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Sydney Pollack: One of Cinema’s Finest Actors

  • 5/27/08 at 7:10 PM

In Michael Clayton.Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

Sydney Pollack’s death at 73 has robbed our cinema of one of its finest … actors. Yes, of course, he directed some terrific movies — Tootsie above all, but also (in descending order) The Way We Were, Three Days of the Condor, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and Absence of Malice. But he had a weakness for prestige middlebrow beanbags like Out of Africa (which won him his cherished Oscar), along with A-list money pits like Havana and The Firm and The Interpreter (and The Electric Horseman, and Sabrina, and …) In later years, Pollack had more life in front of the camera than behind it.

He was a Jew who grew up in decidedly non-Jewish Indiana, which I think accounts for some of the tension (and lack of tension) in his artistic personality. He clearly didn’t want to make movies with a lot of ethnic pushiness; he preferred leading men like the Über-Wasp Robert Redford, whom he met in the early sixties and who’d go on to star in seven of his films. (After he stopped working with Redford, he made two films starring Harrison Ford.) Why was Redford so appealing to Pollack? He was a good actor who didn’t emote. One reason The Way We Were works better than Pollack’s other love stories is that Redford’s emotional caginess is central to the drama; the suspense is in how much Barbra Streisand’s frizzy-haired Jewish activist can push him to react.

Reacting, not acting, was the key to Pollack’s manifesto, as befit a student — and then full-time assistant — of acting teacher Sanford Meisner. Meisner was a Stanislavski (and Group Theater) disciple, but unlike Lee Strasberg he didn’t go in as much for emotional self-plumbing, for histrionics in a vacuum. His students had to (a) purge themselves of mannerisms and (b) learn to react to other actors in the moment. There’s a wonderful subtext to the scenes between Dustin Hoffman and Pollack (playing his agent) in Tootsie. Well, it’s a sub-subtext — the subtext is that Hoffman is really driving Pollack crazy. The sub-subtext is that Hoffman’s actor, Michael, is a Strasbergian Method guy whose quest for emotional truth can be self-indulgent and disruptive. The Meisner man can only look at his watch and exhale.

Of course, Hoffman’s and Pollack’s creative tension is one of the reasons that Tootsie is so flabbergastingly great: It was good for Hoffman to be reined in; it was good for Pollack to be shoved out of his comfort zone. After the supremely tasteful Out of Africa took home all those statuettes, no scene in a Pollack-directed film would have anything like the distinctive neurotic drive of Tootsie, of Streisand in The Way We Were, or of the great moment in Absence of Malice when Paul Newman gets in close to Sally Fields and hisses in her face. The canvases seemed larger than the emotions.

But if we lost Pollack the vital director, we gained an actor whose performances were lessons in the art of screen acting. It began with Tootsie, a role that Pollack stepped into reluctantly, and the reluctance is right there onscreen, in a good way: The agent, George, just wants to do his job, eat his lunch. (That’s his motivation.) It would be ten years before the next Pollack performances, in The Player, Death Becomes Her, and Husbands and Wives (all 1992), but they were worth the wait. In Death Becomes Her, he plays Meryl Streep’s doctor: The gimmick is she’s immortal and shows up at his office with lethal fractures. Pollack has the physician’s manner down cold — the easy curiosity, the practiced patter, it’s all routine until he gives her injuries a closer look and … “whoa!” The wince, the jump back, the building hysteria, the attempt to fathom what he’s seeing while vainly trying to keep his professional poise: The scene is a sick-comedy masterpiece.

In Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives, Pollack is even more brilliantly instinctive. It helps that the actor to whom he’s reacting is Judy Davis, whose motor would run too fast for almost any living creature, let alone Pollack’s Jack — one of those patented Pollack brisk executives with no time for a lot of neurotic nonsense. After Jack leaves his wife (Davis) and takes up with a young blonde (the marvelous Lysette Anthony — where is she?), Pollack hits a career peak. Watch the scary scene in which he chases Anthony out of a party: This is a man with a visceral horror of losing control who is losing control.

He didn’t lose it again like that onscreen, but few actors could make matter-of-factness so unnerving. His final scene in Eyes Wide Shut was criticized for going on and on even by people who liked the movie, but on its own terms the performance is perfect. Pollack is a rich guy in his rec room telling Tom Cruise’s naïve doctor to back off, and his pool playing is packed with portent — with purposeful indirection. His motivation is to put everything back in its rightful pocket.

Pollack gave similar performances in Changing Lanes and Michael Clayton as execs who know the job they’re doing “reeks” but who also know the system. The guy in Changing Lanes cares only about the bottom line; the guy in Michael Clayton has a conscience — but his disgust only goes so far. In both films, his character's job is to keep unruly emotional people from destroying the delicate balance that is central to his orderly existence.

Was there something of those characters in Pollack? He worked largely with stars, some of whom he compared to thoroughbreds that needed calming and stroking. He worked within the system — and, as a producer and executive producer, helped younger, more restless artists (among them Anthony Minghella) work within it, too. He didn’t make “personal” movies, but unlike the characters above, he never put his name on anything he didn’t believe in. Perhaps what gives his performances their integrity, their heart, their feeling, is that Pollack knew he was playing the kind of corporate men he might, by temperament, have become — but thanks to God, or, more likely, Meisner, he managed to transcend.

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