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Movie Critic Article: Sydney Pollack

Aches for Movies

"It is not impossible to make mainstream films which are really good. Costa-Gavras once said that accidents can happen." Sydney Pollack.
"Every single art form is involved in film, in a way. mean, certainly writing, painting, photography, dance, architecture, there is an aspect of almost every art form that is useful and that merges into film in some way." Sydney Pollack
"I am a traditionalist. I think that my films are conventional in form, but not necessarily in point of view." Sydney Pollack

Most people watch a movie because they like the star in it. Hence the glamour of stardom which surprisingly has become insufficient. Now stars are better off as celebs.
People sporting abstraction perceive a movie as either a cinematic retelling of a story or a 'work of art'. They associate the movie with its maker and therefore a distinct category of viewers is created that will ask you upfront: who made the movie? Who directed it? These questions ignore the fact that a movie is a collective effort!
Few people will be motivated by who wrote the screenplay or the musical score.
A weird, tiny category will look for who edited the movie.

The most expected conflict to arise from such categorization is that which could involve the actor and the director in regards to the way the movie was made. An example is the dispute between Dustin Hoffman and his director Sydney Pollack while they were making "Tootsie". Apparently Pollack's insistance that things go his way was key to the huge success of the movie which found its place among the best 100 American movies according to the American Film Institute.
Dustin hoffman
Fifty years ago or so, Goddard, Truffaut and other French filmmakers put forward the "Auteur Theory" which equates
the film director to the novel author. Thus the camera
corresponds to the pen and the director, accordingly, owns
the whole movie as his creation.
By this French theory Hitchcock, Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick along with some other American filmmakers were considered auteurs. But somehow this theory could be interpreted as to suggest a regular director versus the auteur one! A person who would make a movie without any artistic claims would, fairly enough, be called a regular director!
Sydney Pollack seemed not to favor this auteur thing although he had the qualities it took to be an auteur: stylic consistency, recurrent themes, motifs etc. All he wanted, he said, was to make a movie and not a 'film' or a 'work of art'! A movie like the ones he went to see on weekends when he was a kid. He reiterated that his goal was to entertain his viewers!
 Pollack was known to have heavy focus on discussing the project with his actors.
He himself was a good actor. He knew how to get from his actors whatever his movie needed. It was not a conincedence that he only worked with actors who were already
stars such as Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, Paul Newman, Meryl Streep, Faye
Dunaway, Tom Cruise etc.
Sydney Pollack went to New York after finishing high school. He attended a school that taught acting. He did not have a proper post-high school education like in a film or art school where people get training and learn the theories behind things. He then went for
two years in the army and returned to help teach acting in that same school. There is not
enough information about who influenced him or what affiliations he had during those
years apart from the role played by Burt Lancaster who recommended him to a producer
in Hollywood. A recommendation that put him in the path of glory!
Burt Lancaster
When you examine Pollack's  ways of tackling screenplays and learn that he had liberal views in politics you tend to disbelieve his allegation that he made movies just to entertain!
In fact even his movies of the romantic genre had a political flavor in them. He made movies that were outright attacks on US government agencies or policies. But the origins of his intellectual inclination are not readily available. At least to me, as a student of 'why creative people' create whatever they create. It was reported that Pollack was an excellent speaker and a public figure. So in a sense he seemed to have been a leftist intellectual which was apparently a kind of crime in the democratic American society at least in the sixties of last century!
Pollack's visionary mind enabled him to read into the future. In 1975 he made the movie "Three Days of the Condor" which criticized the CIA fabrications aimed at justifying US attacks on some Middle East countries. Mind you, this was twenty six years before September 11 and the invasion of Iraq!
He also made "Havana" in a setting just before Castro took over in Cuba. He, probably,
was planning a movie on the CIA coup that ousted the democratically elected Dr. Allende
in the Chile as suggested by one onterview with him!
Barbra Streisand effectively played the role of the university political activist in his love-story movie "The Way We Were" , a film that criticized those who sold their political views and were behind the famous Hollywood Blacklistings of the fifties and early sixties.
Barbara Streisand
Going back to his earlier 'works',"They Shoot Horses, don't they?"
was perhaps his first major success and a generator of huge public appeal in the US and worldwide. Again this was a political movie about people desperately trying to win a marathon in the dark era of economic depression of the thirties in the USA.
The films of Sydney Pollack were not just entertainment movies.
Jane Fonda
He had a political message to convey albeit under the guise of a realistic depiction of the human conditon.
Pollack had other qualities which qualified him as a man with a vision and a message. Meryl Streep described him as a knowledgeable man who worried a lot about his projects and therefore worked long hours to ward off his worries. She said he looked miserable when he had nothing to do! This explains his continuous engagement in projects. His futile trials to attain and maintain. A way of ventilationg his expressive power he called the 'ache'. He was noted by some critics as to summarize his projects in a sentence.
Keeping this 'search for an ache' pattern made his movies to have a circular nature as if
a bird had to take off when it just landed. He never sat idle. He either directed or produced a movie or had a part as an actor in one, like the part he played in Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut" (1999) or in Woody Allen’s "Husbands and Wives" (1993). His part as Dustin Hoffman's boss in "Tootsie" was one of his best.
Perhaps the way he handled the question of racism in the screenplay for "Out of Africa"
was one big moment that revealed his intellectual capability and broad mind.
Wrote Janet Maslin in the New York Times, Dec 15 1985 about the film "Out of Africa":
[The film is also full of background indications of how Africa is changing: more cars, more buildings, more Western clothes. And it is deliberately, if controversially, faithful to the racial attitudes of Karen Blixen and her friends, a decision Pollack arrived at with typical care.
"I think we walked through a mine field here,'' Pollack says. ''But if you look at it from today's standpoint and say, 'How can I present a picture in which the leading man and leading woman are essentially racist in one form or another?' you have two choices: You can either falsify the picture by intruding today's mentality into it, or you can find some way to tell the truth and still keep the dignity of the African characters. We chose to allow the African characters to defend themselves, through the way they behave and through the way she begins to sense that this land is theirs, not hers. I don't think anybody could see the film and see the three key African characters and think the film makers were anything but respectful of them."]
Redford and Pollack
Pollack had a very interesting working and personal relationship with Robert Redford who starred in seven of Pollack's movies. Let me qoute Mr. Redford on Pollack:
"he.. was taken with that part of the business and I think he wanted to be part of that business, but he was smart enough to know that he could sort of cover that with a more offbeat intellectual style, and I think that was his great gift — to cover what could have been just sort of crass commercial filmmaking with a whole artistic [approach] that was more abstracted and was more hip and was more offbeat. So I think Sydney's ability to connect the more commercial strain with the more abstract was a special gift."
At one point Redford stated: " we were against the corn. We were constantly trying to forge projects that were going to be hard to get the studios to go with and working against those odds. A lot of the appeal was it was great fun. Success I think kind of changed that."
Redford's words on Pollack were revealing although a bit convoluted. A secretive way of expressing things that takes eavsdropping into account.
Robert Redford is known as a liberal artist who favored independent cinema and helped found and develop the Sundance Film Festival which ranks within the top five of all world-renowned film festivals. In a recent interview he showed displeaure with the American film industry and announced the moving of his  festival to Europe.
Sydney Pollack died of cancer at age 73 in May 2008.
By French or other progressive cinematic measures Sydney Pollack was an auteur. 
Out of Obituaries

