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James J  Cremin Written by James J Cremin
May. 31, 2008 | 8:11 AM

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Sydney Pollack - A personal remembrance

I’ve seen Pollack speak twice.  The first was when he spoke at the American Cinematheque’s Tribute to Nicole Kidman.  The second was when he was interviewed by Elvis Mitchell for THE TREATMENT, where Sydney spoke about early influences and the beginning of his career.  THE INTERPRETER would actually be his last narrative.  SKETCHES OF FRANK GEHRY would be his first documentary that he literally co-starred in and would be the last movie with the film credit “Directed by Sydney Pollack.”

Coming of age in the fifties, he shared with Elvis that he admired the stars back then, such as Marlon Brando and Paul Newman, the latter he never dreamed he’d be working with.  He loved Natalie Wood and while THIS PROPERTY IS CONDEMNED is not his first directorial feature, it was, according to him, the first really important work he did.  It also co-starred Robert Redford, who was already friends with from the first movie both were in, WAR HUNT.
He remembered blushing like a little boy when he met with Natalie and he credits her for launching his career.

This first movie I remember having a major impact for me by him was THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY.  Made in the late sixties and set in the thirties, this is one of Jane Fonda’s best roles as a dancing marathoner.  The expression Yowsa, yowsa, yowas, was given a way different meeting than Gomer Pyle (tv star Jim Nabors) ever gave it when shouted by Gig Young who played the troubled taskmaster which earned him an Academy award.

JEREMIAH JOHNSON is a rare Pollack Western, also unusual has it has Robert Redford fighting Indians for just about the only time in his career.  Their next film would also be one of their most famous.  It’s also one of the most popular films ever to have starred Barbara Streisand and that film is THE WAY WE WERE.  Woman have shared with me that they wept when Barbara touches Robert’s hair at the end of movie with the music of theme song playing in the background.

The next film that I confess only seen part of is THE YAKUZA which starred Robert Mitchum with much of the movie in Japanese.  What I have seen looks very good.  I have seen and must say my favorite Pollack-Redford movie is THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR.  This taught political thriller has Reford kidnapping Faye Dunaway to escape master hit man Max Van Syndow.  Their next movie that also starred Jane Fonda is actually a non-political comedy.  THE ELECTRIC HORSEMAN also gives the screen debut of another famous leftie, Willie Nelson.

But Pollack’s biggest comedic hit was TOOTSIE.  This also gives Sydney’s best performance on camera as Hoffman’s agent who can’t give him a job as a man.  I remember the audience laughing hysterically to the restaurant scene where Sydney first meets Dustin dressed as a woman when this first came out.  Sydney was able to throw zingers as well as any straight man in the business.

OUT OF AFRICA matched THE COLOR PURPLE with eleven nominations at the 1985 Academy Awards.  The ending results were the first winning seven, the second winning zero.  Out of the seven, Pollack won two, Best Picture and Best Director but he would shake the not even nominated Speilberg’s hand on his to accept the Oscars.  That noted, I myself find OUT OF AFRICA to be an excellent picture.  In spite of billing, this is really Merryl Streep picture. She was nominated but did not win but that doesn’t change the fact she gave an outstanding performance ably supported by Robert Redford.  The WWI plane ride he gives her is a great cinematic moment.  It is obvious that Pollack put a lot of work on this and did deserve to win.

The last Pollack/Redford was a major bomb for both.  Though it has its fans, it’s a strange retelling of the Casablanca story set when Castro was taking over Cuba.  Both would more active as producers of others projects going forward.  Sydney would also appear as actor in other’s films or tv shows on an ongoing basis.

I do want to mention before TOOTSIE, Pollack directed Paul Newman and Sally Fields in ABSENCE OF MALICE, a very good suspense thriller with a nice twist.  He later directed Tom Cruise and Gene Hackman in the major hit THE FIRM.  On the minus side, he directed Harrison Ford in SABRINA, a poor remake of the Billy Wilder classic. 

Sydney served as executive producer on Anthony Mingella’s THE TALENTED MR RIPLEY.  He and Mingella became business partners for Mirage Pictures.  Mingella who pre deceased Pollack by a couple of mouths, who was also a multiple Oscar winner for THE ENGLISH PATIENT and generally had a more cerebral style than Pollack’s.

Sydney co-starred with Kidman in Stanley Kubrick’s last, EYES WIDE SHUT though his scenes were actually with super star Tom Cruise.  In it, he played a troubled film maker whose prostitute dies on him.  THE INTERPRETER, though not a big hit, was an interesting thriller that starred Kidman and Sean Penn.  I remember Sydney bragging that he did what Hitchcock was unable to do, film inside the U.N. building and have actual ambassadors served as his extras.

Sydney had a dry sense of humor and did note his passing on May 23 with sadness.  I believe he was one of the best ones of this generation and hope future generations will be inspired by his work.

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