Sydney Pollack made movies for grownups. He didn’t make movies about teenager-stalking slashers or CGI monsters or men in tights (well, except for Tootsie). The director, who died yesterday at 73, seems like the last of a breed, a filmmaker who specialized in old-fashioned, star-driven, sweeping romances and epics of the kind that used to win Oscars but that Hollywood has all but forgotten how to make. (About the only other director of recent years who still made such anachronistic spectacles was Pollack’s producing partner, Anthony Minghella, who died just two months ago.) It’s hard to imagine anyone trying nowadays to make a romance with the sprawl and scope of The Way We Were or Out of Africa, movies with artistic ambition, star-powered glamour, and faith that there are enough adult ticketbuyers to make them hits without pandering.
Pollack will be remembered mostly as a director of such glossy, Academy-approved fare (and for helping to make Robert Redford an enduring star by casting him in seven movies), but he dreaded directing, and I wonder if he wouldn’t rather have been remembered as a producer. After all, he directed only about 20 movies over his 43 years making features, but he produced more than twice as many, including such gems as The Fabulous Baker Boys, Sense and Sensibility, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and Iris.
The movies Pollack directed had a rare tendency to focus on ethics. They dealt with big moral and political issues, usually in a nuanced, mature fashion. (He was to have directed HBO’s election docudrama Recount last fall, but he was too ill, and he settled for a producing credit on the movie, which premiered on Sunday, just before he died.) Some of his best movies were political and legal thrillers — Three Days of the Condor, The Firm, The Interpreter — films that were wary of the malign influence of corporate and political power, movies of a kind that were common in the ’70s but have all but vanished today. Last year, he produced Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton, an homage to precisely those kind of ’70s movies, and Gilroy’s casting of him in a cameo played like a hat tip to a more idealistic era of filmmaking. It’s probably no coincidence that he was drawn to character roles (in other directors’ movies as well as his own) that were usually heavies: corporate lawyers, weaselly CEOs, and other fixers who would often cynically urge their clients and colleagues to do the expedient thing rather than the right thing.
Pollack’s ability to zero in on moral failings played out most shockingly in Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives, where he played a rationalizing philanderer who treated wife Judy Davis and mistress Lysette Anthony with equally explosive fury; he may well have been the best thing in the movie. But he could also be hilariously funny; recall his wry, brief turns in Entourage (as himself), Will & Grace (as Will’s dad), Death Becomes Her (as a flabbergasted doctor), and most memorably Tootsie, as Dustin Hoffman’s apoplectic agent. (Hoffman pleaded with Pollack to take the role in his own film, and the two squabbled throughout the production — lending Method authenticity to Pollack’s on-screen irritation — but you can’t argue with the results). Tootsie may be the best thing Pollack ever did, and it’s probably going to be the most durable film on his résumé. So I prefer to remember him, not as the dour moralist of Random Hearts or the soggy romanticist of Havana, but as the guy generous enough in spirit to make this film (and to give himself one of the least flattering roles in it). Watch and enjoy.