Oscar-winning filmmaker was meticulous with his craft
Sydney Pollack, the Academy Award-winning director of “Out of Africa” who achieved acclaim making popular, mainstream movies with A-list stars, including “The Way We Were” and “Tootsie,” died Monday. He was 73.
Pollack, who also was a producer and actor, died of cancer at his home in Pacific Palisades, according to Leslee Dart, his publicist and friend.
As a filmmaker, Pollack had a reputation for being a painstaking craftsman -- “relentless and meticulous,” screenwriter and friend Robert Towne once said.
“His films have a lyrical quality like great music, and the timing is impeccable,” cinematographer Owen Roizman, who shot five films directed by Pollack, including “Tootsie” and “Havana,” said when it was announced that Pollack would receive the 2006 American Society of Cinematographers Board of Governors Award for his contributions to filmmaking.
“He is never satisfied. . . . His passion is contagious. It inspires everyone around him to dig a little deeper,” Roizman said.
George Clooney, who starred with Pollack in “Michael Clayton,” said: “Sydney made the world a little better, movies a little better and even dinner a little better. A tip of the hat to a class act. He’ll be missed terribly.”
Beginning with “The Slender Thread,” a 1965 drama starring Sidney Poitier and Anne Bancroft, Pollack was credited with directing 20 films, including “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?,” a 1969 drama about Depression-era marathon dancers starring Jane Fonda that earned Pollack an Oscar nomination for best director.
Known for what New York Times film critic Janet Maslin once described as “his broadly commercial instincts and penchant for all-star casts,” Pollack directed seven movies starring Robert Redford, beginning with “This Property Is Condemned” (with Natalie Wood) in 1966.
The Pollack-Redford collaboration also produced “The Way We Were” (with Barbra Streisand), “Jeremiah Johnson,” “Three Days of the Condor” (with Faye Dunaway), “The Electric Horseman” (with Fonda), “Out of Africa” (with Meryl Streep) and “Havana” (with Lena Olin).
“Sydney Pollack has made some of the most influential and best-remembered films of the last three decades,” film scholar Jeanine Basinger told The Times.
In looking at Pollack’s films, she said that “what you see is how he kept in step with the times. He doesn’t get locked into one decade and left there. He had a very sharp political sensibility and a keen sense of what the issues of his world were, and he advanced and changed as the times advanced and changed.”
Film critic and historian Leonard Maltin said “the hallmark” of Pollack’s career “has been intelligence, both in his approach and his selection of subject matter.”
“Good, bad or in between, his films at the very least respected their audience,” Maltin told The Times. “And, of course, he worked with grade-A collaborators on both sides of the camera -- the best screenwriters, the best actors -- and it shows.”
“Out of Africa,” the 1985 drama based on Danish author Isak Dinesen’s experiences in Kenya during the early 20th century and her romance with English big-game hunter-adventurer Denys Finch Hatton, earned Pollack two Academy Awards: as director and as producer of the film, which won the best picture Oscar.
Pollack also received a best director Oscar nomination -- and a New York Film Critics Circle Award -- for “Tootsie.” In the 1982 comedy, Dustin Hoffman stars as Michael Dorsey, an unemployed New York actor who revives his career by transforming himself into a “woman” -- actress Dorothy Michaels -- who lands a role in a TV soap opera and then finds himself falling in love with an actress on the show, played by Jessica Lange. In the process of masquerading as a woman, Dorsey becomes a better man.
The making of the film was marked by creative tension between Pollack and Hoffman -- and unexpected difficulties.
“It’s like working with the mechanical shark in ‘Jaws,’ ” Pollack told the New York Times in 1982. “Dustin’s breasts fall down. The high heels hurt his feet. The makeup causes pimples, and the heat makes his beard show through after a couple of hours. It’s a 3 1/2 -hour makeup job, and then the makeup only has a life of four or five hours. We didn’t anticipate that.”
Pollack spoke of his preference for working with big stars in an interview with the New York Times in 1982.
“Stars are like thoroughbreds,” he said. “Yes, it’s a little more dangerous with them. They are more temperamental. You have to be careful because you can be thrown. But when they do what they do best -- whatever it is that’s made them a star -- it’s really exciting.”
Sometimes, he added, “if you have a career like mine, which is so identified with Hollywood, with big studios and stars, you wonder if maybe you shouldn’t go off and do what the world thinks of as more personal films with lesser-known people. But I think I’ve fooled everybody. I’ve made personal films all along. I just made them in another form.”
Pressed by Hoffman to play his actor-character’s exasperated agent in “Tootsie,” Pollack finally consented to his first big-screen acting role since the 1962 film “War Hunt,” during which he met Redford, who also was making his film debut.
“Dustin really kept after me to do the part,” Pollack told the New York Times in another interview in 1982. “At one point, he even sent me flowers and signed the note, ‘Love, Dorothy.’ The acting itself was fun. It would be a great vacation to act in a movie if I weren’t directing it. But to do it while you’re directing interferes with your concentration.”
Pollack later appeared in a number of films, including Woody Allen’s “Husbands and Wives,” Robert Altman’s “The Player,” Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut” and the recent Oscar-nominated Tony Gilroy film “Michael Clayton.” Pollack also turned up in guest roles on TV series such as “Frasier,” “Will & Grace” and “The Sopranos.”
“I don’t care much about acting,” he told the South Bend Tribune in 2002. “It’s more about watching other directors work.”
