The Director Who Always Played a Supporting Role

Best known for "Tootsie" and "Out of Africa," the Academy Award winner dies of cancer. He was 73.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 28, 2008; Page C01

Sydney Pollack made them old-fashioned -- big and bighearted. Matinee idols kissed in exotic locales. The music washed over us like an aural Danube. He lifted us out of our lives and into worlds we would never go -- the hunting grounds of "Out of Africa," the snowy mountains of "Jeremiah Johnson," the TV dressing rooms of "Tootsie."

Sydney Pollack, who succumbed to cancer Monday, made movies. And though it sounds like a cliche to say it, they don't make them like he used to.

For more than 40 years, the director-producer, who would have turned 74 in July, created films in what seemed like every conceivable genre -- thrillers, westerns, epics, actioners and comedies. But his formula was pretty much the same: Cast great actors as even greater characters. Think of Meryl Streep's baroness, Karen Blixen, in "Out of Africa," the 1985 film that won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director. Or Robert Redford's game-hunting Denys Finch Hatton in the same drama. Or how about Dustin Hoffman's Michael, the out-of-work actor who dons dress, wig and falsetto to become Dorothy, the leading TV soap actress in "Tootsie"?

It was a measure of the man that we enjoyed these films without even realizing we'd seen a Pollack movie. We didn't think about the man behind the curtain. Like his old-time Hollywood forebears, Pollack was a journeyman, the kind to bring in a movie on budget and on time -- not choke it with his own imprimatur.

And like those filmmakers of yore, Pollack knew that the great movies were built around big worlds and intimate romances. The gin joints, black markets and Nazi intrigue of "Casablanca" mean little without the unfinished romance between Rick and Ilse. And what are the plantation homes and burning Atlantas of "Gone With the Wind" without the tempestuous relationship between Rhett and Scarlett? As he pumped his characters full of larger-than-life presence, Pollack always tied them to matters of love, so the audience was never left behind.

Even in a shock-a-minute thriller such as "Three Days of the Condor," Pollack told me in 2005, "I was still concentrating on the Faye Dunaway-Robert Redford relationship. Each time I make a movie . . . there's an argument between these people that I don't necessarily have an answer to. Or if I do, I try to make both sides equal, and I try to be the woman and the man. Try to be both. Who's right here?"

Our meeting was a Washington Post interview on the eve of his film "The Interpreter," which starred Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn. He invited me to his table almost gingerly -- as if he wasn't sure why anyone would want to interview him. With his deadpan baritone, trifocal glasses and Brillo Pad hair, Pollack seemed more like the supporting characters we've seen him play so often on-screen -- the jaded talent agent in "Tootsie," the seemingly genial Victor Ziegler in "Eyes Wide Shut," or -- more recently -- the slick super lawyer in last year's "Michael Clayton," which Pollack also produced.

"I sort of backed into filmmaking," said Pollack, who was an army private, acting teacher and stage performer before going behind the camera. "I wasn't a film nut. I didn't go to film school. I'm not really film literate, to be honest with you."

Directing movies, he confessed, "scares the [expletive] out of me. I get real anxious every time I'm doing it." Major movie productions for him were a tense matter in which "every 15-minute period represents thousands and thousands of dollars. You're always aware of that. And you're always aware of a clock ticking. Tick tick tick tick tick."

For someone who hated the process, Pollack directed a lot of movies -- more than 20 of them, including "The Firm," "Absence of Malice" and "The Way We Were," which starred Barbra Streisand and Redford, his all-time leading man. (The actor starred in seven Pollack films.) The movies he directed in the 1990s, such as "Sabrina," "Random Hearts" and "Havana" (starring Redford as a "Casablanca"-style hero) were flops, and "The Interpreter" didn't fare better. But those latter works didn't fail so much as the times failed them. It was as though there wasn't room for big movies anymore.

In the mid-1980s, he formed Mirage Productions (with the late Anthony Minghella) so he could produce, but not have to direct, the ones he loved, including "Sense and Sensibility," "Sliding Doors," "The Talented Mr. Ripley," "Cold Mountain" and "Michael Clayton."

"I do like the idea that I can be creative as a producer," Pollack said. "It's not my baby, the way it is as a director. I'm not going to get the credit for it. Nor am I going to get the blame. That's a relief. I can have a day-to-day sense of creativity without taking the load."

Given his antipathy to pressure, I asked, why make movies at all?

"I love it when it works," answered Pollack. "I love having a body of work now. Some good. Some bad. But it's the closest I can come to having a legacy. Sometimes I go back and watch the work and I'm embarrassed by it. But sometimes I think, this is not a bad movie. Pretty good."

Let the record reflect warmly on Pollack's movies, if not always for being great, then for acting like they were.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company