Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Sydney Pollack (1934-2008)

When you consider that the mere fact of his illness was a well-guarded secret, the death of Sydney Pollack is a rather unexpected loss to the film world. I have enjoyed Mr. Pollack's work both on the screen and behind the camera, as he enjoyed a second career as a character actor long after he had been established as a noted director. I had most recently seen him offering stellar support to George Clooney in the excellent legal thriller Michael Clayton (which Pollack also co-produced).

Pollack began his career as an actor, studying with Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse in the mid-50s. He made one appearance on Broadway in the short-lived The Dark is Light Enough, a comedy that starred Katharine Cornell, Tyrone Power and Christopher Plummer. The play, written by Christopher Fry, lasted 69 performances at the ANTA Playhouse. Shortly afterward, he would move into television direction from which he would eventually launch his film career.

His most notable films include the searing indictment of '20s dance marathons, They Shoot Horses, Don't They? with Jane Fonda, Michael Sarrazin and an Oscar-winning Gig Young, The Way We Were with Robert Redford (who was a life-long friend of the director) and Barbra Streisand, Absence of Malice with Paul Newman, the gender-bending comedy Tootsie with Dustin Hoffman (and Pollack's uncredited turn as the agent who famously offers the classic line "No one will hire you.") and would win the Oscars for Best Picture and Director for Out of Africa, a rather overrated period drama with Redford and Meryl Streep. Pollack was also nominated as director for Horses and Tootsie, as well as producing nominations for Tootsie and Michael Clayton.

Pollack would direct twelve actors to Oscar nominations: Jane Fonda, Gig Young (won), Susannah York, Barbra Streisand, Paul Newman, Melinda Dillon, Jessica Lange (won), Dustin Hoffmann, Teri Garr, Meryl Streep, Klaus Maria Brandauer and Holly Hunter. He also produced, executive produced or co-produced many films, including most of his later work. His post-Africa work never really maintained the stature of his early pieces. Aside from the blockbuster The Firm, he directed the unnecessary remake of Sabrina, Random Hearts, The Interpreter and Sketches of Frank Gehry. He also had served as host of "The Essentials" on Turner Classic Movies.

Cancer was the cause; he was diagnosed nine months ago. He is survived by his wife of 49 years, Claire, and two of their three children. He leaves behind a relatively small but important body of work in various areas of the film world.

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