Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Sydney Pollack: 1934-2008

The tributes for Sydney Pollack -- who passed away earlier this week -- keep coming in, and I want to cite two in particular. Since I regularly razz Stephanie Zacharek, it's only fair that I compliment her for good work when she achieves it. Another favorite target, David Edelstein, rebounded from his atrocious Anthony Minghella piece from two months back and paid his respects to Pollack in a mostly dignified manner. The headline for his piece is a bit inappropriately snarky for the occasion, but the actual content is so heartfelt that I'll give it a pass.

Great as it is to see all the huzzahs for Pollack's second career as an actor, the films he made behind the camera shouldn't be so readily dismissed. True, his later films were busts; but the period from 1969-1982 -- from They Shoot Horses, Don't They? to Tootsie -- was a fertile one for Pollack as a director. He was indeed "Old School" in the best possible sense, coaxing great work out of his performers. As others have noted, actresses especially benefited under Pollack's guidance: Jane Fonda; Barbra Streisand; Faye Dunaway; Sally Field; Jessica Lange; Meryl Streep. (Would any of them have parts quite so meaningful today?) Actors generally fared well too, though he loved casting Redford probably more than he should have. Then again, Pollack got him to hit notes no other filmmaker has since achieved: Jeremiah Johnson remains a fascinating 70s relic; and Three Days of the Condor seems to both encapsulate 70s paranoia and foreshadow our own. (Pollack's taste in jazz scores had a way of seeming out of place, though the bouncy one over Condor's opening credits lulls you into the bloody ambush that kick-starts the film.)

But for me, Sydney Pollack's greatest accomplishment was Tootsie. One of the best comedies of the last 40 years, the movie was put together by a slapdash of disparate scripts and Pollack's clashes with Dustin Hoffman nearly pulled the whole thing apart. (Larry Gelbart, one of the film's screenwriters, quipped, "Never work with an Oscar winner shorter than the statue.") Somehow, everything came together. Pollack directed and edited with crack precision and brought together a remarkable ensemble at the top of their game -- including himself, in a hilarious supporting role as Hoffman's agent. ("You were a tomato!" he bellowed famously. "A tomato doesn't have logic! A tomato can't move!") Given Pollack's obvious flair for comedy, it's surprising and disappointing that he never directed another one. Yet as he began appearing as an actor in more and more films, I always grinned upon seeing him. He had that great voice, and even as he aged he practically hummed with energy. I was going to call him a life-force before Wolcott beat me to it, but what the hell: it's worth repeating. So are the best of his films.

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