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Great Film Directors-Sydney Pollack

Updated on August 24, 2013

Great Directors-Sydney Pollack

Sydney Pollack was born on July 1st 1934 in Lafayette, Indiana to first generation Russian immigrant parents.

His mother died when he was only sixteen years old. Pollack was still in high school and stayed at home until he graduated in 1952, at which time he moved to New York.

At this times, any thoughts of directing were far from Sydney Pollack's young mind.

He was, however, very interested in acting and upon his move to New York began studying with Sanford Meisner, then considered one of the greatest acting coaches along with Stella Adler and Lee Strasbourg.

What Pollack learned under Meisner cannot be underestimated. His direction of movies led him to work with some of the best actors of his generation, including Dustin Hoffman, Jessica Lange and Robert Redford. Pollack himself was a very naturalistic actor, more than holding his own with more well-established talents.

He continued to act up until his death in 2008 but his heart lay in storytelling. This is truly what makes him, in my opinion, one of the great directors.

Sydney Pollack - An Insider's Knowledge

His initial training also gave him a unique insider's view of what acting entailed and how the motivation of an actor mattered to a role. He used this insider's knowledge to excellent effect - Pollack is without any doubt, an 'actors director'.

In fact, he directed 12 actors in Oscar-nominated roles, Jessica Lange and Gig Young won Oscars for Tootsie and The Shoot Horses Don't They respectively.

What really made Sydney Pollack tick as a director was a good story. He was a master of bringing a good story from the page to the screen. Perhaps that will be his greatest legacy.

A review of his work as a director will show that he was an astute visual storyteller. He was also a committed producer - he was committed to a good story that needed to be told - it didn't matter if he wasn't the director.

The Fugitive
The Fugitive
Dr Kildare
Dr Kildare

Sydney Pollack - Early Days

Sydney Pollack certainly could not claim to be an overnight success. His relationship with the dramatic arts took a rather circuitous route and indeed, right up to his death in 2008, he was still not really ever in one camp.

In 1952 he was a fresh-faced 18 year old with a real interest in drama, particularly acting. He joined Meisner's Neighbourhood Theatre and performed in productions, learning all the time, not only about acting but about the many things needed to create a dramatic persona.

In 1958, after returning from a 2-year stint in the army, he started getting small roles on TV dramas. In 1961, he had a role in future movie director John Frankenheimer's For Whom The Bell Tolls. Frankenheimer remembered Pollack's intelligent contribution, gaining him a job as a dialogue coach on another of his shows, The Young Savages.

Sydney Pollack had already turned his hand to directing and acting at The Neighbourhood Playhouse and his ability as a dialogue coach had gotten him a better foothold in an emerging TV market.

It wasn't long before Sydney Pollack was directing shows of his own. His resume is pretty impressive - The Naked City, The Fugitive, Dr Kildare were amongst the shows he directed.

They Shoot Horses Don't They?

In 1969, Sydney Pollock directed his first movie, They Shoot Horses Don't They?

On paper it doesn't look like it should be a brilliant movie - a depression-era movie about a dance marathon but Sydney Pollock believed in this story.

He imbued it with a claustrophobic intensity and allows us the viewing public to become voyeurs on the trials and tribulations of its characters- all desperate for something, all needing something from the dance marathon, all so close to being within touching distance of it.

We watch and wait as Gig Young's Emcee oversees the competition. We, the audience, become like a crowd in the Coliseum. We will naturally root for one of the characters and we will cheer when others fail (in our heads of course, not out loud).

Sydney Pollock directed a film we will need to watch right to the end and then he will disarm us, briefly, then shock us with its ending.

They Shoot Horses Don't They was nominated for 9 Oscars - Gig Young won for Best Supporting Actor.

Suzannah York as wannabe star, Alice.  She was overlooked during the Oscars whilst Fonda got the nomination but many considered her performance more noteworthy.
Suzannah York as wannabe star, Alice. She was overlooked during the Oscars whilst Fonda got the nomination but many considered her performance more noteworthy.
Robert Redford - shaggy beard but his hair still looks nice.
Robert Redford - shaggy beard but his hair still looks nice.
Poster for Jeremiah Jones
Poster for Jeremiah Jones

Jeremiah Johnson

Robert Redford played the man who leaves town to live out in the wild. This movie was about more than that though. It was one of a number of Westerns made during the early 70s which were statements of discontent at the way the USA was looking at that time.

