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?
  • Not long ago, my husband and I added Three Days of the Condor to our Netflix queue. Each of us saw it with other people long before we met, and we both remember it as a great film. I'm curious why it's not on your short list of Pollack films to revisit, Lou.

    I felt the same way you did when I read about Pollack's death -- that there must be many more films the writer could have/should have mentioned in the story. (Thanks for reminding me of Absence of Malice.) Movies for adults and not teenagers are a good thing.
  • Even though Pollack's tenure as a filmmaker began in the precedent-shattering times of the late '60s and early '70s, he always has seemed to me to be more of an old-style Hollywood guy - the kind who's always working on a project and is a reliable presence on any side of the camera. He may not be remembered as a visionary, but it seems that he desserves at least as much credit as one of those great, hardworking directors from the studio system of old - craftsmen who were turning out quality before anyone even whispered the word auteur in fillmmaking circles.

    Hmm. Maybe that's what happens to solid, workmanlike directors who make movies for grown-ups in a filmmaking world that has devolved into subgenres of auteur-driven projects and adolescent pablum. There just isn't a consistent place for them anymore. Look at the trajectories of William Friedkin, Norman Jewison, or the late John Frankenheimer as other examples of craftsmen of the same generation who lost traction after the advent of the blockbuster.
  • I just heard a story on NPR about how all these writers were sitting with Penelope Cruz and Woody Allen for an interview at the Cannes Film Festival, and half of them stood up in the middle of the allotted time and said, Oh, so sorry, gotta go because they had to go stand in a two-hour line to see the Indiana Jones movie. At Cannes. That says it all.
  • To Brian's point:

    As much as Pollack was seen as a workmanlike director, he didn't make a lot of films. Basically, there were 15 between his arrival with They Shoot Horses... in 1969 to his final film, The Interpreter, in 2005.

    In roughly that same period, Robert Altman made 33 films (not counting his TV work). Martin Scorcese made 20. Even Francis Ford Coppola made 17--and he dropped out for a decade between 1997 and 2007.

    Realizing that not all directors work at the same pace (and that some of the Altman stuff is unwatchable), you really have to wonder why the seemingly very selective Pollack got behind the projects he got behind. Besides the desire to work with major stars (Redford, Ford, Hoffman...), is there a thread winding through his work that's transcends the individual films?

  • Lou, I get excited about Out of Africa, I loved it! I've seen it several times and I think it's a great film. I didn't realize until I read the articles announcing his death which movies he had directed. The Way We Were is also a classic. Maybe he just wanted to spend a little more time living his life with family and friends and didn't want to spend his life jumping movie set to movie set. Maybe he just took life at his own pace doing the movie he wanted when he wanted. He made a few really excellent movies and a few that were not so much, but should he be honored any less for his accomplishments? I don't think so. It's easy for us movie lovers to sit back and criticise someone else's work, but at the end of the day making a movie is really hard work and if you make just one that people really love, then I think that's really something.
  • Three Days of the Condor .... I watch this film about every other month. It's the oil, stupid! It is as if I'm reading the news about our government. Other than this connection, I really do like the intrigue. I think he made a lot of enjoyable movies, if not award winners.
  • I was very surprised by his death. I've been a fan of a good number of films in front of the camera and behind. He gave such a great performance in Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives. I just picked up They Shoot Horses, Don't They from the library today when after reading and article about him, I had realized that I still haven't seen what many believe to be one of his best films.

    On looking back on his career, I would say he's always been respected. Of the ones I've seen he's always made solid picks that range from good to great. He will not be remembered in the same way as Robert Altman or possibly even Peter Bogdanovich, but he will always be seen as someone who was admired as a director, an actor, and a person.

    Also as a teenager, I'm happy he never aimed his movies for my age group. Just because he never aimed directly towards me, doesn't mean I still didn't seek them out and appreciate them.
  • Austin,
    Thanks for the wise words. Feel free to chime in anytime.
  • You said, And why does it seem that Pollack is one of the few Hollywood directors who always—always—made films for adults, not teenagers?

    Gee, that must be why I liked him! What a relief!!
  • Looking at the whole list, only 'Jeremiah Johnson' and 'Absence of Malice' are works I feel I should check out again.

    I thought I was the only one who remembered Jeremiah Johnson. Over the years, I've mentioned it a few times and people just give me a blank stare. I saw it as a kid but it really stuck with me, don't know why.

    Absence of Malice I just mentioned to my husband recently. He's in law school and like every first-year law student, he's starting to see the world through law-colored glasses. He lives it, breathes it, talks about it an nauseum. (I actually am a supportive wife, more than I let on.) I really hate Sally You like me! You really like me! Field, but Paul Newman was so powerful in it, I can overlook her.

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