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On Sydney Pollack

May 27, 2008
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The sad thing—well, one of the sad things—about the death of filmmaker Sydney Pollack yesterday is the nagging feeling that there should be more to be excited about on his directing resume.

Pollack, a native of Lafayette who grew up in South Bend, cut his teeth in live television in the 1950s and first earned attention as a feature director with 1969’s bleak “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?”

That film, his thriller “Three Days of the Condor,” and his revisionist western “Jeremiah Johnson” have passionate admirers. But I’d argue that only “Tootsie” and the critically drubbed “The Way We Were” have real fans. Even “Out of Africa,” which won the Best Picture Oscar in 1985, is tough to get excited about.

And then there are the workmanlike “The Interpreter,” “Sabrina,” “The Firm” and “The Electric Horseman.” And the box office/critical failures “Random Hearts,” “Havana” and “Bobby Deerfield.”

No director hits it out of the park every time, but with Pollack it seemed like a long time to wait between not-all-that-exciting projects. (For a comparable record, see Mike Nichols.)
Looking at the whole list, only “Jeremiah Johnson" and “Absence of Malice” are works I feel I should check out again.

To be sure, Pollack wasn’t just a director. As an actor, he stood out in “Tootsie,” “Eyes Wide Shut” and other films. As a producer, he helped guide “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” “Michael Clayton,” “Searching for Bobby Fisher,” “Sense and Sensibility” and many others.

The question, I suppose, is how many great films are necessary to make a great career? Should every dud be balanced by something excellent? Is OK OK? And why does it seem that Pollack is one of the few Hollywood directors who always—always—made films for adults, not teenagers?

One more sadness—at least for film fans—is that Pollack may well have had a number of great films left in him.

Your thoughts?
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