Sydney Pollack's alternative cinema for the old.

Previously published Slate articles made new.
May 27 2008 10:57 AM

The Grown-Up

Sydney Pollack's alternative cinema for the old.

Director and producer Sydney Pollack died Monday at his Los Angeles home at age 73. Pollack, who referred to himself as "Mr. Mainstream," is best remembered for the 1982 comedy Tootsie and the 1985 romance Out of Africa, for which he won an Oscar. In a 2005 "Middlebrow" column, Bryan Curtis dissected Pollack's ability to "take any scenario—from the ridiculous to the horrific, from Streep to strife—and mold it into benign mush." The article is reprinted below.

Why Sydney Pollack Keeps Making These Terrible Movies. Illustration by Charlie Powell. Click image to expand.

Sydney Pollack's The Interpreter begins in Africa about seven decades after the director last left us there, with Meryl Streep holding a bullwhip. That picture was called Out of Africa, and it also contained the unnerving sight of Robert Redford participating in a world war. In The Interpreter, Pollack lets the continent off easy: It's merely being ravaged by a genocidal lunatic. Whether this represents a leap forward in artistry is debatable, but it does point out Pollack's great talent. He can take any scenario—from the ridiculous to the horrific, from Streep to strife—and mold it into benign mush. This is the source of Pollack's enduring popularity and why some of us find his recent pictures so maddening.

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Pollack was born in Lafayette, Ind., in 1934—raised around a "suspiciousness of sophistication," he says, by a father who wanted him to become a dentist. He lit out for New York, where he fell in with Methodstudents at the Neighborhood Playhouse; then he studied at the knee of John Frankenheimer and began directing for TV. Before he was 35, Pollack had helmed episodes of Ben Casey, The Fugitive,and the Bob Hope Chrysler Theater (where he directed Claude Rains' final performance). He jumped ship for the movies in 1965, and a year later the journalist Peter Bart quoted Pollack deriding the "horizontal" storytelling favored by American directors and offering paeans to Fellini and Truffaut. But by then it was too late. Pollack's rough edges had been shorn off by television. He had become a dedicated middlebrow artist, suspicious of sophistication and concerned with nothing so much as being an entertainer.

Pollack's admirers often find themselves unable to describe the trajectory of his career. Like a TV journeyman, he slips from genre to genre, rarely leaving his fingerprints on any of them. "He can do a Western and he has," Cliff Robertson said, in the DVD series The Directors. "He can do an urban thing like Tootsie and he has. He can do a political thing or a business thing like The Firm or the cowboy thing, Electric Horseman, or the thing, Jeremiah Johnson. … He has what I call an 'omni' talent."

What moves Pollack? Well, for one, stars. Pollack's casts bulge with big-timers whose personalities often stand in for character and motivation. Witness his 1993 film The Firm, which accommodates Tom Cruise,Holly Hunter,Ed Harris,David Strathairn,Gary Busey, and Paul Sorvino by more or less asking them to play themselves. For the heavies, Pollack recruited Gene Hackman, Hal Holbrook,and Wilford Brimley—enough superannuated horsepower to shoot another Cocoon sequel. Pollack's title cards often sag so heavy with stars that the films themselves seem to melt away. All that remains of 1973's soapy The Way We Were is its marquee: "Redford and Streisand." The same goes for Out of Africa ("Redford and Streep") and The Electric Horseman ("Redford and Fonda"). One of the reasons Pollack's films feel so reassuring is that they pander to our basest moviegoing instinct: "Well, if it's a turkey, at least it's got…" That this is also the base instinct of studio executives explains a bit about why Pollack is a Hollywood treasure.

Another key to Pollack's genius is his leading men, who often take the form of Redford, Cruise, or Harrison Ford. The Pollack hero undergoes a ritualized breaking-in: He begins as a handsome loner, self-sufficient and set in his ways. Then he meets a she. She (Streep, Fonda, Streisand) is overly idealistic or else overly prim. He is smitten. He opens himself up. Together, he and she overcome a hostage crisis, evil lawyers, or African colonization. Two and a half hours later, he is a slightly better he. If you think I'm oversimplifying things, listen to Pollack: "It's usually the same guy in a different place," he told The Directors. "Sometimes he's in Africa, sometimes he's in the West. ... And often it's Redford."

It's often suggested that Pollack has an unrivaled knack for wringing great performances out of his actors. On the set of Tootsie, his best film, he butted heads with Dustin Hoffman, and the battles lent Hoffman's performance an electricity, a great unease. (And for once Pollack juggled the embarrassment of talent, with bit parts for Terri Garr, Bill Murray, Charles Durning, and Pollack himself.) Pollack's later work rarely betrays the notion that his leading men have been given any direction at all. How else to account for Redford's All-American gauziness in Out of Africa—he "looks as if he'd been blow-dried away," quipped Pauline Kael—or Ford's low-decibel mumbling in Sabrina? As Pollack has retreated as a director, he seems to bring out the very worst in Redford and Ford and Cruise. They revert to their virgin states: elusive, grinning blanks.

Hollywood has a word for people who join big stars with big literary properties and then leave the film to make itself—producers. Indeed, Pollack spends most of his time away from the camera these days; The Interpreter is his first directorial effort in six years. In his capacity as a frontman, Pollack has lent his name to some fine movies (The Talented Mr. Ripley)and acted in others (Husbands and Wives), but what does one make of Pollack's languid directorial efforts? I'm sorry to report that the real star of The Interpreter is not Nicole Kidman or Sean Penn but the United Nations building. Pollack's camera treats the General Assembly Hall with the same quiet reverence it used to lavish on Redford's sun-kissed cheeks. "There's music the U.N. makes just by being there," Pollack told Entertainment Weekly, adding, "I don't have to do much except photograph it properly so that it sings along with them."

Even committed multilateralists might find this a little tough to swallow, but I think I see what Pollack is up to. The high-end stars, the soupy thrillers, the multinational institutions—Pollack, who is about to turn 71, is creating an alternative cinema for the old. (A not-unreasonable strategy, given the demographics at the screening I attended for The Interpreter.) In that most major directors set out to honor their audiences' inner 13-year-olds, it may well be the most revolutionary thing Sydney Pollack has ever done.

Bryan Curtis is a staff writer for Grantland. Follow him on Twitter.

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