Sydney Pollack 1934 - 2008: Out of Africa but never forgotten

Director, producer, and actor Sydney PollackImage via WikipediaSydney Pollack was born to Jewish-Russian immigrants in 1934, in Lafayette, Indiana. He spent his time either on the field, playing American football or in school plays. He excelled in the latter, claiming he wasn’t so good in the former because of the fact that he had to wear glasses. And it is the latter that made him a maestro storyteller to future generations.

However his foray into show business was fronted by his ambition to become an actor, an ambition that secured him a leading role in John Frankenheimer's TV project, For Whom The Bell Tolls. Frankenheimer would ultimately use Pollack’s talent as an acting coach and it was in The Young Savages that Burt Lancaster would see Pollack’s talent as a director and passed his name on to Universal Studios.

He started his career directing TV shows, such as The Fugitive and Alfred Hitchcock Presents and westerns such as Shotgun Slade. Pollack ultimately gravitated towards Hollywood and in 1955 debuted as a director in The Slender Thread, with Anne Bancroft as the lead. Viewers now would watch this movie and interpret the director’s view as benign and sparse.

But this was to be a the launch pad of a career that would give birth to classics, such as, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They, Jeremiah Johnson, Three Days of the Condor, The Electric Horseman, The Way We Were, Out of Africa and Havana. But he wasn’t always good; Yakuza the thriller with Robert Mitchum, Paul Newman and Al Pacino was originally stated to be directed by Martin Scorsese and perhaps should have been. Bobby Deerfield, again with Pacino, failed to find its voice and audience. Absence of Malice with Paul Newman and Sally Field was clearly an average outing that simply was not worthy of Pollack’s abilities.

It was however films like Out of Africa and Tootsie that established Pollack’s abilities as a director and even as an actor. Long before Mrs Doubtfire even put the kettle on, there was Dorothy Michaels (aka Michael Dorsey). Tootsie tells the story of a troubled but very talented actor played brilliantly by Dustin Hoffman whose roles are being handed over to female actors. Though the film is an established classic, gone so far as being inducted as a “cultural classic” by the United States Library of Congress, its making was anything but easy. Hoffman and Pollack’s off screen arguments have found their way into legendary status themselves, but it was this chemistry that the two of them brought on screen too. Hoffman convinced Pollack that it would fuel their roles and hence, the director once again stepped into the acting arena, playing George Fields, Dorsey’s film agent. Tootsie went on to get nine Academy Award nominations and a win for Best Supporting Actress, Jessica Lange.

Out of Africa is just one of those movies that you can’t forget. This is a tale of European settlers, Baroness Karen von Blixen-Finecke (portrayed by Meryl Streep) in particular about her relationship with her family and the natives of Africa. Streep’s character is betrayed by her husband, Baron Bror von Blixen-Finecke (Klaus Maria Brandauer) and ultimately runs into the arms of big game hunter, Denys Finch Hatton (played by Robert Redford). Pollack weaves the story of the Baroness through different continents and ultimately Africa itself. Her story is juxtaposed through the regions she travels and her chase for Hatton is ultimately the never ending quest to tame Africa itself. Out of Africa won 28 accolades, including seven Academy Awards (Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Original Score, Art Direction, Sound) and three Golden Globes (Best Picture, Supporting Actor, Original Score). This film marks Pollack’s shining moment.

Already his loss is being felt around Hollywood and the world over. His co-star in Michael Clayton, George Clooney said, "Sydney made the world a little better, movies a little better and even dinner a little better. He'll be missed terribly."

Sally Field worked with Pollack on Absence of Malice, said, "Having the opportunity to know Sydney and work with him was a great gift in my life. He was a good friend and a phenomenal director and I will cherish every moment that I ever spent with him."

The Directors Guild of America paid tribute in a statement: "Sydney let the dialogue and the emotion of a scene speak for itself. Not given to cinematic tricks, his gentle and thoughtful touch and his focus on the story let us inhabit the world he created in each film."

Besides his work, it is his own words that describe the director’s talent, "I am a traditionalist. I think that my films are conventional in form, but not necessarily in point of view. I don’t consider myself an avant garde or particularly original film-maker. I enjoy the challenge of working within the strict parameters of a given film genre and then striving to find some new voice within it."

Sydney Pollack died as a result of cancer on 26th May, 2008, at his home in Pacific Palisades, surrounded by family and friends.

(This review was originally published in the June 1st, 2008 edition of DAWN Images.)

1 comment:

Khaver Siddiqi said...

Okay, not everybody's perfect. I made some big boo boos in this piece and it got printed.