Everyone has a director whose work connects with them in a way they don’t completely understand. For me, that director is Sydney Pollack. An understated, actors’ director, Pollack succumbed to pancreatic cancer in 2008. In his later years, he focused more on producing than directing, but many of his films resonate with me in a way I can’t quite explain. Born in 1934 in Indiana, the South Bend native grew up looking forward to seeing movie stars on the big screen at his local movie house. That love of pop culture and celebrity drew him to directing and producing more commercial films, always casting big name stars when possible. Pollack had a knack for connecting the abstract with the commercial. His films were mainstream dramas, for the most part, but they also included a political bite and symbolic meaning on a deeper level.
Studying acting in New York as a young man, he knew the importance of performance in bringing a film to life. In 1960, he and Robert Redford met on the set of an independent black and white film called “War Hunt.” They discussed what they’d do to make it a better picture if only they were in charge. That lead to a lifelong friendship and a lengthy professional relationship. Pollack directed Redford in seven films.
Over the course of his career, Pollack directed more than 40 projects and was nominated for Best Director by the Academy three times, taking home the honor in 1985 for “Out of Africa.” Twelve actors under his direction were nominated for Academy Awards, which speaks to his knack for creating a collaborative and open working environment for his casts.
If you’re not familiar with the work of Sydney Pollack, here are the essentials to get you started:
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969)
This Oscar-nominated film is set in the Great Depression, an adaptation of the 1935 novel by Horace McCoy of the same name. McCoy’s book took a critical and bleak look at American life during the worst economic disaster in the country’s history. Pollack deftly updates the story for a 1969 audience, while still remaining true to the novel’s narrative. Couched in this surface-level story of a 1930s dance-marathon is a critique of the lives of young people during the counter-culture movement of the late 60s, and a symbolic questioning of what makes life is worth living. Jane Fonda stars as Gloria, and she recalls Sydney Pollack asking her for input on her character, the first time in her career she’d been asked to contribute to the creative direction of a film. The film was nominated for nine Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Score, Best Film Editing, and Best Costume Design. Gig Young won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his characterization of Rocky. Warning, this is not a “feel good” movie. That wasn’t Pollack’s style. But if you’re looking for an engrossing drama with a bit of an edge, be sure to check out this film.
The Way We Were (1973)
Yes, it’s a love story. Yes, Streisand and Redford are brilliant counter-points to one another as Katie and Hubbell. But what is truly intriguing about this drama is the depiction of political activism, the backlash against particular types of unpopular political speech, and just how quickly the pendulum can swing. The main characters’ turbulent love story parallels the tumultuous American political rhetoric across eras. Pollack captures the paranoia of the Cold War and its parallel threats to free speech, while also creating a believable romance between two vastly different characters (played by actors with very different acting styles).
Three Days of the Condor (1975)
This film is one of the best of the brilliant political thrillers of the early to mid-1970s, when a new generation of young filmgoers were questioning whether they could trust their own government to serve them. After the assassinations of Civil Rights icons, the counter culture revolution, a long, deadly war in Vietnam in which young people were dying at alarming rates, and with the Watergate scandal to top things off, American audiences didn’t want to see films with traditional authority figures as the hero. They were drawn to films that reflected their confusion and distrust of authority. With that change in the national zeitgeist came a flood of thrillers with “common man” protagonists who get caught up in a confusing web of political intrigue. Robert Redford plays his part to perfection. Pay special attention to the brilliant editing in an early, critical scene in the film in which Redford leaves his office to pick up a quick lunch. Faye Dunaway and Max von Sydow turn in strong supporting performances.
Despite a quarrelsome off-camera relationship with Dustin Hoffman, Pollack was able to create an incredibly funny and biting comedy that looks at gender stereotypes and institutional sexism with a cross-dressing male leading role. Tootsie is a classic film that should be required viewing. Charles Durning, Teri Garr, and Bill Murray are excellent in their respective roles. But, it was Jessica Lange who received the most attention for her role as Julie, a divorced mother and soap opera actress who finds a new sense of agency under the tutelage of Dorothy Michaels/Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman), for which she won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress (beating out co-star Teri Garr, who was also nominated). The film is a mix of physical slapstick comedy and touching, dramatic moments full of realistic emotional connection.
Those are my four picks for Sydney Pollack essentials, but you should also check out Pollack’s Oscar-winning Out of Africa (1985), another Redford-Pollack collaboration (with Jane Fonda as co-star) The Electric Horseman (1979), and Absence of Malice (1981), starring Paul Newman and Sally Field. Pollack’s final turn as director was 2005’s The Interpreter, starring Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn. It’s another worthy crime thriller, with some interesting cinematography.