The meaning behind most of the Westerns was that man was over-developing the land and that a return to the principles of nature was the best response to that development. Pollack was part of that zeitgeist, along with Arthur Penn and Robert Altman, who explored similar themes in Little Big Man and McCabe And Mrs Miller.

Redford was already gaining some respect as a leading man after Butch Cassidy and The Sundance KId (1969) and one wonders if making Jeremiah Johnson was his way of shouldering off the 'pretty boy' image that playing Sundance had given him.

In general, the movie was well-received and Pollack directed a movie which was a visual feast whilst at the same time giving us brutality in an unambiguous way. At first, Johnson is a kind of hero but by the end of the movie, he has become part of the wild and calls upon his darker side to cope with his grief - it is as much a movie about revenge as it is about westernisation.

Pollack seems to be issuing a warning shot across the 1970s develop & expand v save the countryside argument - if man doesn't mind his ways, this might all turn ugly!

Redford & Streisand - in the end they were both 'equal' starring roles.
Redford & Streisand - in the end they were both 'equal' starring roles.
Redford & Streisand show their best sides.
Redford & Streisand show their best sides.
Pollack, Streisand and Redford
Pollack, Streisand and Redford

The Way We Were

Sydney Pollack's next movie was another period piece; he certainly seemed to have a flair for projecting a sense of time to audiences. This time though, he gave us a wonderful love story starring Robert Redford (again - clearly they liked to work together) and Barbra Steisand.

As Cogerson has commented in a hub on Ms Steisand, she didn't make many movies but the ones she did make were all pretty good.

The film starts in 1937 when Katie (Streisand) is a pacifist and Hubbell (Redford) is a budding writer; it is love at first sight. When they meet again in 1947 the UnAmerican House Committee is in full swing and Katie's friends are caught up in it.

Hubbell is prepared to turn the other cheek to save his job whilst Katie sticks to her guns and protects her friends. Hubbell and Katie part again.

It was rumoured that Arthur Laurent's original screenplay, which told the UnAmerican political picture like it was, was cut to accommodate a political audience not yet ready for widespread criticism of the UnAmerican Committee's method of doing things.

Laurent's story was also 'all about Katie' with Hubbell, a peripheral character.

Sydney Pollack got mixed up in some onset politics, wanting Redford's part to be equal to Streisand but Lauren disliked this turn of events.

Pollack tinkered with the script and both Streisand and Redford felt that in doing so, he diluted the conflict between the characters.

The end result has Pollack meeting Laurent's desires half-way; the movie is neither overtly feminist and political (as was intended), nor is it overtly a love story (as Pollack intended).

In spite of that, it is a movie which has aged well so perhaps the love story part (love stories, are, afterall, timeless) was what carried it through.

Laurent didn't get the movie he wrote a script for but we got two great actors in a great love story with differences to big to ignore. Pollack gave us the conflict in a diluted way but it worked anyway.


I confess I don't know anybody who doesn't like this movie. It is essentially a tale of a man having to dress up as a women to get an acting job.

Dustin Hoffman is perfect as Dorothy and we have some wonderful supporting performances by Jessica Lange (who won an Oscar for her role), Bill Murray,Teri Garr and even Pollack himself as Michael Dorsey's agent.

Cross-dressing was nothing new in movies, think Jack Lemon and Tony Curtis in Some Like It Hot but Pollack manages to get in a fantastic love story along with the comedic glee of Hoffman playing Dorothy.

Pacing is again fantastic in this movie; the scene where Hoffman needs to do a quick change is a classic and his supposed ad-libbed dialogue with his co-stars leading to record viewing figures is a hoot even when you watch it now.

Bill Murray does a great turn as Michael's best friend and Teri Garr is engaging as his friend wanting to be girlfriend getting the brush off.

