Sydney Pollack

Best known for his diversity of accomplishment in Hollywood — not only as a director, but as a producer and actor. Pollack worked with the best of the best over the course of his career (including Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, and Meryl Streep), with his peaks coming in three films: They Shoot Horses, Don’t They (1969), Tootsie (1982), and Out of Africa (1985).

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The differences between Sydney Pollack and his friend, architect Frank Gehry, that come out in Pollack’s casual conversation/documentary, “Sketches of Frank Gehry”, are perhaps more revealing of the filmmaker than of the architect.

Certainly, both are extremely successful. Though Gehry is the architect of the moment, Pollack has been making successful films for over fifty years, and has had more than a few turns in the limelight. Gehry confesses to a huge ego underneath that round, unassuming façade — which is his driving force and is somehow tied to his love of risk-taking. If Pollack has such an ego, it never comes out. He really is unassuming and accessible in a way that few directors are.

Or, it’s an act. Pollack is, after all, a very good “character actor”. He has trained himself not to get in the way of the star — and that goes for his filmmaking as well. Though feature filmmaking is by definition a risky proposition, Pollack’s work certainly doesn’t approach Gehry’s oeuvre in pushing the envelope. By no means formulaic (it is curious that in almost all of his films the lovers do not end up together in the end), Pollack doesn’t even seem to exhibit a style. Sydney is the kind of craftsman who you would think prefers to disappear in his work.

Growing up in Indiana, Pollack studied acting in his teens with Sanford Meisner and then, after only one year, taught acting for Meisner. This experience would help him tremendously as a director. He rightly deserves the rep as an actor’s director; he has put on film many best actors’ best performances.

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Two of Pollack’s early stars — Burt Lancaster and Robert Redford — met him first as co-actors. They helped him, in his words, “back into directing”. Though he took over for a few scenes in the classic “The Swimmer”, he is not listed as director. Sydney’s first major film and his first Oscar nomination were for “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” in 1969. (Note this early predilection for unromance: Michael Sarrazin shoots Jane Fonda in the head.)

Pollack directed Redford in six films, including “Out of Africa” and “The Way We Were“, two of his more celebrated efforts, and Dustin Hoffman in “Tootsie“. Though these are three of his more celebrated films, Sydney Pollack definitely shines with suspense; from “Three Days of the Condor” right through to “The Interpreter“.

In the six years between “Random Hearts” (1999) and “Interpreter”, (2005) Pollack pursued his other great loves — producing and acting. He was a captive of Stanley Kubrick for two months, acting in “Eyes Wide Shut”, because, Pollack maintains, he wanted to watch the master director at work. He has also acted for Woody Allen, for the same reason. As a producer, he oversaw “Cold Mountain“, “The Quiet American”, and “The Talented Mr. Ripley” in those six years, in addition to three films still in production. No telling what else the 72-year-old Renaissance Man is up to.

— Nate Lee

Great Scenes

The Interpreter

  • Some say it’s one of Nicole Kidman’s most interesting performances as the title U.N. interpreter who stumbles on a multinational conspiracy. Her accent alone is worth it
  • This is the first film to be shot in the United Nations. Pollack did it for the performers, so they could absorb the U.N. aura, and it seems to have worked
  • Lots of interesting extras on the DVD


  • Bill Murray is hilarious as actually more sane than his roommate, Dustin Hoffman
  • Dustin’s speech to Jessica Lange at the end about being a reformed “guy” is one of the best ever
  • Dustin, dressed up as “Tootsie,” comes on to Pollack, playing his manager, in the Russian Tea Room
  • Hoffman unveils his cross-dressing ruse on live television

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

  • The frenetic “derby” scenes, which Pollack himself shot, convey the agony and desperation of marathon dancers in Depression America as no other
  • Gig Young won an Academy award for his portrayal of the guy in charge of the marathons, as complex as the times

Absence of Malice

  • Sally Field holds her own, but it’s much more fun watching Paul Newman’s machinations to get even
  • Wilford Brimley is stunning in a tour de force “deus ex machina” performance, sorting everything out at the end

Random Hearts

  • One depressing love story with Harrison Ford’s quietly desperate cop and Kristin Scott Thomas, perfectly cast as a cold, cautious Congresswoman
  • When the two visit a tango club in Miami, the audience realizes what they don’t: the reason their spouses had an affair was that they are just no fun
  • The smart clean dialogue at Ford’s cabin is artistically spare but completely real
  • You’ve got to love Pollack as a Congressional advisor

Out of Africa

  • Some incredibly beautiful shots, especially from a director known for his NYC locations
  • The dinner scenes allow for some beautiful acting, particularly by Meryl Streep
Great Suspense Films
Other Great Films
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