"Sydney Pollack, a Hollywood mainstay Hollywood honored Pollack in return. His movies received multiple Academy Award nominations, and as a director he won an Oscar for his work on the 1985 film "Out of Africa" "Oscar" well as nominations for directing "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" (1969) and "Tootsie" (1982)."
"Apart from the Gehry documentary, Pollack never directed a movie without stars. His first feature, "The Slender Thread," released by Paramount Pictures in 1965, starred Sidney Poitier and Anne Bancroft. In his next 19 films — every one a romance or drama but for the single comedy, "Tootsie" — Pollack worked with Burt Lancaster, Natalie Wood, Jane Fonda, Robert Mitchum, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Tom Cruise, Harrison Ford, Nicole Kidman, Streisand and others. A frequent collaborator was Robert Redford."



  1. "Sydney Pollack seemed not to favor this auteur thing although he had the qualities it took to be an auteur: stylic consistency, recurrent themes, motifs etc."

    Stylistic consistency? Recurrent themes? (YAKUZA, JEREMIAH JOHNSON, WAY WE WERE, TOOTSIE, OUT OF AFRICA, etc.) Hardly. Pollack was an intelligent and reasonably talented director. He made one genuine work of art: THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON'T THEY. He made some good ones, especially JEREMIAH JOHNSON and THREE DAYS OF CONDOR.
    But he lacked the personal vision thing of Kubrick. He lacked the personal passion of Scorsese. Or the sense of cinematic wonder that defined Spielberg.
    Pollack was a competent craftsman who could work in any genre, but his impersonal approach left his movies feeling cold. Even his art film, THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON'T THEY, was done with caution than passion.

    He was intelligent but no intellectual. Intellectuals think on their own. Ideologically, Pollack stuck to the typical liberal Jewish biases that defined much of Hollywood. Politically, he went along, spouting the same drivel that was heard a million times around liberal Jewish circles.

    He was a good filmmaker but not a natural one. He learned fast but didn't have the magic that defined natural-born filmmakers. He approached filmmaking as a craft than as a vision. So, the dreary OUT OF AFRICA has the look of a David Lean movie, but there's nothing distinctly Pollackian about it.

    TOOTSIE was fun in a sitcom way for one viewing but tiresome afterwards.

    1. Delighted to have your comments. I will get back to you on your defintion of intellectual and onnatural-born filmmaker. Stay well

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  3. Delighted to have your comments. I will get back to you on your defintion of intellectual and onnatural-born filmmaker. Stay well

    1. Hi Andrea
      Any person with a definite system of ideas which he actively employs in understanding life situations and in formulating his vision of the world is an intellectual. Attributes of the auteur are incorporated in the image of the intellectual such as thematic preoccupation, recurrence of stylistic identifiers, "consistent commentary on social or political issues". Please read below:


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