Category Archives: Director Series: Sydney Pollack

The Firm (1993)

The Firm (1993)Just now I googled “Tom Cruise best roles”, “Tom Cruise worst roles”, “Tom Cruise best movies” and “Tom Cruise worst movies”, partially because I’m interested to see where his role as Mitch McDeere in The Firm lands and partially because my boredom has reached carrying capacity. I found, unsurprisingly, that the internet does that thing where it reaches consensus about certain things being “good” and certain things being “bad”, which in this case is sometimes inarguable (A Few Good Men = “good”, Far and Away = “bad”) but sometimes weirdly unearned, as with the endless praise heaped upon Edge of Tomorrow or Cruise’s role in Tropic Thunder. The former is a fairly fun movie and the latter is a fairly funny movie, but to say that these number among Cruise’s best seems a stretch. Again, the common consensus surrounding mediocrity doesn’t exactly come as a shock.

What was surprising, though, is that not a single article or top ten list included Mitch McDeere or mentioned The Firm at all. “Good” and “bad” are complicated, sure, and you might even suggest that the overarching opinions of the internet’s burgeoning culture commentary is at fault for this, too, as if to say “those other guys didn’t claim The Firm to be a great Cruise movie, so we won’t either.” But not a single one mentioned The Firm. No outliers buried in a list to satiate the unconfessed desire of a film blogger, no mention of Mitch McDeere even in reference to another role. It’s like The Firm never registered as a Cruise flick. Putting aside common consensus and inescapable truth (Far and Away = “bad”), that just seemed strange.

Continue reading The Firm (1993)

Advertisements

Havana (1990)

Havana (1990)Any cook will admit that having delicious ingredients doesn’t necessarily make for a delicious meal, even if you are faithful to the recipe. The most masterful chef can combine a snazzy main course with cool, exotic sauces and side dishes, pepper in some flair, and tie it all together with pristine presentation — but if the temperature isn’t just right, or if just one of the ingredients has started to turn, or if the sous-chef finally makes his move by sabotaging his tyrannical chef’s best meal, well, at least those would be reasons. Sometimes it just doesn’t taste good. Questions arise: why didn’t the dish work? Didn’t we follow the recipe to the letter? Did you freeze that thing overnight like I told you to? When does one traditionally bring their extended metaphor to a close? Now?

Havana had all the ingredients. Sydney Pollack’s previous film Out of Africa walked home with Best Picture and a cartful of other Academy Awards; Robert Redford, longtime Pollack collaborator, was back for his seventh (!) go-round under Pollack’s guidance. Right there you’d think success would be imminent. Of all the famous Director-Actor partnerships, Pollack-Redford is perhaps the most dynamic, the most unexpected, the one that results in classics that span more than one genre. The pair met as actors on the low-budget 1960 film War Hunt, as recounted by Redford in his tribute to Pollack in Time following the latter’s passing, wherein Redford uses the term “kindred spirits”. The success of the adventurous Jeremiah Johnson, the thrilling Three Days of the Condor, the intimate Electric Horseman and the epic Out of Africa would all support that claim.

Continue reading Havana (1990)

Out of Africa (1985)

The “Out of Africa” theory of evolution posits that Homo sapien originated on the African continent and migrated to replace other hominid species, which is in direct contrast to the multiregional theory of human evolution (the “Multiregional Continuity Model”) positing the phenomenon of Homo sapien to be just that: a phenomenon, simultaneous across varied regions and indicative of some level of gene flow between geographically separated populations. Significantly, this gene flow would have prevented speciation after the dispersal, a somewhat unbelievable but not altogether impossible occurrence that nevertheless would seem to nudge all credibility in the direction of the Out of Africa model. Among the critical tenets of this hypothesis is the assumption that after Homo erectus migrated out of Africa the different populations became reproductively isolated, evolving independently and, in some cases — as with the Neanderthals — into separate species entirely.

Thankfully, Sydney Pollack’s Out of Africa has nothing to do with any of that boring science stuff. Two nights ago the 88th Academy Awards granted Spotlight two major trophies, one for Best Original Screenplay and one for Best Picture, and so as usual a return to the past Picture winners seemed in order to see where we stand as a cinema-appreciating public. Is Spotlight better/worse than winners past? Did you see Spotlight? Did you enjoy it? Did you enjoy it at unprecedented best-film-of-the-entire-year levels? Did The Revenant or The Big Short deserve the trophy instead? Ah, of all sad words of tongue or pen!

