Over the course of his prolific career, American filmmaker Sydney Pollack was involved in innumerable projects as a director, actor and even as a producer. The recipient of several prestigious accolades like the Academy Award for Best Director, Pollack is mostly remembered for classics like Tootsie and The Way We Were among many others. On the 87th anniversary of his birthday, we look back on Pollack’s illustrious career as a celebration of his contribution to the world of cinema.
Although Pollack was born in Lafayette, Indiana in 1934, his family moved to South Bend where he had a relatively tumultuous childhood. His father was a boxer/pharmacist who wanted his son to grow up and become a dentist. Pollack’s mother, tragically, succumbed to an early death at the age of 37 after struggling with mental health issues as well as alcoholism. After finishing high school, Pollack set out to change his life even though he was just 17 years old. Instead of signing up for college, young Pollack trained with the great American actor Sanford Meisner at the Neighbourhood Playhouse School of the Theatre while working as a lumberjack sporadically. Pollack later reflected: “What I was really doing without knowing it was learning a basis for directing.”
Pollack’s acting career started back in 1955 when he appeared in a Broadway production after which he regularly scored parts on television projects. After returning from military service, Pollack received an invitation from John Frankenheimer to come work for him as a dialogue coach in Los Angeles where he met Burt Lancaster who told him that he was wasting his time with acting and should pursue filmmaking. The aspiring artist started out by directing several television episodes in popular shows like The Alfred Hitchcock Hour before finally graduating to his debut feature in 1965 — The Slender Thread starring Anne Bancroft and Sidney Poitier which he later denounced as an amateurish work.
Despite following his first film with mediocre projects like This Property is Condemned, which was an adaptation of a Tennessee Williams play that was co-written by Francis Ford Coppola, and The Scalphunters, Pollack soon found success with the 1969 psychological drama They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? The film ended up becoming one of the highest-grossing productions of the year and earned nine Academy Award nominations including one for Best Director. It paved the way for Pollack’s future achievements, evident in his existential explorations in westerns like Jeremiah Johnson (1972) starring the iconic legend Robert Redford. However, the film that would become recognised as a truly great Sydney Pollack classic came the year after.
Listed by the American Film Institute as one of the best love stories in the history of American cinema, Pollack’s 1973 romantic drama The Way We Were became an indispensable part of the popular culture of that period. While many critics dismissed it as a reductive melodrama, Pollack’s ability to elicit intimate performances from the likes Barbara Streisand and Redford is definitely something to appreciate. “If I had to do a movie and there was no love story in it I would just be bored. I mean I would do it but it would be kind of boring,” Pollack later clarified. He went on to expand his range in the ’70s with political thrillers like Three Days of the Condor as well as neo-noir crime dramas like The Yakuza which changed the shape of his filmography.
The most successful run in Pollack’s career came in the ’80s when he made the famous cross-dressing comedy Tootsie with Dustin Hoffman in the starting role. After having constant arguments with Hoffman during a difficult production process, Pollack ended up taking the role of Michael’s agent which translated their real relationship dynamics to the big screen. Tootsie’s deconstruction of gender roles might seem dated now but Pollack’s undeniable talent ensured that the film earned ten Oscar bids including one in the coveted Best Picture category.
His most celebrated work would soon follow in 1985 when he decided to make a film adaptation of Karen Blixen’s seminal autobiography Out of Africa, starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. With Out of Africa, Pollack finally won the elusive Best Picture and Best Director prizes at the Academy Awards even though the film was criticised for its miscasting of Redford (since the character in the book was an English aristocrat) among other things. However, David Watkin’s gorgeous cinematography and the visually stunning rendition of Africa solidified Pollack’s status as one of the finest filmmakers around.
Until the very end of his directorial tenure, Pollack made romantic dramas like Sabrina and Random Hearts as well as the 2005 political thriller The Interpreter. His final project was a surprise deviation from his usual work because it was his debut documentary about the artistic vision of architect Frank Gehry. In the latter half of his career, Pollack also made acting appearances in many projects like Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives as well as a guest appearance on The Sopranos. He also produced more than 40 projects, including Searching for Bobby Fischer and The Talented Mr. Ripley. In 2008, Sydney Pollack passed away due to complications caused by cancer and his ashes were spread along the runway of a Los Angeles airport.
After all these years, Pollack’s legacy as a director of note is safely guarded by his old admirers as well as newer generations of audiences who continue to discover the magic of his work. When the filmmaker was asked about his contribution to the art form, he once said: “The thing that I brought in to the directing in the beginning, or the only thing I had when I started directing was whatever technique I had learned in a way of attacking a role. And that’s where the armature came from. I was always saying in the role, ‘what’s this scene about? What’s the play about? Who am I? What do I want? Why do I want it? What’s my specific relationship to the other actor?’ Whatever… those actor’s questions became the foundation of directing for me and in some way I direct everything like an actor.”