Of course I'm not the first person to point this out, but with most movies these days being either high-budget blockbusters or low-budget indies, films of mid-range budget have been squeezed out. These are films that, to their supporters, tackle serious issues, are well-crafted, and contain terrific acting, while to their detractors, fudge those very issues they bring up, use craft to cloud any real passion, and contain Oscar bait acting. Whatever your view, and there's merit from either point of view, there's no denying Sydney Pollack, who died yesterday at 73, was one of the directors most associated with so-called middlebrow films.
Born in Indiana, Pollack moved to New York in his teens. Like Sydney Lumet, another "middlebrow" filmmaker who started in television, Pollack originally started out as an actor, and even studied under famed Method teacher Sanford Meisner. Though he appeared on stage in such plays as "A Stone for Danny Fisher" (with Zero Mostel) and "The Dark is Light Enough" (with Katherine Cornell), and later also acted in TV on such shows as Alfred Hitchcock Presents, he later decided he'd rather teach acting than do it, and indeed taught at Meisner's workshop (he even married one of his former students, Claire Griswold, in 1958, and they remained married until his death). While in television, he became an assistant director for John Frankenheimer, and Frankenheimer hired him to be a dialogue coach for his film directing debut, The Young Savages. Burt Lancaster, the star of that film, suggested Pollack should direct (recommending him to agent Lew Wasserman), and after directing some TV, Pollack directed his first feature in 1965, called The Slender Thread. A film about a man (Sidney Poitier) trying to talk a woman (Ann Bancroft) out of committing suicide, it was poorly received, and Pollack later dismissed it, but it was the first time he teamed up with writer David Rayfiel (they had already worked together on television) in movies, and Rayfiel went on to be his go-to writer on 10 other movies. His other major professional relationship began in his following movie, This Property is Condemned, when he directed Robert Redford for the first time (Pollack had acted with him earlier in War Hunt). Together, Pollack and Redford went on to make six more movies together.
It wasn't until his fifth movie, They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, that Pollack finally broke through. Based on the acclaimed Depression-era novel by Horace McCoy, it tells the tale of several people who, to earn money, enter a marathon dance contest. Darker than Pollack's films were later known for, it was a claustrophobic experience (Pollack and writers James Poe and Robert E. Thompson changed the novel so that the contestants weren't allowed to leave the dance area except for breaks), and except for one role (lead Michael Sarazin was rather colorless), showed Pollack's greatest gift as director - his work with actors. Both Jane Fonda and Gig Young were known up to that point for fluffier fare, but each broke out of typecasting with this film. Fonda earned her first Oscar nomination, while Young won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.
Although Pollack worked as a mainstream filmmaker for the rest of his career, he couldn’t be pigeonholed that easily. He moved through thrillers (Three Days of the Condor, The Firm), literary dramas (Out of Africa), topical dramas (Absence of Malice), romantic dramas (The Way we Were), existential dramas (The Yakuza), Westerns (Jeremiah Johnson), war movies (Castle Keep), and comedies (Tootsie). Although he modestly claimed he wasn’t a visual stylist, most of his films were shot in widescreen, which he felt allowed him to tell the story better (ironically, the first of his films that wasn’t was the pictorial Out of Africa). And even his weakest films (everything after The Firm, except for his documentary Sketches of Frank Gehry) contained well-crafted moments (even the muddled The Interpreter had the tense sequence on the bus and Catherine Keener’s reaction to a bomb being planted on a ceiling; “Well, that’s just rude”), and acting moments that made you take notice. Gene Hackman, who gave one of his best performances ever in The Firm, credited Pollack for knowing not just how to talk to him, but how to leave him alone, and every film shows his care with other actors (unless I disliked the actor anyway, like Sally Field in Absence of Malice). I’m thinking particularly of Robert Redford listening to his own essay being read aloud in The Way we Were, or Paul Newman attacking Field when her article causes tragedy to happen in Malice, or Hackman telling Jeanne Tripplehorn “Whatever they do, they did to me a long time ago” in The Firm. His two best films, The Yakuza and Tootsie, of course, are full of such moments. The former seems an unlikely choice to be directing Paul Schrader’s study in masculinity (with help from his brother Leonard, and a rewrite by Robert Towne), but he keeps things on an even keel, and draws one of Robert Mitchum’s best performances. The latter remains one of the funniest movies ever made, and although Pollack and star Dustin Hoffman clashed repeatedly throughout filming (on, among other things, tone; Hoffman wanted it more comic, Pollack more dramatic), it doesn’t show. Hoffman’s revealing his true identity near the end remains one of the comic high points of the last 25 years.
Redford, Pollack’s frequent star, was often said as an actor to care too much about his image to stray from playing it safe. Pollack seemed to like making movies with stars too much to stray from playing it safe, and even after he won Best Picture and Directing Oscars for Out of Africa, he seemed more stuck then ever (except for The Firm, which I still find entertaining). He seemed to save his risk-taking for producing and acting. For the former, he may have produced mainstream films similar to his own, like Presumed Innocent, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and The Quiet American, but he also helped young filmmakers like Steven Kloves (Flesh and Bone), Tom Tykwer (Heaven), and Kenneth Lonergan (the upcoming Margaret) to make the type of chance-taking films he normally didn’t make. For the latter, he was cajoled into appearing in Tootsie as Hoffman’s agent, he mostly played “suits,” and claimed he took acting jobs mainly so he could watch other directors he admired, like Stanley Kubrick (Eyes Wide Shut), Woody Allen (Husbands and Wives) and Robert Altman (The Player) work. Still, he always seemed relaxed and confident, and was almost always compelling on screen, particularly in one of his last performances as the oily law firm head in Michael Clayton. He could also be funny, as he demonstrated in his turns on Will & Grace as Will’s father. Pollack lived a quiet life when not making movies, raising his children, and staying out of trouble (he rarely drank and hadn’t smoked in over two decades). But while he may have lost his passion along the way for trying to make movies (he was distressed not only by the reaction to his later, lesser films, but also the fights he had with studios in trying to make them), he never lost his love for movies themselves (in 2001, he hosted “The Essentials” on TCM, where he showcased what he though were the essential American movies). And while he may not have been an “auteur,” and may not have been as script-conscious as he was given credit for (based on a conversation they had about adapting one of his novels, William Goldman once categorized Pollack as a “writer killer”), he nevertheless did leave his own stamp on American movies. He will be missed.