Perhaps it’s appropriate that the veteran director/actor dies on Memorial Day. The obits will probably concentrate on his work as a middlebrow director of middling quality — for an Academy Award winner, he helmed some of the worst twaddle ever given the green light (Absence of Malice, Havana, Sabrina, The Interpreter, and Random Hearts, which has the immortal line delivered by Kristin Scott Thomas: “You know those tests you take to see if you’re pregnant? I wish they had one so you could find out if you’re crazy”). Yet he managed to pull Tootsie out of the jaws of disaster. This is probably the one great — maybe the last great — classic Hollywood comedy, up there with The Lady Eve and Duck Soup in laughs-per-minute (most of the wisecracks penned by Elaine May) and outdoing them in poignancy. It lost to Gandhi in the Best Picture and Actor races, but never fear: Hollywood compensated by tossing Oscars to Pollack for 1985’s ponderous Out of Africa, which, despite Klaus Maria Brandauer and a warmer than usual Meryl Streep, never gets over Robert Redford’s English accent and an air of irrelevance crossed with illiteracy — do the film’s creators show any sign of having read Isak Dinesen’s work?
Still, there’s something to be said about Pollack’s belief in the star system. As a producer he nurtured Anthony Minghella. As director he was as responsible as anyone for creating the Robert Redford we know today, for better or worse. With the exception of his stint in live TV in the fifties, nothing in his resume suggests risk or novelty, and that’s the way he liked it:
Pollack spoke of his preference for working with big stars in an interview with New York Times in 1982.
“Stars are like thoroughbreds,” he said. “Yes, it’s a little more dangerous with them. They are more temperamental. You have to be careful because you can be thrown. But when they do what they do best — whatever it is that’s made them a star — it’s really exciting.”
Sometimes, he added, “if you have a career like mine, which is so identified with Hollywood, with big studios and stars, you wonder if maybe you shouldn’t go off and do what the world thinks of as more personal films with lesser-known people. But I think I’ve fooled everybody. I’ve made personal films all along. I just made them in another form.”
Beginning with his classic portrayal of harried professional angst in Tootsie, Pollack remembered his roots in acting, and returned to them like a thirsty man in the desert. He carved a number of indelible representations of a type that Hollywood knew all too well: the oily wheeler-dealer who’s not listening to a second of the shit coming out his mouth. Years in the industry — hell, Michael Ovitz was a client and friend — no doubt gave Pollack the verisimilitude necessary to pull it off. Whether it was in Death Becomes Her or The Player, Pollack’s performances always gave the impression, with their cut-the-shit snarls and smug consumption of every available molecule of oxygen, that he was the savviest man in the room: a survivor, which may be the only type that Hollywood appreciates. Last year he said more with a disgusted glance and a tight-lipped swig of single malt Scotch than all of George Clooney’s exertions in Michael Clayton; even last October I was writing that it may be his last time around. So if there’s one Sydney Pollack film you gotta see, don’t rent Out of Africa or Jeremiah Johnson — go straight to 1992’s Husbands and Wives, in which Pollack got his only chance at sustaining a character arc for an entire movie. As Judy Davis’ self-deluded, newly divorced husband, Pollack reminds me of every single fiftysomething dad I’ve ever met: his mind is unaware that his body is sagging, soft, and unresponsive. Highlights: his confession to Woody in a convenience store (“Big deal! So she’s not Simone de Beauvoir!”); or his sputtered remarks to Lysette Anthony during what was at the time the most harrowing scene Woody had ever filmed (“My friends are trying to make an intellectual conversation, and you’re sittin‘ there jerkin’ off about tofu and crystals and shit”). He should have gotten an Oscar nomination, but Pollack’s acting — look at his work in Michael Clayton — is too non-fussy to get noticed by Academy types.