Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Sidney Pollack: 1934 - 2008

Sidney Pollack, who lost his long battle with cancer yesterday at the age of 73, was often said to be a consummate actor's director. As a filmmaker, he had a patchy record, occasionally making movies that were too tasteful and refined for their own good; but a consistent factor among his films was the strong level of performance he drew from his cast. Perhaps this was because Pollack was an actor himself, appearing regularly on television from the late 1950's. Television was where he first stepped behind the camera too, directing episodes of
The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and The Fugitive among others, and he made his move into cinema in 1969, with the remarkable dance marathon movie They Shoot Horses, Don't They?

Two great collaborations with Robert Redford followed, a beautiful 1972 western called
Jeremiah Johnson, and the brilliantly paranoid thriller Three Days of the Condor in 1975, but as the years went by Pollack's work became more conventional, and when he worked with Redford again in 1985 he had settled on the ideal Oscar formula. Out of Africa is the worst kind of epic – bloated, self-regarding and tedious – and it predictably won plenty of Academy Awards, but perhaps this was just Pollack getting overdue recognition. Three years earlier he had directed Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie, one of the greatest of all American comedies, and he was unfortunate to be nominated in one of the decade's strongest years (the other Directors nominated were Richard Attenborough, Steven Spielberg, Wolfgang Peterson and Sidney Lumet). Over the next twenty years Pollack established himself as a reliable producer of solid middlebrow entertainment; moving between slick thrillers like The Firm and The Interpreter, and tepid dramas like Sabrina and Random Hearts. His affectionate 2005 documentary Sketches of Frank Gehry is a pleasing anomaly in his oeuvre, but arguably his most interesting work during this period came as an actor.

Pollack had often taken cameos in his own films – memorably, he was Dustin Hoffman's exasperated agent in
Tootsie – but in the 90's he began taking on strong roles for other directors; he was outstanding in Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives, and a compelling presence in Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut. He gradually became one of the most dependable character actors around, and I particularly cherished his cameo as the ailing Johnny Sack's hospital attendant in The Sopranos, while just last year Pollack was on fine form in Michael Clayton – a film that earned him a Best Picture nomination. Like his late friend and producing partner Anthony Minghella, Sidney Pollack was a man who did everything with a degree of class, warmth and dignity, and he will be missed, on both sides of the camera.