By: Dave Ciszewski
A little over a month ago, Hollywood lost one of its true talents in producer, director, and actor Sydney Pollack. It had been known around town that he was struggling with cancer and, sadly, after a nine-month fight, he lost that battle.
Most of his obituaries were focused on his directing career. Many opened with the line, “Academy Award-winning director of the film Out of Africa…” – certainly a worthy headline for such a distinguished career. Although I was a huge fan of his films (Three Days of the Condor being his best, in my humble opinion), what I feel was unfortunately overlooked was his work as an actor.
At age 17, Pollack moved from small town Indiana to the big city life of New York. He started studying acting with Stanford Meisner during the heyday of the “Method Acting” movement. After a few years of small plays and bit parts nestled between a tour of duty in the Army, Pollack got a call from his good friend John Frankenheimer asking if he could help him prep some child actors for a movie he was shooting. Pollack soon received a reputation as a person who could work well with actors; in show business, they call that a director.
For the most part, over the next 20 years, Sydney focused on directing, making a catalog of brilliantly bold films. But, as rumor has it, while prepping and rehearsing for his 14th feature film, Tootsie (1982), the film’s star, Dustin Hoffman, pushed Pollack to play the role of George Fields, the lead character’s frustrated agent. In the movie’s best scene, Michael (Hoffman), a struggling actor, nearly gives George (Pollack) a heart attack by outing himself as a cross-dressing soap star during lunch at a fancy restaurant. Pollack delivers the line of the film when he says, “Michael, I begged you to get some therapy.” However, the George Fields’s role was rarity for Pollack during that time period. He wouldn’t have another until ten years later. Ironically, after studying as an actor and struggling as one through most of his 20s, it wasn’t until his mid-50s that Pollack started to take on tangible roles.
It was actually curiosity about his fellow auteur that landed Pollack some of his juicier parts. He once said in an interview with Charlie Rose, “I love acting for other directors because it’s a way of spying on other directors; it’s a way for me to see how all those directors work.” He spied on some of the best, and it’s in some of those performances where you really see Pollack’s acting talent shine.
As previously mentioned, Pollack was raised in the Meisner school, and far be it for me to explain the philosophies of the technique. But in a very crude definition, it deals heavily with improvisation and the realities that come from genuine reaction. Pollack’s great handle on improvisation is on full display in Robert Altman’s 1992 film, The Player. In this film, Sydney is Dick Mellon, a Hollywood agent throwing a Hollywood party. In true Altman style, there are long takes with long lenses and lots of wireless lavalieres. Jack Lemmon, Harry Belafonte, Jeff Goldblum, Marlee Matlin, and Steve Allen all make cameos as party guests, but it is Pollack who actually has to play a role. Certainly Pollack was famous enough, and most definitely part of the Hollywood scene enough to play himself, but Altman thought it best to utilize himself in a real part. This shows the type of respect Pollack garnered as a performer among his peers. Although his role in The Player is fun, it is his work with two other great directors that shows his depth.
Here is a good game to play with your film friends: Say the title, Eyes Wide Shut (1999) and try to guess if they liked the film by their facial contortions. In my experience, I see a lot more wrinkled brows and scowls then I do smiles and excitement. My personal opinion is that the film is a solid double-down-the-line by a great power hitter, not necessarily the home run we’ve all come to expect. But it’s certainly not worthy of the distraught over a strike-out. Whatever your feelings may be, there is no denying Pollack’s terrific contribution to the cast. He plays Victor Ziegler, the fulcrum for the ambiguous story. He is a sadist in both sexual politics and class distinction. And it is through him that we must judge the morality of the narrative; either we have witnessed a murderous cult of the ultra-powerful that will stop at nothing to protect its secrecy, or we have just seen an over-the-top pageant to satisfy the sexual whims of a few bored, rich people. This all plays out near the end, in a long drawn out scene in which Pollack goes toe to toe with one of the biggest stars in the world, Tom Cruise. It is difficult to know what to think of Ziegler; Pollack plays him with a definite sense of danger, but at the same time bumbling and obtuse. Much like the narrative, there is an ambiguity to Pollack’s role that adds richness to the film.
