If Sydney Pollack is not necessarily a household name to the general public, chances are his face and films are quite familiar. Pollack’s death Monday, May 26, at age 73 represents the passing of a true film raconteur and accomplished director whose career caught fire with the grim They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? After years in theater, television and Hollywood, he successfully tried his hand at documentary filmmaking, which occasioned his visit to Durham’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in April 2006.
Born and raised in Indiana, Pollack’s diverse filmography spans character-driven Westerns (Jeremiah Johnson and The Electric Horseman) to dramatic thrillers (Three Days of the Condor and The Firm) to sentimental romances (The Way We Were and Out of Africafor which he won a best director Oscar). And then there is Tootsie, perhaps his best film, a nimble blend of drama, comedy and social commentary.
Pollack’s onscreen appearances were even more ubiquitous, notably his turns in Tootsie, The Player, Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives, Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut and, recently, Michael Clayton and The Sopranos.
Pollack’s final film would be Sketches of Frank Gehry, the director’s first foray into documentary filmmaking. Two years ago, he visited Durham in conjunction with the movie’s screening at Full Frame. Usually, most high-profile Full Frame attendeesMartin Scorsese, Michael Moore and Danny DeVito, et al.remain largely confined to the privacy of the venue’s hospitality suite. However, my enduring memory of Pollack is sitting 10 feet away from him inside the Durham Armory during a dinner open to regular festival ticketholders, watching him scarf down barbecue while wearing a leather jacket and jeans. Although a cavalcade of handlers and festival organizers eventually encircled his table, for a while he sat alone, interrupted only by the occasional fan (whom he would graciously indulge). He was the picture of a man comfortable in his own skin and celebrity.
Earlier that day, during a press conference for Frank Gehry, I took the opportunity to ask him about his experiences with Kubrick. After sharing an anecdote or two, Pollack summed up his filmmaking philosophy by quoting his old friend: “Real is good. Interesting is better.”
Hollywood will be far less interesting without Sydney Pollack.