Sydney Pollack: an actor's director

The Baltimore Sun

Like the moviemakers of Hollywood's heyday, Sydney Pollack, who died Monday of cancer at age 73, never forgot that the glow of movies came from the stars in front of the camera. He had studied and taught acting and was a formidable actor himself, and when he mined the talents of performers as different as Jane Fonda, Robert Redford, Barbra Streisand and Dustin Hoffman, he struck rich silvery veins and sometimes gold.

Pollack movies, such as the tragicomic romance The Way We Were (1973) and the exhilarating show-biz comedy Tootsie (1982), shot into the realm of beloved classics usually reserved for Old Hollywood love stories such as 1939's Wuthering Heights (one of his own favorites) or romantic comedies such as 1940's The Philadelphia Story (another Pollack favorite).

Pollack's movies, like those movies, had grown-up humor and emotions, as well as engulfing stories; they had logic and moral scrupulousness, as well as first-rate craftsmanship. They were the work of a real mensch: a man of worth, warmth and honor.

But they derived most of all from a great actor's understanding that the arc of a character must be a compelling odyssey for both audiences and ensembles. Pollack knew the art of acting was about creating indelible men and women and juicy, pertinent narratives, not just making scenes.

Yesterday, Robert Towne, his next-door neighbor and co-writer on Pollack's smash John Grisham adaptation, The Firm (1993), remembered Pollack saying that his favorite story structure was "a b a" - a hero weathering turmoil in a way that permitted him to return to where he was at the start, this time with knowledge and self-knowledge.

That simple structure, which just about defines "odyssey," pertains not just to his version of The Firm, but also to The Way We Were and Tootsie. Pollack took his vision of acting and drama as exploration from his days as a student and instructor at Sanford Meisner's Neighborhood Playhouse in New York. Now it's part of Pollack's legacy, too.

John Frankenheimer gave Pollack his first break when he signed him as an acting coach for a TV production of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw and the socially conscious juvenile delinquent melodrama The Young Savages (1961).

But as Pollack told Fresh Air's Terry Gross, it was Burt Lancaster, the movie's star, who pushed him to be a director. Lancaster called Universal mogul Lew Wasserman and said, "Lew, I got a kid here, I don't know if he can direct, but he's talented. ... In any case, he can't be any worse than those bums you got workin' for you now."

He turned out a lot better. After directing television, he became a moviemaker with the modest suspense film The Slender Thread (1965), starring Sidney Poitier and Anne Bancroft. Having acted with Redford in War Hunt (1962), he established a star-director partnership with him that lasted for seven films, including the mountain-man picture Jeremiah Johnson (1972) and the popular CIA thriller Three Days of the Condor (1975).

Pollack earned widespread acclaim, and an Oscar nomination, for his existential Depression melodrama They Shoot Horses, Don't They (1969), featuring Fonda's searing performance as a self-immolating contestant in a dance marathon. He won producing and directing Oscars for his handsome, attenuated adaptation of Isak Dinesen's Out of Africa (1985).

But The Way We Were and Tootsie remain his hallmark films.

The Way We Were, a sprawling period piece that started in the Depression and ended in the Cold War, about the love between a Jewish political activist (Streisand) and a golden WASP writer (Redford), worked because of Pollack's skill with casting. "It was inspired," Towne said. "He had Redford playing the beautiful girl and Streisand playing the tough boy.

"He was able to see more clearly than anyone I ever worked with the logic of the characters and what the actors needed to bring that to life - to look from the actors' point of view and give them what they needed to make the characters work. He knew the seriousness and the humor of all those actors' questions we make fun of, like, 'What's my motivation?'"

So Pollack was the perfect director for Tootsie, the tale of an ultra-serious New York actor (Dustin Hoffman) who disguises himself as a woman to get a steady job on a soap opera. Pollack and Hoffman carried creative tension to legendary extremes on that production. Rarely have its fruits been so sublime.

Even with The Firm, Pollack committed himself to taking a trashy novel and creating a genre film he could be proud of. He and Towne and co-writer David Rayfiel changed the trajectory of Grisham's narrative so that the lawyer hero (Tom Cruise) escaped a corrupt, deadly practice without compromising his own ethical and legal values.

Although The Firm was Pollack's last big hit, he continued to rack up sizable accomplishments, such as getting a Bogart-like performance from Sean Penn in The Interpreter (2005). And he didn't stint in any commitment to movies he acted in or produced.

As Steve Kloves, the writer-director of The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989), wrote in an e-mail yesterday, "His opinion was more valuable than anyone's because it was so deeply considered. He would examine your work - if you were lucky enough to know him - as seriously as he examined his own - a rare act of generosity."

As a producer, Pollack deepened Kloves' understanding of his own script, even if the writer-director wound up changing just one line. "I can't remember what it was, but I do remember ... it was a great line. Sydney knew it was a great line, too, but he kept returning to it, to my mounting frustration. Finally he explained: 'It's terrific. It'll get a laugh. But why is the character saying it?' I couldn't answer. Sydney had seen, in this instance as in most others, straight through to the truth."

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