Basinger, head of the film studies department at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., and the author of numerous books on film, said Pollack “was a fabulous actor, and he understood actors and got the best out of them” as a director.
“Here’s a man who could have himself been a movie star of a certain type had he so chosen, because he really is that good an actor,” she said, adding that Pollack, who spoke to film students at Wesleyan several times, also “cared about education” and was a “natural-born teacher.”
Pollack’s experience as an actor and acting teacher helped earn him a reputation as an “actor’s director.”
“He talks in a language that actors can understand,” Ed Harris, who played an FBI agent in Pollack’s 1993 dramatic thriller “The Firm,” told USA Today at the time. “He won’t just say ‘speed up’ or ‘slow down’; he’ll talk to you about the situation.”
Fonda, who earned an Oscar nomination for her leading role in “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?,” has said the darkly dramatic film was “a turning point for me, both professionally and personally.”
With Pollack’s guidance, she said, “I probed deeper into the character and into myself than I had before, and I gained confidence as an actor,” she wrote in her autobiography, “My Life So Far.”
In a 1993 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Pollack said he liked to talk to his actors at length.
“When I start a scene, I say, ‘Let’s not make this a movie.’ It’s my way of wanting it first to be realistic. You’re not doing it to be observed. You’re doing it alone. I tell actors, ‘Watch “Candid Camera,” then flick the channel to something else, then turn back. You’ll see how phony the acting looks because real reaction so often means doing nothing.’ It’s always simple. The tendency with actors is to think that if you’re doing more, you’re doing more.”
The son of a pharmacist, Pollack was born July 1, 1934, in Lafayette, Ind., and moved with his family to South Bend.
“I think of it with great sadness,” he said of his experiences in South Bend in a 1993 interview with the New York Times. “It was a real cultural desert. There weren’t many Jews like us, and it was real anti-Semitic.”
His parents divorced while he was growing up, and his mother, who he said “had emotional problems and became an alcoholic,” died when Pollack was 16. Although his father envisioned him becoming a dentist, Pollack left home after graduating from high school and moved to New York to become an actor. After studying with Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre, Pollack became Meisner’s assistant.
Pollack, whose career was interrupted by Army service from 1957 to 1959, had a small role in the 1955 Broadway comedy “The Dark Is Light Enough” and later appeared on “Playhouse 90" and “The United States Steel Hour,” as well as series such as “The Twilight Zone” and “Have Gun Will Travel.”
As an actor, however, he viewed teaching as his meal ticket.
“I knew I wasn’t going to be any great shakes as an actor -- the way I looked I would play the soda jerk or the friend of a friend,” he told the New York Times in 1993. “I taught. That’s how I made my living.”
Pollack’s work as an actor on director John Frankenheimer’s two-part adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” on “Playhouse 90" led Frankenheimer to ask him to work as a dialogue coach for two children in his “Playhouse 90" production of “Turn of the Screw.”
That in turn led Pollack to do similar work in Hollywood on Frankenheimer’s 1961 film “The Young Savages,” starring Burt Lancaster.
“Lancaster told me to come to his office one day and said, ‘You should be a director,’ and I said that I didn’t know anything about directing, so he introduced me to Lew Wasserman,” then chairman of MCA, owner of Universal Pictures, Pollack told the New York Times.
Poitier told the Los Angeles Times on Monday night that working with Pollack on “The Slender Thread” from 1965 was “a great experience.” Pollack, Poitier said, “was young and gifted and enormously talented. He wound up leaving an amazing mark on the American film industry.”
Over the next several years, Pollack directed episodes of TV shows such as “The Fugitive,” “The Defenders,” “Kraft Suspense Theatre” and “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.”
In 1966, he won an Emmy for his direction of “The Game,” an episode of “Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre.” He also received Emmy nominations as the director of another segment of “Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre” and an episode of “Ben Casey.”
Pollack’s other films as a director are “The Scalphunters” (with Lancaster), “Castle Keep,” “The Yakuza,” “Bobby Deerfield,” “Absence of Malice,” “The Firm,” “Sabrina,” “Random Hearts” and “The Interpreter.”
His most recent film, released in the U.S. in 2006, was a departure: “Sketches of Frank Gehry,” a feature-length documentary about his friend, the renowned architect whose work includes the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, and Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.
Variety critic Todd McCarthy called Pollack’s portrait of the architectural giant, shot in part with Pollack’s own hand-held camera, “a rich tour of [Gehry’s] artistic world and the journey that brought him to where he is today.”
Pollack also had more than 40 credits as a producer or executive producer on films such as “Presumed Innocent,” “The Fabulous Baker Boys,” “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” “Cold Mountain” and “Michael Clayton.”
The HBO production “Recount,” which premiered Sunday, was executive-produced by Pollack and Jay Roach. He was originally scheduled to direct the project but pulled out in August for health reasons.
Pollack, who co-founded Mirage Productions in 1985, was a founding member of the Sundance Institute, chairman emeritus of the American Cinematheque, a founding member of the Film Foundation, and a member of the board of directors for the Motion Picture and Television Fund.
He met his wife, Claire, when he was teaching and she was studying at the Neighborhood Playhouse. They were married in 1958 and had three children, Rebecca, Rachel and Steven. Steven died in a plane crash in 1993.
He is also survived by six grandchildren and a brother, Bernie, a Hollywood costume designer.
Services will be private.