Sydney Pollack; 'Tootsie' Director Won Oscars for 'Out of Africa'

Best known for "Tootsie" and "Out of Africa," the Academy Award winner dies of cancer. He was 73.
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Sydney Pollack, 73, a director and producer of popular Hollywood movies for nearly four decades, including the comedy "Tootsie," and who won Academy Awards for "Out of Africa," died May 26 at his home in Los Angeles. He had cancer.

Mr. Pollack, who called himself "Mr. Mainstream," was wildly successful at moviemaking with mass appeal but drew mixed reviews during a prolific career.

His best-remembered work could be provocative, timely and sensitively crafted: "Tootsie" (1982) was hilarious and underscored aspects of the feminist struggle; the taut spy story "Three Days of the Condor" (1975) captured Nixon-era paranoia; "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" (1969), though set at a Depression-era dance marathon, resonated with young ticket buyers who saw the rigged contest as a reflection of modern society.

Mr. Pollack's movies often emphasized the loner at conflict with society, whether a fur trapper in the wilderness in "Jeremiah Johnson" (1972) or a cowboy who tries to recover his soul after selling out in "The Electric Horseman" (1979) with Robert Redford and Jane Fonda.

He saw Redford as his ideal collaborator and cast him in seven movies, from "This Property Is Condemned" (1966) to "Havana" (1990), because of what he considered his "very internal, rather understated" acting style as well as a dark undercurrent he found appealing beneath Redford's "golden boy" exterior.

Redford returned the compliment, telling Film Comment magazine, "Sydney's the one director that seems to read me best. . . . Basically he's a romantic."

Audiences embraced two of Mr. Pollack's best-known romance stories: "The Way We Were" (1973) with Redford as a WASP writer and Barbra Streisand as a Jewish political activist during the Hollywood blacklist; and "Out of Africa" (1985), a $30 million production based on Danish author Isak Dinesen's years in Kenya and her complicated affair with a free-spirited and handsome pilot.

The latter film, which earned Oscars for Mr. Pollack for directing and producing, starred Meryl Streep and Redford against a backdrop likened by critics to a National Geographic spread.

Dave Kehr of the Chicago Reader complimented Mr. Pollack's craftsmanship and taste, saying that "although the denouement is a bit overextended, he never yields to facile, insistent sentimentality -- his effects are honestly won."

Many others found both films saccharine and ponderous, and Mr. Pollack spoke of his own "tendency by nature to be heavy-handed," which he attributed to his early training as a television director "where you have to grab the audience in the first 10 minutes."

Few disputed that Mr. Pollack was a master of pulling terrific performances from actors. Those who won Oscars under his direction included Gig Young as a cynical dance-marathon announcer in "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" and Jessica Lange as an emotionally vulnerable actress in "Tootsie."

But even in his less-regarded works, many actors earned Oscar nominations, including Paul Newman and Melinda Dillon in the newspaper libel drama "Absence of Malice" (1981) and Holly Hunter in "The Firm" (1993), based on the John Grisham legal thriller.

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