MM Remembers: Sydney Pollack (1934 – 2008)


This is my favorite Sydney Pollack memory: It’s December 1982 in New York, during a press junket for Tootsie. Pollack approaches the roundtable of critics and feature writers with a spring to his step and a grin on his face. He knows, based on what he’s been told about the audience reaction at last night’s press screening, that all the hard work during the troubled production was worth it, that he has a hit—a really, really big hit—on his hands.

But the smile fades from his face when one of his interviewers (no, not yours truly) casually refers to a minor glitch that occurred during the screening: For a good two or three minutes midway through the movie, the soundtrack was silenced, and the only voices that could be heard in the screening room were those of grumbling audience members. Pollack listens to an account of the technical mishap with silent but obvious displeasure. He politely excuses himself, walks to the door and motions for two or three studio reps to join him in the hallway outside. Back at the table, we can’t quite make out the precise words that are being screamed. But there’s no mistaking who is doing the screaming.

After what seems like an eternity, Pollack opens the door and returns to the table. He is smiling again, and the group interview resumes. He is unfailingly polite, engagingly amusing—and refreshingly candid about the difficulties he endured during the arduous Tootsie shoot. (Dustin Hoffman evidently was not the most pliable of collaborators.) But no one at the table makes the mistake of asking him, or telling him, anything else about last night’s screening.

And you know what? Even though I interviewed Pollack on several other occasions—over the phone and face to face, in small groups and one-and-one situations—and never found him to be anything but gracious and forthcoming, I never had the nerve to ask: “Hey, Sid, remember that time at the Tootsie junket when…?”

As a director, Pollack served his apprenticeship in 1960s TV (he earned an Emmy for a memorable episode of “Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre”) before graduating to feature films with The Slender Thread (1965). I first noticed him in 1969, the year I transitioned from high school senior to college freshman, when he directed two of my favorite movies from that period: The under-rated Castle Keep and the still-potent They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? He got terrific performances from ensemble casts in both films—Horses co-star Gig Young picked up an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor—and went on to make a number of exceptional films in an impressive variety of genres. I remain unreasonably enchanted by the romanticism of two Pollack films—Havana and Sabrina—that were roundly rejected by most of my critical brethren. On the other hand, I also appreciate the filmmaker’s more highly regarded Absence of Malice, Three Days of the Condor, The Way We Were, The Yakuza, The Electric Horseman, The Firm—and, of course, Tootsie.

Another Sydney Pollack memory: It’s March 1986, Oscar night in Los Angeles. Backstage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, several of my fellow ink-stained wretches are frankly rooting for John Huston to win a Best Director trophy for Prizzi’s Honor. When Barbra Streisand rips open the envelope and announces that Pollack (who had directed her a few years earlier in The Way We Were) is the winner for Out of Africa—which would later win the Best Picture award—some disappointed folks in the press room actually start booing. When Pollack appears backstage a few minutes later for a press conference, he displays remarkable poise and humility while fielding a few borderline-snarky questions. At one point, he bluntly remarks: “It was a strange night. I didn’t know what to expect. I thought Mr. Huston would get it.” He gets noticeably more applause when he leaves the press room than when he entered.

As for his work on the other side of the camera—well, I wish Pollack had received more props, and maybe an Oscar nomination or two, for his first-rate performances in Husbands and Wives, Eyes Wide Shut, Changing Lanes and Michael Clayton. I wish he’d had time to produce more excellent films like The Quiet American, Searching for Bobby Fischer, Flesh and Bone and Sense and Sensibility. Of course, I also wish he were still alive. He’ll be missed.

Courtesy of Joe Leydon’s Moving Picture Blog.

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