on the subject. Robert Mitchum brought all his gravitas to the lead role of the American interloper blundering into the mysterious ways of the Japanese underworld. Pollack seems to have been very generous to his colleagues over the years. He took a producer’s role on a dozen or more films, most in his later years, by talented directors including Jerry Schatzberg’s zingy country and western flick Honeysuckle Rose, Steve Kloves wonderful sibling rivalry story The Fabulous Baker Boys and a couple of Anthony Minghella's recent movies. Finally there’s his work as an actor. This was how he started his career before moving into TV production and then onto the movies. His screen acting in his later years always routinely seemed to draw praise, most especially in Tootsie and then in Husbands and Wives (Woody Allen) and Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick). Most recently he was in Daniele Thompson’s Orchestra Stalls playing an American producer in Paris looking to cast his next movie. He must have had fun doing them all. However for the life of me I could never work out why such a clunky and unconvincing deliverer of dialogue should ever have got those roles and in each I thought his presence and speech patterns served to make you think you were momentarily watching some amateur night moments. Still, sitting around on the set with Stanley or Woody or in Paris making a frothy comedy must have hardly seemed like work. He had a good life right to the end and he was making films until very recently including his final work a fascinating and clearly heartfelt documentary portrait of the architect Frank Gehry. Pollack was born in Lafayette, Indiana in 1934 and died in Los Angeles this week.

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