Friday, May 30, 2008

Sydney Pollack, Movie Mensch 1934-2008

What is so shocking about the death of Sydney Irwin Pollack Monday (from cancer only diagnosed nine months ago) is that it seems you had just seen him alive, well and healthy in, say, "Michael Clayton" or "The Sopranos," or even that cell-phone ad shown in theaters where he passive-aggressively interrupts some poor schlub's phone-call because said schlub wouldn't give a hoot interrupting one of his movies by not turning off his cell-phone! The fact is, Pollack has done so much in the last few years and had so many fingers in so many project-pies that it'll be quite awhile after his death that the parade of new films he shepherded and appearances in others will run out.

His last film* was, officially, "The Interpreter"** with Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn, in which Pollack consciously composed his shots for a wide-screen after years of conceding to the debilitating effect television was having on his movies.*** Even "Out of Africa," a film crying out for wide vistas and for which he won his Directing Academy Award (it also won Best Picture of 1985), was composed so that it would rest comfortably on the image of a square televison screen. He made seven movies with his pal Robert Redford including two that "made" the man: "Jeremiah Johnson," and "The Way We Were" (with Barbra Streisand) He made two films with Jane Fonda that form book-ends to her "hot" period--"They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" and "The Electric Horseman." And he made "Tootsie," showing that not only could he handle a cast as wide-ranging as Dustin Hoffman, Bill Murray (uncredited), Jessica Lange, Terri Garr and Charles Durning, but also, very effectively, still act, as well--it was Hoffman's idea for Pollack to play his agent, and Pollack reluctantly agreed to get Hoffman off his back.

Pollack can be seen (as the pointing director above) in the original "Twilight Zone" episode "The Trouble with Templeton," and didn't act again until "Tootsie," but he was so effective in the role that it began a second career-phase as a thespian for such directors as Woody Allen ("Husbands and Wives"), Robert Altman ("The Player") and Stanley Kubrick ("Eyes Wide Shut," replacing a previously committed Harvey Keitel). He also worked behind the scenes using his studio clout to spear-head projects for other directors, including his Mirage Productions producing partner Anthony Minghella. His voice could be heard narrating biographies of Chaplin and PBS films about the relationship between John Ford and John Wayne, and his voice replaced Cliff Robertson's for TCM's updating of Richard Schickel's classic series "The Men Who Made the Movies." As with that previously-mentioned cell-phone ad shown in theaters, he became synonymous as a public spokesman for Hollywood and movie-making, in general.

I met him once, at an event, held at University where he gave a little talk and reflected on the time he was in Seattle making "The Slender Thread," with Sidney Poitier and Anne Bancroft, his memories of the city being generous ones, and he expressed wonderment at the way that the young Sydney Pollack directed it ("Look at all those zooms"). He was genuinely warm and self-effacing.
* Well, technically, his last film is the documentary "Sketches of Frank Gehry"
**His illness forced him to hand over the directing reains of HBO's "Recount" to Jay Roach, although he did produce it--it aired the night before his death.
*** He brought suit against a Danish network for their aggregious "pan-and-scan" work on his "Three Days of the Condor." He lost on a technicality.

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