Hollywood is a less professional, less cordial, less literate place today: Sydney Pollack has left us at the age of seventy-three.
Pollack was the rarest of breeds in this town: an intellectual who thrived artistically during the Reagan Administration. Though he got a terrific head start the decade prior with the Robert Redford-starring trio of Jeremiah Johnson, The Way We Were (the thinking sap’s Love Story) and Three Days of the Condor, Pollack enjoyed his greatest successes, creatively and commercially, at a time when studios were preoccupied with special effects lightshows and slasher flicks. Beginning with Absence of Malice in 1981 (a major Hollywood production built around issues of slander and libel!), Pollack went on a torrid prestige run that, four years later, brought him the Best Picture and Director Oscars (for Out of Africa). In between those movies, he made his masterpiece, Tootsie, which grossed $177 million as a laugh-riddled tract for gender equality in the workplace (some have kvetched that it’s the chauvinist’s concession to the inevitable; I can’t possibly be that cynical).
Though Pollack began to struggle as a director with the unfocused Havana in 1990, he quickly became indispensable as a producer/advocate of challenging, commercially dicey dramas (e.g. Steve Zaillian’s Searching for Bobby Fischer and Steven Kloves’s Flesh and Bone). It was in this capacity that he hooked up with Anthony Minghella; through their Mirage Enterprises, they found financing and distribution for high-profile movies the studios would prefer to not bother with anymore. Movies like Phillip Noyce’s The Quiet American and Catch a Fire, Tom Tykwer’s Heaven (filmed from an unproduced screenplay by the late Krzysztof Kieslowski), Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton, Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret… these pictures don’t happen without its producers’ passion for smart, literate entertainment. They are very much in the tradition of Pollack at his best (what Dave Kehr termed a cinema of “rare and pleasing smoothness”).
And unless guys like George Clooney step up in his absence, their numbers will be fewer with each passing year. No studio will greenlight a Michael Clayton without tenacious lobbying from men of stature. Why spill red ink with a glum adaptation of some Graham Greene novel – “Loved him in Dances with Wolves!” – when you can generate profit with another superhero movie or a moron-pandering romantic comedy?
Pollack used to at least be one of several. Now that Altman, Pakula and Minghella (among too many others) are gone, quality will be even harder to come by.
And those brilliant character turns in Tootsie, Husbands and Wives (his finest moment in front of the camera), The Player, Eyes Wide Shut and The Sopranos? Savor them, and mourn that we didn’t get more.