The Smartest Guy In The Room

“It is not impossible to make mainstream films which are really good. Costa-Gavras once said that accidents can happen.”
-Sydney Pollack

What I'll always remember about Sydney Pollack was how grown-up his work felt, as both a director and an actor. Watch him in his first scene in Michael Clayton, the quiet center amidst the chaos of a late-night boardroom session: we come across him in mid-conversation, and he's so focused that we long to know what was said before the camera reached him, what the rest of the conversation was. His minion tells him a reporter's on the phone; he looks at the minion with an annoyance he can't quite repress, sighs with his eyes and takes the phone. His conversation-- a telling-off of the reporter that in another actor's hands would be player for gotcha-style laughs or mustache-twisting villainy-- is delivered in matter-of-fact, banal tones.

That unobtrusive, highly professional and very smart style was a hallmark of Pollack's best work. Sydney Pollack died Monday at the age of 73, after a long battle with cancer. He started as an actor and an acting teacher, working as an assistant to Sanford Meisner at New York's Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theater. This training as both performer and educator would serve him well in his later career as a film director: actors trusted him implicitly (and he in turn would guide them to acclaimed, award-winning performances), and Pollack's most interesting movies function as explorations of different genres. In his lovely remembrance, Roger Ebert quotes one of Pollack's self-deprecating remarks: "I am not a visual innovator. I haven’t broken any new ground in the form of a film." That's true (although as Matt Zoller Seitz points out in this comments section, Pollack was an underrated formalist), but looking at Pollack's ouevre, one can see a keen eye exploring-- not deconstructing, but poking around with a curious and sympathetic eye--the possibilities of everything from comedy to conspiracy thriller to romantic melodrama. Films like Tootsie, Out of Africa, and 3 Days of the Condor are not only great movies, but almost perfect examples of each genre: Pollack's work then functions as a sort of cahiers du cinema for mainstream film.

Pollack's work is full of grace notes. Tootsie is full of moments of wonderfully broad comedy (all of Dorothy's scenes with Charles Durning, for instance) and romantic angst, but what I remember are the tinier moments that came, in part, out of Pollack's trust in his actors' improvisations: "I don't like when somebody comes up to me the next day and says, 'Hey, man, I saw your play. It touched me; I cried,'" Bill Murray's self-absorbed writer pontificates in the film's opening party scene. "I like it when a guy comes up to me a week later and says, 'Hey, man, I saw your play... what happened?'" In a single moment, Murray (and Pollack) has embodied, then punctured all of the pretensions about acting, theater and meaning that the film will go on to explore in more earnest fashion for two hours. Or think of how good Pollack was with small, everyday moments: for all the twists and turns of The Firm's labyrinthine plot, I am always more drawn to the movie's first hour, its shapshots of Memphis life and its delight in the tiny business of Ed Harris ordering sandwiches to go in a greasy, late-night diner. Dave Grusin's jazzy, New Orleans-inflected score is the key to Pollack's approach in that film: light, percussive, crafting sly grooves around the melody instead of getting caught up in its melodrama. Everyone benefits from Pollack's professionalism on that film, whose combination of sleek narrative unfolding and rich character detail make it the best of the Grisham adaptations. One of Pollack's last films, The Interpreter, showed that age and illness hadn't destroyed his skill with actors: it contains some of Sean Penn's most subtle recent work (he's quiet and controlled and very sad here-- much more affecting than in his overwrought Oscar turn in Mystic River).

Pollack's most famous long-term collaboration was with Robert Redford. I don't love all of the films they did together (I found Havana unwatchable, although I wonder if I shouldn't return to it), but The Way We Were, for all of its bizarre combinations of bathos and McCarthyism, is a touchstone for contemporary romance, and Pollack and Redford do a very good job of making Hubbell more sympathetic than he has any right to be (I find his conflicted politics and grace under pressure far more affecting than Katie's self-righteousness); The Electric Horseman would then take that pretty-boy image and turn it on its head, playing the melodrama for laughs while still allowing the relationship between Redford and Jane Fonda to be real and deeply affecting.

Their two best films together go a bit deeper. Out of Africa used Isak Dinesen's stories as the basis for a grand and deeply romantic historical drama. Some of the film's massive success no doubt came from timing-- the sense that "they just don't make them like that anymore" (consider that Out of Africa was released the same year as The Goonies). But it was also a testament to Pollack's skill, his ability to draw superb performances from Redford, Meryl Streep and Klaus Maria Brandauer, to expertly combine David Watkin's epic arial photography with John Barry's magisterial score, and to believe wholheartedly in the material. If there's a throughline to Pollack's work, it's its lack of snide refusal. There's irony, to be sure (you can't make Tootsie without a strong sense of irony), but it's not of the defensive sort; Pollack's love of actors and his teacher's curiosity meant he was always on the side of engagement, rather than distance, and Out of Africa threads its lush travelogues to a sad and searching tale of love lost, found and denied. It would be a huge influence on films like The English Patient, and indeed, Pollack and the late Anthony Mingella would enter a producing partnership in the 90s that bore fruit like Iris and the aforementioned Michael Clayton.

