“I guess all my films are about resolving conflicts – and they’re all love stories. If they weren’t, I couldn’t make them.” – Sydney Pollack
Oscar-winner and all-around Hollywood journeyman, Sydney Pollack’s diverse career is marked with success both critical and commercial. For over 40 years Pollack worked across TV and film, both in front of the camera in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut and Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton, as well as behind the scenes helming multiple projects both large and independent.
It was in Pollack’s natural affability with his actors that made him such a revered name in the industry, attracting Robert Redford, Paul Newman, Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep to multiple projects throughout his career. As such he developed a deep admiration for cinema, often commenting on its power to synthesise every other type of art to embody the pinnacle of contemporary storytelling. This is punctuated by Pollack’s own words at the time, commenting: “I mean, certainly it’s the single biggest event, I think, in terms of popular entertainment, or art even, if you say that, of the 20th Century. It’s been film. It’s the 20th Century’s real art form.”
With 20 films spanning over his illustrious career, let’s take a look at his six most definitive releases.
Sydney Pollack’s six definitive films:
The Slender Thread (Sydney Pollack, 1965)
Following four years of back-to-back TV work from Shotgun Slade, to Ben Casey, Pollack made the transition to cinema with an expertly crafted debut feature starring Sidney Poitier in the lead role.
Despite a disappointing commercial turnout, Pollack turned some heads at the Academy Awards for his melodrama that follows a college volunteer (Poitier) who receives a telephone call from a suicidal woman (Anne Bancroft) whilst working alone at a crisis centre. Tightly wound and solidly put together, The Slender Thread would act as a blueprint for the director’s consistent quality and ability to drive considerable tension.
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (Sydney Pollack, 1969)
In a contemporary world, the idea of a ‘last person standing dance marathon’ seems totally bizarre and a little insane, but pre-war America was a different time entirely. This dated concept is explored in Pollack’s Oscar-nominated They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? released four years after his debut film.
Based on a novel of the same name written by Horace McCoy, a bouncer who worked at such dance events, the story follows the lives of several contestants as they each vie for success in the gruelling competition. With the facade of an entertaining event, this bleak allegorical film set in depression-era LA saw Jane Fonda lead the mighty ensemble cast to nine Oscar nominations, including Best Director and Best Actress. A provocative piece of cinema, this is perhaps Pollack’s most underrated film.
Jeremiah Johnson (Sydney Pollack, 1972)
In his second collaboration with the legendary Robert Redford, Pollack forayed into the Western genre following his success with They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, capturing the life of a mountain man in his adaptation of Vardis Fisher’s novel.
Redford plays the titular Jeremiah Johnson, a hermit who lives peacefully in the wilderness of the Colorado Rockies before becoming the unwilling object of a long vendetta by the ‘Crow Tribe’. It’s a slow, ponderous film shot in the breathtaking landscape of Utah, a location captured wondrously by cinematographer Duke Callaghan, giving a rich organic backdrop to Fisher’s breathtaking story.
Three Days of the Condor (Sydney Pollack, 1975)
Tapping into the national paranoia that festered throughout a post-watergate America, Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor deconstructs James Grady’s original novel Six Days of the Condor and creates a perfect two hours of tension.
After finding all his co-workers dead, the story follows a CIA researcher, Turner (Robert Redford), who attempts to track down those responsible, whilst avoiding those he cannot trust. Along with Faye Dunaway as the love interest, and Max von Sydow as the mysterious criminal, Robert Redford leads the line in an energetic lead role that keeps the tension tightly loaded until its surprising conclusion.
Tootsie (Sydney Pollack, 1982)
Pollack’s most acclaimed feature, as well as Dustin Hoffman’s most celebrated comedy role, Tootsie is a cross-dressing romantic comedy championed for its sharp, tight screenplay.
The film finds Dustin Hoffman in the leading role as Michael Dorsey, an unsuccessful actor who disguises himself as Dorothy Michaels, or ‘Tootsie’ for short, to vie for a role on a trashy soap drama. Perfectly synthesising comedy, romance and satire, Larry Gelbart and Murray Schisgal’s script allows Hoffman to easily flex his comedy muscles, receiving a nomination both for Original Screenplay and Best Actor at the Academy Awards for their efforts.
Out of Africa (Sydney Pollack, 1985)
After multiple Academy Award nods, Sydney Pollack finally hit the jackpot with his romantic epic Out of Africa, bringing together cinematic royalty from actors Meryl Streep and Robert Redford to composer John Barry.
Adapted from the autobiographical novel from Karen Blixen, the film follows a Danish plantation owner (Meryl Streep) in colonial Kenya whose life is thrown into disarray following a love affair with a big-game hunter (Robert Redford). This sprawling, near three-hour, epic love story would earn Pollack and the wider crew seven Academy Awards, largely thanks to Kurt Luedtke adapted screenplay and the vibrant chemistry of both Redford and Streep in the lead roles.
Though Pollack would go on to make many more films, including The Firm, starring Tom Cruise, nothing would ever come close again to the achievement of Out of Africa. It was to be his last great achievement.