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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

They shoot Tootsie, don’t they? (1934-2008)

Sydney Pollack is another one of those directors, when we hear of his passing, we are surprised upon realizing that he wasn’t older than he was. After all, when he became prominent as a director back in the late 1960s and 1970s, he seemed accomplished enough to have been around for years. But the fact is that, when he was first nominated for an Oscar (in 1970 for They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?), he was only 35 years old.

The other surprising thing is that, for someone who seems to have been around forever and who has made so many memorable movies, it seems strange that he hadn’t directed even more of them than he did. I suppose that 19 feature films (plus one documentary, 2005’s Sketches of Frank Gehry) is not a bad output for a 40-year period, but the list of his director credits is so filled with titles we know so well that we think there must be other lesser known movies as well. And so many different genres are covered that we are surprised to realize that one director was behind all of them.

The length of his movie credits lengthens massively when we add all of the movies on which he was a producer. That list includes many films we know well but do not think of as Sidney Pollack films. These include everything from the John Goodman comedy King Ralph to Searching for Bobby Fischer to the Ang Lee/Emma Thompson version of Sense and Sensibility. He was a producer on the recent George Clooney movies as Michael Clayton (which earned him a Best Picture Oscar nomination and in which he had an acting role) and Leatherheads.

And let us not forget all the movies where he appeared onscreen. Pollack started out as an actor and taught acting before getting a push into directing from Burt Lancaster. He started directing for television, but soon made the inevitable one-way leap to the big screen. But he frequently played small parts in films, often but not exclusively in his own movies. His most notable roles were in Tootsie (as Dustin Hoffman’s agent), Robert Altman’s The Player (not playing himself), Robert Zemeckis’s Death Becomes Her and Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. His last role was as Patrick Dempsey’s father in the romcom Made of Honor. He also appeared on TV shows like Frasier, Mad About You and The Sopranos and had a recurring role as Eric McCormack’s father on Will & Grace.

As frequently happens with me, I have always had a tendency to confuse Pollack with one of his contemporaries. I confess to sometimes mixing up which films were directed by Pollack and which were directed by Alan J. Pakula, who died ten years ago in a freak accident on the Long Island Expressway. My confusion undoubtedly stemmed from a couple of phonetic parallels in their surnames and the fact that they both made successful entries in the 1970s paranoid thriller genre (Three Days of the Condor for Pollack, The Parallax View for Pakula). Moreover, both had prominent collaborations with Robert Redford (This Property Is Condemned, Jeremiah Johnson, The Way We Were and Out of Africa for Pollack, All the President’s Men for Pakula) and horseman movies with Jane Fonda (Comes a Horseman for Pakula, The Electric Horseman for Pollack).

But there is really no excuse for my confusion. After all, Pollack was a virtual member of the extended Seattle film family. He made several visits to the Seattle International Film Festival, including a three-day gala tribute in 1996. While he never lived in the Pacific Northwest, he had something of a sentimental connection to the Emerald City, as he filmed his first theatrical movie, The Slender Thread starring Sidney Poitier and Anne Bancroft, there. A later movie that he produced, The Fabulous Baker Boys, was also set there. When I saw him on stage at the Egyptian Theater years ago, he seemed like a genuinely nice man, an impression that is backed up by everything I have ever heard or read about him.

One interesting thing about Pollack’s movies is that they usually had a social or political component to the them, but the politics were not front and center. They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, one of the most depressing movies I have seen in my entire life, presented the 1930s fad of dance marathons as a fairly transparent metaphor for the relentless desperation of the Great Depression. The movie that won him his only Oscar, Out of Africa, necessarily shed a light on colonialism. Even his comedies had something topical going on, like the issue of gender equality in Tootsie. Even the male-soul-crushing chick flick The Way We Were held some interest because Redford’s and Barbra Streisand’s characters were defined by their politics. While Pollack’s themes can generally be pegged as liberal, his 1981 film Absence of Malice provided a welcome antidote to the way Hollywood at the time often exalted the press. Sally Field played a reporter who becomes an unwitting tool of an overzealous prosecutor trying to target Paul Newman. I recall vividly to this day how the cinema audience in politically correct Seattle erupted in hissing when Newman’s character argues that Field cannot be a women’s libber because “most of them are ugly.”

Perhaps Pollack’s most lasting legacy is to the aforementioned paranoid thriller genre. In addition to 1975’s Three Days of the Condor, he returned to the territory in 1993’s The Firm and 2005’s The Interpreter. But Condor, alongside Pakula’s Parallax View, constituted the gold standard for the genre. When CIA researcher Robert Redford returns to the office to find his co-workers massacred, he goes on the run, not knowing who he can trust. The bottom line was that your own government was more of a threat to you than anything beyond the country’s shores. It is a theme that has recurred again and again in Hollywood thrillers. Since the turn of the century, it has surfaced in everything from the Bourne movies to the documentaries of Michael Moore.

Pollack died four months short of his golden wedding anniversary. He was married to Claire Griswold, who retired from acting in 1963 to become a fulltime mom—just after having been considered by Alfred Hitchcock as a backup for Tippi Hedren in Marnie. She had appeared in numerous guest roles on series like Hawaiian Eye, Perry Mason, 77 Sunset Strip and Bonanza. But she is probably best known for playing Robert Duvall’s titular love interest in a classic Twilight Zone episode called “The Doll.”

-S.L., 29 May 2008

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