Jessica Lange as Julie holds her own in more esteemed company and after Tootsie went onto become a celebrated actress (and photographer) on stage and screen.

Hoffman doesn't put a foot wrong as Michael/Dorothy.

Even now Tootsie makes me laugh.

Out of Africa

Out of Africa achieved Sydney Pollack his Best Director Oscar but was strangely overlooked in the acting categories.

Redford is Redford (I think at this period in his career, his acting became quite 'samish') but there can be no overlooking Meryl Streep's brilliant portrayal of Karen Blixen, the 'heroine' of this tale.

In my opinion, Blixen is a difficult character to warm to - she is a bit of a doormat truth be told and Streep does her best in the portrayal but I found her a difficult character to like.

More exciting are Pollacks African scenery shots, gorgeous photography and a well-paced story.

Klaus-Marie Brandauer gives a good performance as her despicable husband who gives her nothing much but unhappiness, grief and venereal disease.

In many respects, Pollack got everything right; he brought together a great cast shooting in a spectacular landscape.  The movie's screenplay had a true story to follow which was a tale of wealth, womanhood, love and ultimately unfulfilled desire.

It is two and a half hours long and could have had us all looking at our watches after an hour and forty minutes but we keep watching because Sydney Pollack paces the story to perfection.

And let's consider the ending; we should get up from our cinema seats frustrated by the ending - Blixen's story isn't a particular happy one, but Pollack reminds us throughout, that it is an eventful one.

We hang on to see if Denys gets his girl because, in his usual fashion, Pollack keeps us yearning - the love story, in his directorial hands, is a thing of wonder.

Sydney Pollack-Other Movies

Part of me hates the fact I am bunching all of his other movies together near the end but truth be told, you may have already stopped reading a while ago. I will try here to give a flavour of his other successful movies:

The Yakuza - made at a time when there was a distinct rise in martial arts films. As usual, it is perfectly paced and has the advantage of a rather good performance from Robert Mitchum as the American out of his element in the land of the rising sun.

Three Days of the Condor - a forerunner to movies like The Bourne Identity; Three Days of the Condor has Pollack team up with his old pal, Robert Redford again in a movie which is basically about an ex-government guy being hunted down by the goverment. Roger Ebert has said in his critique of the movie,"the scary thing is, after the recent days of Watergate it's all too believable." Pollack, once again gives us a perfectly paced thriller with edge of the seat scenes - will Redford escape the CIA's clutches - you'll have to get to the end to find out.

Absence of Malice - this movie finally teams Pollack with Paul Newman, an actor for whom he had an enormous respect. The film can't fail with Newman and Sally Field as the chief protagonists and Field gives a good performance as a feisty female reporter who will stop at nothing to get her scoop - she'll even sleep with Paul Newman (go figure!)

The Firm - Pollack with John Grisham, Tom Cruise, Gene Hackman and Jeanne Tripplehorn. How could he fail.

The Interpreter - the wonderful Nicole Kidman in a movie filmed at the United Nations Building (only time that's ever happened) with lots of skullduggery going on behind the scenes. A very watchable gem!

Cold Mountain, directed by Anthony Minghella with whom Syd Pollack formed a production company in 2000.
Cold Mountain, directed by Anthony Minghella with whom Syd Pollack formed a production company in 2000.
One of Michael Caine's best movies - The Quiet American.
One of Michael Caine's best movies - The Quiet American.
The Interpreter - a movie made at the United Nations Building.
The Interpreter - a movie made at the United Nations Building.

Sydney Pollack - Producer

In all, Sydney Pollack produced 48 movies.  He always did have an eye for a good story and if a good script landed on his desk and he felt that he could help to get it off the ground, he was happy to produce it.

His stand out productions:

Bright Lights, Big City

The Fabulous Baker Boys

Dead Again

Leaving Normal

Sense And Sensibilty

The Talented Mr Ripley


The Quiet American

Cold Mountain

Michael Clayton

The Reader

I'm sure you'll agree - it's a list any producer would be proud of.

Sydney Pollack left this life in May 2008 - but his legacy remains in his amazing movies.


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