Remembering Sydney Pollack
By Lisa Pease
May 27, 2008
Sydney Pollack has died of cancer at 73. If you don't know his name, you should, as he's responsible for some of the best films from the last 40 years.
Pollack was a film director par excellence, a name you could take to the bank. If he was involved, you knew the film would be compelling, and possibly an award winner.
His last credit was as an executive producer of HBO's recent film "Recount," a tight, compelling presentation of the key events in that awful 2000 debacle that passed for an election.
One of the first films of his that I saw left a lasting impression on me. "The Way We Were" was much more than a love story. It was my first introduction to the irrational anti-Communist hysteria that destroyed so many good people's lives in the 1950s.
Then came "Three Days of the Condor," the movie that first sparked my interest in the CIA. In retrospect, the movie was downright prescient:
Turner: Do we have plans to invade the Middle East?
Higgins: Are you crazy?
Turner: Am I?
Higgins: Look, Turner…
Turner: Do we have plans?
Higgins: No. Absolutely not. We have games. That's all. We play games. What if? How many men? What would it take? Is there a cheaper way to destabilize a regime? That's what we're paid to do.
Turner: So Atwood just took the games too seriously. He was really going to do it, wasn't he?
Higgins: A renegade operation. Atwood knew 54/12 would never authorize it, not with the heat on the Company.
Turner: What if there hadn't been any heat? Suppose I hadn't stumbled on their plan?
Higgins: Different ballgame. Fact is, there was nothing wrong with the plan. Oh, the plan was all right, the plan would've worked.
Turner: Boy, what is it with you people? You think not getting caught in a lie is the same thing as telling the truth?
Higgins: No. It's simple economics. Today it's oil, right? In 10 or 15 years, food. Plutonium. And maybe even sooner. Now, what do you think the people are gonna want us to do then?
Turner: Ask them.
Higgins: Not now — then! Ask 'em when they're running out. Ask 'em when there's no heat in their homes and they're cold. Ask 'em when their engines stop. Ask 'em when people who have never known hunger start going hungry. You wanna know something? They won't want us to ask 'em. They'll just want us to get it for 'em!
Pollack directed "The Electric Horseman," about a cowboy who resents being used by corporate America as a symbol of things he doesn't support.
So many of Pollack's movies burst with that theme - the guy who stands up to the world, against all odds. Pollack cared deeply about people, and how we treat each other as friends, as lovers, and as fellow denizens of our shared planet.
Given his sensibilities, it's no wonder he worked primarily with A-list talent. He did a number of films with Robert Redford. He explored journalistic ethics in the film "Absence of Malice" starring Paul Newman and Sally Field.
Pollack showed his versatility by directing one of the funniest comedies of all time. Aided by a brilliant script from Larry Gelbart and the comic genius of Dustin Hoffman, “Tootsie” explores the different treatment of women in men in the world and subjects a man to some of the same treatment.
Then there was the gorgeous "Out of Africa," a lyrical movie based on a memoir of the same name. The film dealt with one woman's fight to prosper on her farm in Africa in the waning days of European control of the continent.
Pollack’s trademark attention to detail showed in every frame, from small set details to soaring cinematography, from the haunting score to the overarching themes of colonization, racism and sexism.
His films were sometimes far better than box office numbers would suggest.
One of my personal favorites is "Havana," a powerful story of a last-chance gambler trying to hit the big time in Havana just before the revolution goes down.
Robert Redford falls for the wife of a Cuban rebel leader, and suffers the consequences of being pulled into a complicated plot. It's a modern day Casablanca against a backdrop of a piece of history about which I am forever curious.
The characters, like the story, are sharp and clear, right down to the restaurant reviewer who is really a CIA operative.
One of my favorite thrillers in recent years was "The Firm," yet another Pollack classic. I had read the John Grisham book, and was surprised that, for once, the film was better than the novel. The film has a much more satisfying ending.
“The Firm” dealt with the nexus of criminals and their lawyers, exploring, in the context of a compelling mystery, the moral issues involved.
Pollack was also an actor, playing small roles in many of the films he directed or produced. His portrayal of Hoffman's agent in Tootsie still makes me laugh, no matter how many times I've seen it.
I will miss him greatly. And while he brought a strong social consciousness to everything he touched, he never let the message overtake the entertainment. He made great films that mesmerized and moved and delighted.
You didn't realize until you were leaving the theater that you'd also gotten a little lesson in history or morality as well.
I hope future directors will find the heart and courage to follow in his exceedingly large footsteps. We lost a giant this week.
Lisa Pease is a historian who has studied the Kennedy assassinations and other enduring political mysteries.