Monday, May 26, 2008

You Were a Tomato!!!

That's the line that popped into my head when I heard about the death of Sydney Pollack. He was primarily a director, but few successful directors have had such a distinctive acting presence. I think his acting work, though more something he did on the side for fun (he was reluctant to act in his own movie and took the part in Tootsie because Dustin Hoffman asked him to), helped his reputation as a director, because we all could identify his style as an actor, and that helped give a sense of identity to a directorial career that might otherwise have seemed a bit anonymous.

Not that he was anonymous as a director, but he was something of a throwback to an older breed of Hollywood director, who didn't necessarily have an easily-identifiable style, but was valuable for his ability to get the best possible results from his material, and particularly from his actors. His filmography has its ups and downs, mostly depending on the quality of the material (he picked his material, an old-school director like Henry King or Michael Curtiz would have material handed to him, but their batting averages are nonetheless similar), but what the good ones, like They Shoot Horses, Don't They? and Three Days of the Condor and Tootsie, have in common is that the actors are, top to bottom, at their best, even the actors who couldn't automatically be expected to be at their best. Bill Murray didn't just steal Tootsie because he's Bill Murray; he's great in the movie because Pollack knew how to use him to the fullest without throwing the movie out of balance. By the way, Pollack did a very interesting commentary for the old Criterion laserdisc of Tootsie, where among other things he criticizes Murray's famous "You slut" line as being one of the few lines in the movie that doesn't work for him. Unfortunately the commentary wasn't carried over to the Sony DVD.

One digression about Pollack's filmography, if you look at the "technical specs" section on the Imdb listing for his films: he's a filmmaker who did his best work when he worked in the widescreen format. Nearly his movies from They Shoot Horses through Tootsie are in Panavision, 2.35:1. Nearly all his movies starting with Out of Africa are in the narrower 1.85:1 format, and that's when his movies became less consistently entertaining. I doubt this is of any actual significance, but I wanted to bring it up because the old-school directors he resembles, like Curtiz, King and Jean Negulesco, all declined when they started filming in 'Scope.

He was a real Hollywood professional, and a good one.


Anonymous said...

I admired some of Pollack's films (particularly TOOTSIE), and you're right, he did have something of a gift for using the wide screen. Half-jokingly, Pollack told FILM COMMENT in the mid-'70s that he thought all movies should be in Panavision.

But I had great fondness for Pollack's latter-day work as a film and television actor. [His early film performances aren't much to write home about, though it's nice to see him opposite Brian Aherne in the TWILIGHT ZONE episode, "Trouble with Templeton."] He was funny, relaxed and natural as a performer, and was sometimes more than that: his performance in HUSBANDS & WIVES is startlingly vivid, and matches the great Judy Davis note by note. His hilarious self-portrayal in the "A&E Biography: Nina Van Horn" episode of JUST SHOOT ME was wonderful.

Jenny Lerew said...

Yes, he was--and a very nice rumination from you here on him and his work.
I think "Out Of Africa" is a superb example of filmmaking-a standout especially for the time it was made, when so few "period" films had that kind of sheen and overall emotional impact. Of course he made a lot of other great ones as well. Heck, I saw Jeremiah Johnson"" as a kid in the theater and it made quite an impact though few remember it today.