Sydney Pollack, who died Monday of pancreatic cancer, was not an auteur director. He never left his personal stamp on a film. Some critics even said he didn’t have much of a visual style. But Pollack, 73, was a brilliant storyteller who was comfortable working in genres from dramas to comedies to political thrillers to westerns.
A former acting teacher -- Pollack married former pupil Claire Griswold in 1958 -- who returned to acting in his 1982 hit, “Tootsie,” Pollack’s major strength as a director was his extraordinary ability to work with actors to bring out perfectly nuanced performances. His collaboration with Robert Redford led to some of Pollack’s best films, including 1985’s “Out of Africa,” which won him the best director Oscar.
Pollack also had a strong track record as an executive producer and producer of such films as “Iris,” “The Quiet American,” “Cold Mountain” and “Michael Clayton,” for which he received a best picture Oscar nomination. Pollack also appeared in the film as Clayton’s high-powered boss.
Here’s a look back at Pollack’s work both behind and in front of the camera. (Stephen Shugerman / Getty Images)
Pollack taught acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York from 1954 to 1960 -- taking two years off to serve in the Army. He got his first taste of directing in 1959, when director John Frankenheimer hired him to coach the two young stars of a production of “The Turn of the Screw.” Two years later, Frankenheimer called on Pollack for the same services for the young actors in his 1961 film, “The Young Savages,” starring Burt Lancaster.
Then in 1962, Pollack made his film acting debut along with Redford in this low-budget Korean War thriller. But he wouldn’t pursue acting, putting that aspect of his career on the back burner to direct. (David James / Columbia Pictures)
“The Slender Thread”
Lancaster was so impressed with Pollack’s work on “The Young Savages” that he called his friend Universal Studios kingpin Lew Wasserman to see if he could give the young man some directing work. He did. For six months, Pollack earned $75 a week to watch and learn the craft on the sets of TV productions.
Finally, he was given his chance to direct an episode of “Shotgun Slade,” a syndicated Western that was about to fade into the sunset. And the TV work just flowed in. During a five-year period, he directed episodic TV series, earning three Emmy nominations and winning for an episode of “Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theater” in 1966.
Even before winning his Emmy, Pollack made his theatrical debut with this taut 1965 suspense drama starring Sidney Poitier as a student volunteer at a medical clinical who receives a call from a suicidal woman (Anne Bancroft) dying from an overdose of sleeping pills she took after her husband discovered that he is not the father of their son. (Jim Mendenhall / Los Angeles Times)
“This Property is Condemned”
Though reviews were mixed for Pollack’s second film as a director, this 1966 romantic melo-drama, “suggested” from an early Tennessee Williams one-act play, has a lot going for it. The film, set in the Depression-era South, is beautifully shot by the legendary James Wong Howe and features Natalie Wood in her Golden Globe-nominated performance as a young woman whose sleazy mother (Kate Reid) runs a boardinghouse for railroad workers. The movie also marks the first time Pollack directed his pal Redford in his role as a railroad efficiency expert who has arrived to fire most of the workers but finds himself fired up over Wood. (Tiziana Fabi AFP / Getty Images)
Pollack and Redford collaborated again for this sturdy 1972 western drama. Redford plays the title role to stoic perfection -- that of a man who decides to drop out of society to become a trapper in the Rocky Mountains. John Milius wrote the spare script with veteran Edward Anhalt. Will Geer also stars. (EPA)
“They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?”
Pollack received his first Oscar nomination for best director for his riveting work on this harrowing 1969 drama based on Horace McCoy’s story. Set during the Great Depression, the drama revolves around a group of disparate losers, drifters and unemployed people who sign up for a grueling dance marathon. “Horses” holds the record for the most Oscar nominations earned -- nine -- without receiving one for best picture. The performances are exceptional, with Jane Fonda receiving her first Oscar nomination for best actress as a lonely young woman at the end of her ropes; Oscar nominee Susannah York as a Jean-Harlow-esque failed starlet who descends into madness; Red Buttons as an elderly contestant; and Gig Young, in his Academy Award-winning turn as the dance hall’s Machiavellian manager and announcer. “Horses” is a hard watch, but well worth the journey. (ABC Pictures Corp.)
