It’s not immediately clear quite where Sydney Pollack fits into the scheme of things. As one of the generation of film-makers who flourished in the Sixties and Seventies, there’s nothing on his CV as canonical as, say, Taxi Driver or The Godfather, no real sense of him breaking the same kind of ground as his peers. Even the Evening Standard’s film critic Derek Malcolm, interviewed this morning on Radio 4’s Today programme, admitted the movies which most people would associate with Pollack – Out Of Africa and Tootsie – were ultimately rather “bland”.
While you could certainly agree that …Africa and Tootsie were glossy, middlebrow movies, there are sparks in Pollack’s work, particularly Jeremiah Johnson (1972) and Three Days Of The Condor (1975). Both starred Robert Redford, who made seven films in total with Pollack, including Out Of Africa. I like Jeremiah Johnson because John Milius’ screenplay taps brilliantly into the myth of the old West, Redford’s disillusioned ex-soldier turning his back on society and setting himself up as a trapper in the desolate, snowy mountains of Utah. And I like …Condor because it’s one the best conspiracy movies released during the genre’s heyday in the mid-Seventies, Pollack getting all neo-Hitchcock as he explores the shadowy world of CIA black opps aided by a sharp screenplay from Lorenzo Semple Jr.
Outside Pollack’s prestige movies (The Way We Were, Tootsie, Out Of Africa), there’s an attempt to embark upon more engaging work, not all of which is successful. The Yakuza (1975) came from an ongoing obsession with Japanese culture by co-writers Paul and Leonard Schrader, and benefited from a towering performance from Robert Mitchum. 1977’s Bobby Deerfield, with Al Pacino as a race car driver, stalls rather than zooms, and although Oscar-nominated, 1981’s crime thriller Absence Of Malice is distinctly ho-hum.
It’s not clear entirely what Pollack wanted to achieve with these movies. You could perhaps sense he’s aspiring to the kind of journeyman status afforded to the likes of Howard Hawks or John Ford, comfortable dipping in and out of different genres. But Hawks, particularly, brought zing and wit to his forays into screwball comedy, westerns, thrillers or war movies; Pollack’s films, although often polished, could be conversely rather dull.
Pollack, though, became something of a role model for George Clooney. They shared a political outlook, and you suspect Clooney admired Pollack’s desire to mix big budget studio pictures with other work. Certainly, when I interviewed Clooney in late 2005, around the time of Good Night, And Good Luck and Syriana, he spoke at length about his love for Three Days Of The Condor in particular.
But I think I generally prefer Pollack as an actor or producer. On screen, he replaced Harvey Keitel in Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, and had a great cameo in The Sopranos, as an oncologist turned murderer. He was also superb opposite Clooney in Michael Clayton, playing the grizzled boss of the law firm that employs Clayton. He also worked for Woody Allen (Husbands And Wives, 1992) and Robert Altman (The Player, 1992). He was superb, though, as Tootsie’s agent, playing opposite Dustin Hoffman in his own movie.
As a producer, he was responsible for The Fabulous Baker Boys, The Talented Mr Ripley, Iris, The Quiet American and Cold Mountain, and he went into business with Anthony Minghella in 2000.
If Pollack is to be remembered best, then, it’s probably for the largesse he displayed when helping others, or as an extremely good actor, happy to take off his own director’s cap and bow to the creative vision of another film maker.