The best Pollack-Redford film-- and arguably the best movie Pollack ever made-- was 3 Days of the Condor. It's a movie that teaches us a lot, most of all: always be the one who goes out to pick up the sandwiches.

Released in 1975, just as Watergate made the conspiracy thriller a trendy genre, Condor is sometimes forgotten amidst Klute, The Parallax View, All The President's Men, and Executive Decision. But it's a smart, moving, and surprisingly complex film that holds its own against those honored masterpieces. Its opening sequence, in particular, benefits from Pollack's no-nonsense style: we watch as Redford bikes to his job as a CIA analyst; walks through the townhouse that hides their offices; says hello to the receptionist and fellow analysts; flips through the paperwork on his desk; ducks out to grab lunch before it rains. He rides a bike, wears a ratty ray tweed coat, has a geeky knowledge of weather patterns. It's all so banal, and that makes it all the more horrifying when the assassins show up, and all hell breaks loose. I don't have the DVD with me, but if I remember right, Pollack doesn't use any music here-- all we hear are the silencer-muffled sounds of the gunshots, and the bodies hitting the ground: the lack of melodramatic pull makes it so much creepier.

Redford comes back, finds the bodies, and goes on the run, as Pollack expertly maintains the suspense. But the trick of the film is what happens next: Redford abducts a random woman (Faye Dunaway) off the New York streets and convinces her to let him hide out in her tiny apartment. He can trust no one-- not even (perhaps, especially not) his CIA superiors--and doesn't know if he can trust her either, but a wary respect and affection develops between them, which eventually turns into a kind of attraction. It's all very strange-- romantic, ironic (that word again), and very unsettling if one ponders the context-- but no less affecting for that strangeness. What Pollack and his collaborators have somehow done is to slip a romantic melodrama into the middle of a conspiracy thriller, each acting as a commentary on the other. The two genres exist uneasily, but that's the point-- in a movie about how you can trust nothing, Pollack most unsettles his audience by twisting his narrative in this unexpected direction, then asking you to make sense of it all. It's a masterful tonal shift, and the best example of the kind of mainstream surprise Pollack notes in the epigraph above.

As an actor, Pollack was an even more valuable commodity. I love a lot of his films, but I treasure his performances in movies like Michael Clayton, Eyes Wide Shut, and Husbands and Wives. Brilliant in delineating men of power-- arrogant, stern or exhausted--Pollack would prove equally adept at comedy, making his exasperated agent in Tootsie one of the film's most sympathetic characters, and quietly raising everyone's game with his deadpan recurring role on Will & Grace. In interviews, Pollack claimed he never could've been a leading man, but these too-few turns suggest that he might have been one of his generation's leading character actors, had he pursued it full-time.

I rather pretentiously dropped a "cahiers du cinema" reference in earlier, because I really do think Pollack's work is (to use a loose translation of the term) a "workbook" of a certain kind of filmmaking. I'm even tempted to say that Pollack-- in his skill with actors, his no-nonsense visual style, his fluidity across genres, his preference for long-term collaborations with certain stars, his abiding optimism about the value of everyday work-- might be the Howard Hawks of the TV age. But Hawks was an auteur, to be sure, while Pollack is definitely what Truffaut might have called a metteur-en-scene: a skilled craftsman. It'd be hard to locate in Pollack themes or a "tension between the director and his material," those qualities that Andrew Sarris said defined an auteur. That said, Pollack's body of work suggests the pleasures that a such a metteur can provide, the advantages of being a curious craftsman. In an age of hipster positioning, it's easy to scoff at the values of "good mainstream movies"-- until you realize how rare they are, and what we lose when a talented adult like Pollack leaves us (indeed, I've gotten this far in my post, and still haven't even mentioned Absence of Malice or They Shoot Horses, Don't They?). His last film, Sketches of Frank Gehry, might have been his most unlikely: a documentary about the postmodern architect whose work feels so different than Pollack's own. And yet, there Pollack was, not only directing the project but appearing on camera as a good-natured questioner. The film works precisely because of the differences between the two men: Pollack comes, not as disciple or stern interrogator, but as what he always was: an inquisitive man eager to see how something worked, to see what might happen. And it was this combination of curiosity, skill, and humilty that always made Pollack the smartest guy in the room. R.I.P., Sydney Pollack.

For more remembrances (besides those linked above), see Larry's site, Forward to Yesterday, Glenn Kenny, Dave Kehr, Kim Morgan, and this photo/essay tribute from Entertainment Weekly.


Greg said…
I love Three Days of the Condor. It's among my favorites of the seventies thrillers.

Oh and apropros of nothing, today (May 28th) is Ian Fleming's 100th birthday. Yep, 100 today. Ian Fleming. Guy who created Bond. Just thought I'd mention it. No reason.
Brian Doan said…
You are very sub-tle, my friend. (: See the most recent post above...
Anonymous said…
I love Three Days as well--what a great post, Brian. I saw Pollack once on the streets of New York directing (The Interpreter). It wasn't a revelatory moment or anything--like most film sets, not much actually seemed to be happening. But it was cool to turn a corner and see a director I very much like engaged in conversation with, I believe, Nicole Kidman's stunt double.
Brian Doan said…
That's so cool you got to see him work! I think The Interpreter is underrated, too.

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