Sydney Pollack, R.I.P.

Sydney Pollack was such a vital presence on screen and off for so many years that his death Monday was a real shock — it was only a few weeks ago that I enjoyed the 73-year-old actor-director’s very funny performance as Patrick Dempsey’s father in “Made of Honor” and I also recently watched a hilarious interview Pollack gave for a Stanley Kubrick documentary about working on that filmmaker’s final movie, “Eyes Wide Shut.”
Like John Huston, Pollack was a terrific actor as well as a filmmaker, so he got closer to us than the average Hollywood director.
Pollack stole every scene he had with Dustin Hoffman in “Tootsie” (1982), in the relatively small role of a frustrated agent, and then gave a major performance in one of the leading roles in Woody Allen’s “Husbands and Wives” (1992).
Although he came of age as a film director in the turbulent 1960s and ’70s, Pollack stood apart from peers such as Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese because of his seeming lack of interest in “personal” moviemaking. He was a throwback to the classical Hollywood careers and styles of men like Fred Zinnemann and William Wyler who always put storytelling and acting ahead of the flashy “cinematic” style of directors like Alfred Hitchcock. You could always spot the Hitchcock technique in his movies — Wyler and Zinnemann preferred to find the right style for whatever material they were working on.
What was interesting about the movies Pollack made in the 1970s was the way they eschewed the camera and editing fashions of that era; for this reason, pictures like “The Way We Were” (1973), “Jeremiah Johnson” (1972) and “Three Days of the Condor” (1975) haven’t dated as much as some of the more highly regarded productions of that period.
Pollack held on to the notion of the importance of old-fashioned movie star charisma in a time when Altman and Scorsese looked for gritty realism in the ensembles they put together in the 1970s. Pollack would never have cast Shelley Duvall in a leading role in one of his movies
Romance was in short supply in movies during the 1970s, so mainstream audiences took “The Way We Were” to heart immediately, despite the fact that reviewers tended to write it off as a throwback to 1940s Hollywood kitsch. Pollack knew that if he guided Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford to their best possible work, the flaws in the plot and the messy historical detail wouldn’t matter, and he was proven right by the huge success of the film in 1973 and the fact that it is now a beloved classic.
Pollack could have spun variations on “The Way We Were” for the rest of his career, but he never showed much interest in repeating genres or trying to rekindle elements of earlier hits (with the one notable exception of working with his old New York friend Redford throughout his career).
My favorite Pollack movie, “Three Days of the Condor” (above), was a hit when it first came out and was warmly endorsed by most critics, but it was viewed as a strictly commercial enterprise and didn’t register with the movie awards groups at the end of 1975. That was the year of “Nashville” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
It is only with the passage of time that the espionage thriller’s sheer craftsmanship, entertainment value, and extraordinary acting have become so evident. A picture many of us took for granted 33 years ago as a smart and clever thriller seems to get better with each passing year.
Pollack grounded a fairly standard paranoid thriller plot — about a rogue element within the CIA — in the sort of beautifully crafted physical production and superb performances we rarely get in a mainstream Hollywood entertainment these days.
Redford as the threatened agent Joe Turner is a character we care about, not just an excuse for a lot of chases and killings. And the spy-on-the-run’s brief relationship with a slightly icy Brooklyn photographer (Faye Dunaway) is more memorable than the full-blown love affairs in movies that focus on romance.
Although the puzzle plot fits together quite neatly at the end, Pollack dared to have enigmatic elements in the story, such as the strangely sympathetic European hit man played by Max Von Sydow and a final scene that leaves room for doubt that Condor (Redford) will totally vanquish his enemies.
“Three Days of the Condor” would, no doubt, be tightened and streamlined if it was remade in 2008 and a contemporary star might bristle at the size and importance of the “supporting” roles in the production.
Pollack was that rare modern director who brought new themes and new styles of acting to the Golden Age Hollywood belief in the importance of a well-told story.