Sydney Pollack, the director of several critical and box office successes of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, died earlier today in the Los Angeles suburb of Pacific Palisades. He was 73.
Pollack began his show business career on the stage and later moved on to television, where he directed episodes of several series including The Fugitive and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. During his 40-year film career, he directed less than two dozen features.
Among his best-known efforts are the searing socio-psychological drama They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969), which deservedly earned him and star Jane Fonda their first Academy Award nominations; the romantic melo The Way We Were (1973), whose weak political overtones were glossed over by Robert Redford’s face and by Barbra Streisand’s voice singing the popular title song; the gender-bending Tootsie (1982), which earned Pollack and star Dustin Hoffman Academy Award nominations; and Out of Africa (1985), the Oscar-winning epic-ish romantic drama starring Meryl Streep as Danish author Karen Blixen (a.k.a. Isak Dinesen) and Redford as her doomed lover.
For Out of Africa (above), Pollack won a best director Academy Award, beating the likes of John Huston (Prizzi’s Honor) and Akira Kurosawa (Ran). (He also received a Golden Globe from the hands of Bette Davis, who, ready to go, proceeded to take her bow only to eventually realize that the flustered Pollack hadn’t had a chance to make his speech.)
Tootsie, in which Hoffman plays an unemployed actor passing for a middle-aged TV actress, was Pollack’s biggest box office hit – and quite possibly his best film as well.
In addition to the aforementioned films, his other successes of the 1970s and 1980s included The Three Days of the Condor (1975), starring Redford, Faye Dunaway, Cliff Robertson, and Max von Sydow; The Electric Horsemen (1979), with Redford and Jane Fonda; and Absence of Malice (1981), with Paul Newman and Sally Field.
Most of Pollack’s films, all of which were vehicles for top (or near-top) stars, were at least competent, though with the exception of the overwrought The Firm, starring Tom Cruise, his 1990s efforts were lambasted by critics and all but ignored by audiences. Those were Havana (1990), a Casablanca rip-off starring Redford and Lena Olin; Sabrina (1995), a much-publicized remake of an Audrey Hepburn vehicle that nevertheless failed to launch Julia Ormond’s stardom; and Random Hearts (1999), starring Harrison Ford and Kristin Scott Thomas.
His last narrative film as a director was The Interpreter, a 2005 critical and box office disappointment starring Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn. That same year, Pollack directed the well-received documentary Sketches of Frank Gehry.
He and Redford worked together on seven films. In addition to the aforementioned titles, the duo collaborated on the drama This Property Is Condemned (1966), co-starring Natalie Wood, and the Western Jeremiah Johnson (1973).
Among the other stars Pollack directed were Sidney Poitier and Anne Bancroft in The Slender Thread (Pollack’s somewhat melodramatic but otherwise quite competent first feature film, 1965); Burt Lancaster, Shelley Winters, and Telly Savalas in The Scalphunters (1968); Lancaster again in Castle Keep (1969); Robert Mitchum in The Yakuza (1974); and Al Pacino and Marthe Keller in the flop Bobby Deerfield (1977).
Pollack also produced or executive-produced numerous films and was a competent actor. He was a semi-regular in the TV series Will & Grace (as Will’s father), had a major role in Woody Allen’s comedy Husbands and Wives (1992), and was excellent playing a film director in Danièle Thompson’s comedy Avenue Montaigne (2006). His last film as an actor was Made of Honor, released a few weeks ago.