May 27, 2008

Sydney Pollack RIP


Class acts aren't too common in current cinema-- and that's why it's all the more saddening to them pass on. Yesterday's death of producer-director-actor Sydney Pollack at the age of 73 wasn't a complete surprise, and rumours of his health had been circulating for several months (especially upon hearing that he had been replaced as director on a project), but nonetheless his passing is certainly a great loss. When for the last two decades, Hollywood had been pandering to twelve-year old boys, it was refreshing to see a man of Pollack's stature continue to make intelligent and -wait for it- adult entertainment.

As a director, he only yelled "Action" for 21 pictures in over 40 years-- yet so many of them were popular films, that it felt like he made many others. And as a producer, he helped such films as Kenneth Branagh's Dead Again and Steve Kloves' Flesh and Bone get made, further renewing our faith in seeing genuinely interesting films made for moviegoers who were past puberty. And if that weren't enough, he also was an excellent character actor in films such as Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives, and last year's hit Michael Clayton. Sydney Pollack had also acted earlier in his career, having made his debut in War Hunt, also the first film of Robert Redford, with whom Pollack would make many pictures: the enjoyably daft The Electric Horseman, Havana (the Bay-of-Pigs-era Casablanca), Jeremiah Johnson, and of course, Three Days of the Condor, which I believe to be his best film.

One wouldn't consider his work to be that of an "auteur", as his style wasn't completely distinguishable. And despite that he often told good stories, I think Pollack's greatest gift was in making beautifully understated, character-driven films, of which Condor is a fine example, to say nothing of Absence of Malice and They Shoot Horses Don't They. Even a box-office hit like Tootsie would be less the triumph it is without such fascinating people to advance the narrative. In fact, Michael Clayton, which he produced, was so gripping in its low-key narrative that it eerily resembled Pollack's finest directorial work.

His career began at the twilight of the studio system, and excelled in the Hollywood renaissance of the 70's, carrying both of the ideals of either decade well into the 80s and 90s as most of mainstream CGI-addled cinema lowered the bell curve to accommodate the most brain-free members of the crowd. This week I'll finally get around to watching my copy of The Scalphunters, an offbeat western he made early in his career. This unsung gem is however evocative of his later, more popular films: unique and intelligent, full of fascinating characters you'd really want to spend two hours with.

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