Arguably Pollack’s best role, certainly his biggest, came in Woody Allen’s 1992 film Husbands and Wives. He gives one of the more realistic and yet delightfully comical portrayals of a man going through mid-life crisis. In the beginning, Jack, played by Pollack, and Sally, his wife, played by Judy Davis, tell their best friends in a very clinical manner that they are breaking up. Three weeks later, middle-aged Jack moves in with a 20-something aerobics instructor, starts jogging, and eating health food. Woody Allen and Pollack have a wonderful back-and-forth in a grocery store, in which Jack gets defensive to his friend, declaring, “I’m really serious about this girl.” Of course, he realizes he is not serious about the girl and must run back to his wife. In a drunken stupor, with his new girlfriend waiting in the car, Jack bursts in the door of his old house and disturbs his wife and her new lover. Pollack is at his best in this scene, falling on the furniture and acting tough to his wife’s new man. He gives you a glimpse of a grown man completely clueless as to the decisions in his life. It is like walking regret for his current actions, his previous actions, and his actions yet to come. There is never a second in Husbands and Wives when you don’t believe Pollack is Jack; he embodies the character so well.
Sometimes Pollack, as producer of a movie, would take on roles because he needed an actor to play a character that was utilitarian to the script. He knew he could play it as well as anyone else, except he would do it free. This is the case in Michael Clayton (2007), as Pollack played Marty Bach, the lead partner in the lead character’s law firm. I remember when I saw the film, I wanted Pollack’s role to be bigger, or at least deeper. But for the most part, it was just a needed realistic portrayal of George Clooney’s boss. This was similar to his role as Jay Pettigrew in the last feature film he directed, The Interpreter (2005), a character that pushes the plot forward but not much more. It was always fun to see Pollack onscreen, like seeing an old friend, being able to nudge my girlfriend to say, “That’s Sydney Pollack.” But these roles were more practical than artistic. Nevertheless, he pulled them off with professionalism and excellence.
Most recently, Pollack excelled in roles playing villainous people. In Changing Lanes (2002), one of the more under-rated films made in the last few years, Pollack played Stephen Delano, Gavin Banek’s (the lead character played by Ben Affleck) boss, mentor, and father in-law. I truly felt the Academy missed the boat when they failed to at least honor Pollack with a nomination for Best Supporting Actor in his portrayal of the ethically warped lawyer. It was one of the best performances I had seen that year. The signature moment in the film, and for the role, comes when Delano explains his twisted philosophy of navigating in a morally ambiguous world. Pollack effortlessly blasts through Chap Taylor and Michael Tolkin’s brilliant dialog, illuminating a very difficult reality: decisions of right and wrong are not always crystal clear, and those who excel take care of themselves first and worry about ethics later. Pollack is so seething as the villain and yet completely understandable. You want Stephen Delano to fail in the film, but there is also a certain respect for him in his realistic, sadly empowered view of the world.
Sydney Pollack’s farewell role was in an episode of The Sopranos called “Stage 5.” The irony of his performance goes without saying; he plays a pseudo-caregiver to a mobster who is dying of cancer. I do not know whether or not Pollack had been diagnosed himself at that point. Accounts of his illness just say that he battled the disease for awhile before succumbing to it. If he had been diagnosed, then I say wow – what courage to face that situation even in pretend. If he hadn’t, then it is a cruel coincidence that it would be Pollack’s last memorable role. Again, this is a villainous character played with such humanity. He innocently, and without remorse, explains to Johnny Sac, played by Vincent Curatola, how he killed his wife, her aunt, and the mailman. The role of Warren Feldman is that of a monster, but with Pollack at the helm, he is not evil – just a person who made ugly, awful decisions. The scene in question is a great blend of writing and directing (The Sopranos had a tendency for that). If you get a chance to see the episode, notice the way Pollack uses his props and set; all perfectly natural, all while staying within the dialog. It is completely and totally authentic, and that, to me, is what this whole movie/TV thing is about.
Sydney Pollack was a director who saw things through the actor’s perspective and, as an actor, he was underappreciated. His roles weren’t huge – never a lead – but he was one of those people who made movies better by being in them. I will miss his work, whether it would be behind the camera or in front of it.