July 1, 1934 to May 26, 2008
by Katharine Blossom Lowrie
He seemed taller in person
I met Sydney Pollack back when I covered Hollywood as a freelancer for the LA Times Calendar section in the early 1980s. He seemed taller in person, distinguished, with a wide, welcoming grin. The event was a Columbia Pictures screening of Tootsie, the 1982 comedy starring Dustin Hoffman, whose character transforms from down-and-out actor Michael Dorsey into actress Dorothy Michaels to boost his sagging career. Pollack, who directed the movie, plays a featured role as Dorsey’s agent (shown above with Hoffman in a still from the film). With Tootsie heavy with pre-release Oscar buzz, my intention was to snag a future interview with Hoffman. Since I knew him from our days as drama students, I wasn’t too worried about approaching him at the screening. But Hoffman was in absentia, off filming in New York.
After the screening, although I was among those who congratulated Pollack for his directorial efforts and splendid comic turn at acting, I didn’t feel right about mentioning my long-ago relationship with Hoffman or requesting an interview with Pollack.
Not a single unnecessary word is spoken
It wasn’t until after I stopped freelancing for the Times that I sincerely regretted not contacting Pollack again. I had just seen Out of Africa (1985), a romantic epic set against the landscape of colonial Kenya, an astonishing film in which not a single unnecessary word is spoken, not a single necessary scene left out. Unparalleled beauty paired with profound emotional impact in a singular masterpiece.
That every crucial thread contained in the slender 1937 memoir written by Isak Dinesen (the nom de plume used by Danish author Baroness Karen von Blixen-Finecke) is woven so skillfully into the movie had to be the result, not only of superb acting by Meryl Streep (Karen Blixen) and Robert Redford (Denys Finch Hatton), but of a director’s vision. The guy in charge of the Big Picture. Sydney Pollack.
The sexiest celluloid moments
No matter how many times I watch Out of Africa, I’m riveted. Not just by the spectacular Kenyan landscape, or the Blixen/Hatton love affair, or Hatton’s tragic end, but by the subtlest plot points, especially when Hatton shampoos Blixen’s hair while on safari–a scene (shown left) that proves that the sexiest celluloid moments often occur when people keep their clothes on.
In 1986, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences must have agreed on the quality of the movie, awarding Out of Africa seven Oscars, including best director.
Other Sydney Pollack movies stand out as well, some of the earlier ones fondly revisited after seeing Out of Africa: Tom Cruise in The Firm (1993); Paul Newman in Absence of Malice (1981); Al Pacino in Bobby Deerfield (1977); Robert Redford in Three Days of the Condor (1975); Barbra Streisand and Redford in The Way We Were (1973); Redford in Jeremiah Johnson (1972); Jane Fonda in They Shoot Horses Don’t They? (1969); Redford and Natalie Wood in This Property Is Condemned (1966), etc.
His creative genius may rest in what Robert Redford wrote
While a long, long list of producing and acting credits complete the resume of this Indiana native born to first-generation Russian-Americans, his creative genius may rest in what Robert Redford wrote in the June 9 issue of Time magazine.
According to Redford, who first met Pollack in 1960, the director’s Indiana upbringing gave him “a real love of pop culture and celebrity. He used to tell me, ‘I went to the movies to see people like Natalie Wood and Judy Garland.’ He was taken with that part of the business,” said Redford (shown right with Barbra Streisand and Pollack, who directed the two in the 1973 Columbia film, The Way We Were). “But he was smart enough to know he could cover that with a more offbeat intellectual style. That was his great gift, his ability to connect the more commercial with the abstract.”
Pollack’s death from cancer at 73 came shortly after the premiere of Recount, HBO’s political thriller surrounding the 2000 Bush/Gore Presidential ballot debacle in Florida. The film stars Kevin Spacey, Denis Leary, Laura Dern and Tom Wilkinson. Wilkinson, who plays James Baker in Recount, starred with George Clooney and Pollack in the Pollack produced Michael Clayton (2007).
A tip of the hat to a class act
In a statement issued by his publicist, George Clooney said of his friend: “Sydney made the world a little better, movies a little better and even dinner a little better. A tip of the hat to a class act. He’ll be missed terribly.” (The two are shown left in a scene from Michael Clayton.)
Sydney Pollack is survived by his wife, Claire; two daughters, Rebecca and Rachel; his brother Bernie; and six grandchildren.