A little while ago Canyon and I were discussing Sydney Pollack, and if I recall correctly I went on at length about a documentary I had seen broadcast on BBC2 (it might have been an installment of Naked Hollywood, though that doesn’t sound quite right). Sydney Pollack was interviewed about his directorial method, along with Joe Dante and John Sayles. I told Canyon about how I had come away from it with far more respect for Dante and Sayles, as the former was hilarious and unpretentious, and the latter was stoic even while seemingly exhausted by his attempts to create difficult and politically distinct movies outside a studio system that would never let his movies get released. They were inspiring, talking about low-budget filmmaking and how hard it was to get funding, but Pollack seemed to be a bad fit for that show, being part of the system that Dante and Sayles had railed against.
It was weird hearing the other two talk about their troubles while Pollack chatted amiably about how he had edited scenes in Havana, the boring, bloated, and pricey Robert Redford vehicle he had been working on at the time, seemingly taking for granted that he was in a position to make films that were expensive award-baiting prestige projects while other artists were struggling to get films made to the extent that Dante had to don scuba-diving gear for a shot in Piranha even though he had had no training with it. I came away thinking ill of Pollack.
It wasn’t really fair of me to do that, and I feel pretty crappy for not giving him the benefit of the doubt already, and even more so now that he has sadly passed away. I doubted him for not having the political commitment of John Sayles, but even if I never could understand why something as slick and empty as Havana needed to be made, this is the guy who directed Three Days of the Condor, one of my favourite thrillers, which has a paranoid plot that, when I rewatched it recently, amazed me with its accidental topicality (CIA ineptitude, oil wars, assassinations, etc.). He also directed Absence of Malice, a terrific drama about journalistic ethics. I could only have thought of him as being a glossy Hollywood director if I decided to ignore the more challenging films in his filmography, instead focusing on his bland dramas, like Random Hearts and Sabrina.
That said, as a director I sometimes found his choices perplexing. Why make Havana? Why remake Sabrina? Why bother adapting The Firm? I remember the film critic for The Mirror once referring to that movie as “Two hours of Tom Cruise running towards the camera while looking worried”, which sums it up perfectly. Also, why did he get Dave Grusin to do the soundtrack? It needed more than tinkly pianos to create tension in that most flaccid and uninvolving of legal dramas (I place the blame at John Grisham’s feet, not Pollack’s. He did his best with some dreadful material). It was all very peculiar.
Perhaps those movies are other reasons why I had my silly preconceptions, but I should have been more forgiving. While he was directing movies that seemed worlds away from his early, challenging work (e.g. Jeremiah Johnson, Castle Keep, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They), he was also one of Hollywood’s most interesting producers. Just this week HBO showed Recount, the dramatisation of the theft of an entire country (figuratively speaking) that he had produced. In recent years he had teamed up with Anthony Minghella to produce a series of interesting (or potentially interesting) films; Minghella’s own post-English Patient movies, Philip Noyce’s Catch A Fire and The Quiet American, Kenneth Lonergan’s forthcoming Margaret, and Tom Tykwer’s Heaven, not to mention his solo work on Ira Sachs’ Forty Shades of Blue and George Clooney’s Leatherheads. His support for outsider movies made within the studio system (or rather their “independent” production houses) was commendable. How many of these unorthodox projects would have been made without his clout behind them?
Even while being foolishly dismissive of his fascinating work as a producer, I still derived pleasure from his acting work, especially when playing seemingly approachable authority figures who have a sinister heart, as in Eyes Wide Shut, Changing Lanes, and Michael Clayton. As shown in those movies, his forte was the role of the pragmatic, seemingly down-to-earth managerial type who would eventually stab you in the front and then passionately explain why he was in no way responsible for your death, blaming it instead on your inability to understand the corporate line. That said, my favourite performance is from his most entertaining movie, Tootsie, which is one of those movies I would include on my “Perfect” list. Here is his funniest moment, tearing a strip off pre-drag Dustin Hoffman.
It’s a testament to his gift for comedy that he had several guest roles on sitcoms to his name. So what am I saying here? That I feel really really bad for not giving the guy the benefit of the doubt while he was alive. Good director with a fascinating filmography, terrific and likeable actor, defender of offbeat “independent” cinema. It’s a shame I’m only just realising that now. RIP, Sydney Pollack. You shall be missed.