“The Way We Were”
The Pollack/Redford duo hit pay dirt the following year with this oh-so-romantic drama that spans three decades about the ill-fated love affair between a Jewish intellectual radical (Barbra Streisand) and the handsome, though shallow, WASP writer (Redford). Pollack elicits magical performances from the two stars; the chemistry between the two is indescribably special. The lush Marvin Hamlisch score and Streisand’s warbling of the title tune also added to the film’s universal appeal. The score and the song won the Oscar; Streisand received a best actress nomination and Redford won the hearts of many a woman. (Steve Shapiro)
“Three Days of the Condor”
Many great political thrillers emerged during the 1970s, including “The Parallax View,” “All the President’s Men” and this crackling 1975 entry from Pollack. Redford -- who else? -- plays a bespectacled reader for a CIA front who is forced to flee his office after all of his colleagues are mysteriously murdered when he was out to lunch. Faye Dunaway works well with Redford as a young woman he kidnaps in order to use her apartment as a hide-out. Of course, she ends up helping him and in between being pursued by the bad guys they manage a roll in the hay. Max Von Sydow, Cliff Robertson and John Houseman also star. ()
“Absence of Malice”
Paul Newman received an Oscar nomination for this compelling 1981 thriller that also stars Sally Field. Newman plays a businessman who is trying to clear his name. Field is an ambitious newspaper reporter. (Associated Press)
Pollack received his second best director Academy Award nomination for this delightful gender-bender comedy from 1982. Dustin Hoffman earned an Oscar nomination for his deft turn as a self-centered unemployed New York actor who decides to disguise himself as a woman in order to get a job on a daytime soap opera. Not only does he get the job, he becomes an overnight sensation. Jessica Lange earned a supporting actress Oscar as his co-star with whom he falls in love. But the entire supporting cast is first-rate, including Bill Murray, Teri Garr, Charles Durning and Dabney Coleman. Pollack would later say that Hoffman refused to continue working on the picture unless he played his agent, George Fields. Pollack refused. But when Hoffman’s agent at the time, Michael Ovitz, contacted Pollack about doing the part, he finally agreed. And their scenes reflected their off-screen relationship that was prone to argument and loud discussion.
(In 1992, Pollack began acting on screen in earnest in Woody Allen’s “Husbands and Wives.” Among his other notable turns was in Stanley Kubrick’s last film, “Eyes Wide Shut”; the drama “Changing Lanes,” as himself on “Entourage”; as Will’s father on “Will & Grace”; and most recently in “Michael Clayton.”) (Columbia Pictures)
“Out of Africa”
Though the Directors Guild of America award went to Steven Spielberg for “The Color Purple,” Pollack picked up his best director Oscar for this lush 1985 romantic drama based on the memoirs of Isak Dinesen, the nom de plume of Danish writer Karen Blixen.
Winner of seven Academy Awards, including best film, “Out of Africa” is a real treat for fans of the romantic epic genre . Meryl Streep gives another one of her accent-perfect performances as the Danish Blixen who operates a Kenyan coffee plantation. And Redford cuts a dashing figure as British hunter Denys Finch Hatton -- the scene in which he washes her hair by the river is to die for -- but for some strange reason Redford plays him with an American accent. (A Mirage Production)
After the disastrous 1990 romantic drama “Havana” -- his final collaboration with Redford -- Pollack returned to form in this solid 1993 legal thriller based on the John Grisham novel. Tom Cruise plays a young Harvard Law School graduate who joins a Memphis, Tenn., law firm after he is seduced by its wealth and perks. But unknown to him, the firm has strong ties with organized crime and the only way to leave is in a body bag. Gene Hackman, Hal Holbrook, Ed Harris and Holly Hunter in her flashy Oscar-nominated role as a secretary who witnesses a murder, also star. (EPA)
Pollack and Harrison Ford worked together twice -- but both times they produced an Edsel. This disappointing 1995 remake of the great 1954 Billy Wilder romantic comedy at least has some nice sets, beautiful costumes and a few good laughs but it never really comes together. Far worse is their 1999 collaboration, “Random Hearts,” (pictured) with Kristin Scott Thomas, which is just a snooze. (David James, xx)
Pollack returned to the political thriller genre in this 2005 production. But it wasn’t warmly received by critics or audiences. Nicole Kidman plays a U.N. interpreter for a small African country who overhears an assassination attempt. Sean Penn plays the federal agent who believes Kidman knows more than what she’s saying. (Phil Bray / Universal Studios)
Also released in 2005 was “Sketches of Frank Gehry,” Pollack’s first documentary on the famed Los Angeles-based architect. (Fernando Gomez / Sony Pictures Classics, xx)