Continue reading Out of Africa (1985)

Tootsie (1982)

Tootsie was a milestone for Sydney Pollack for a variety of reasons, some of which were trumpeted by adoring critics in 1982 and some of which took the ensuing decades to gestate. Today, with the benefit of Pollack’s entire career in retrospect, Tootsie holds strong as one of the director’s finest achievements. It is arguably his masterpiece, sure, but perhaps more significantly it is arguably his first masterpiece. That’s important for a film about a struggling actor finally doing what is necessary to create his first unadulterated success, finally testing himself to a limit he’d never considered before, being rewarded for it, and unexpectedly touching other lives along the way.

Of course “masterpiece” is relative. Three Days of the Condor might be a masterpiece, as might Jeremiah Johnson to a somewhat lesser extent. One of Pollack’s unsung achievements is The Electric Horseman, not a masterpiece in and of itself but masterful at times nonetheless. Saying one is better or worse than the other is uninteresting. What’s truly fascinating — and what makes Pollack one of the greatest American directors of his time — is the clear way in which elements of those earlier films come together in collaboration on Tootsie. Consider the most basic triumphs of each of those three films: Condor was unrelenting from start to finish, Jeremiah hung itself on the power of a single actor, and Horseman was simultaneously a comedy and a tragedy.

Continue reading Tootsie (1982)

Absence of Malice (1981)

The story of Paul Newman’s 1981 film Fort Apache, The Bronx is far more interesting than the film itself. When Newman suited up as a police officer in the South Bronx for a film about his ongoing fight for justice in the toughest neighborhood in the city, the context was a little too close for comfort: in the nine months preceding the filming of Fort Apache, at least twelve unarmed black and Puerto Rican individuals were killed by police officers throughout NYC (this is 1981, the most violent year of A Most Violent Year). The staunch opposition to the film saw massive protests, riots, a lawsuit and the formation of the Committee Against Fort Apache, all geared toward the halting of a film that many perceived to be defamatory and racist. Fort Apache got made, but it was one of the more dangerous film productions in the city’s history.

Newman himself got a big slice of Defamation Pie, too, courtesy of The New York Post. After reading the printed “facts” that Newman claimed were nothing of the sort, the actor accused the paper of “irresponsible journalism” and eventually referred to the Post as a “garbage can”. The paper ran a piece called “What Paul Didn’t Tell Us About Fort Apache” in the days following, and the dispute went in circles from there — people blamed the filmmakers for racism and defamation, Newman blamed the newspapers for false reporting and defamation, and film critics blamed Fort Apache, The Bronx for being kind of a shitty movie anyway. Paul Newman felt strongly about the journalistic integrity issues he encountered, and ultimately his extremely charitable history and consistent care for the underprivileged outweighed anything the Post said about him.

Continue reading Absence of Malice (1981)

The Electric Horseman (1979)

As the Annals of Film History come to resemble the Annals of Film Remakes more and more every day, one might suppose it’s only a matter of time before someone digs up The Electric Horseman and updates it with a modern twist. If we’re going by plot alone, Horseman has in fact already been remade a thousand times; there’s nothing earth-shatteringly original about the concept, or the characters, or the message, or the way the whole thing comes together. It’s very nearly your everyday run-of-the-mill romantic comedy, sharing a great many characteristics with all of those other romantic comedies, except for the fact that the romance outplays the humor at every turn. Horseman‘s a lot more enjoyable if you can manage to ignore genre classifications, or ignore the fact that you loathe country music. I’m happy to be your guide on both.

Mainly The Electric Horseman has something a lot of romantic comedies don’t: Robert Redford. Over the course of seven collaborations, Redford and Sydney Pollack essentially only made two films that weren’t structured around the romance of Redford’s character with a woman smitten by his jawline and just-visible chest hair. Both Jeremiah Johnson and Three Days of the Condor overshadow the likes of Horseman, but the other four romantic films — This Property is Condemned, The Way We Were, Out of Africa and Havana — probably do too. That’s without considering the zillion other films that Redford made in the ’70s, the busiest time in his career.

Continue reading The Electric Horseman (1979)

Bobby Deerfield (1977)

At least as far as the majority of the American public is concerned, Erich Maria Remarque is one of those authors who only wrote one book. It’s not true, of course, but his seminal All Quiet on the Western Front eclipsed his other work in the same way that Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest eclipsed everything else they wrote. In some cases this all-encompassing book isn’t even the best work by the given author, and there’s certainly a case to be made for that notion as far as Remarque is concerned. Heaven Has No Favorites, his 1961 novel, was serialized before publication but joined the rest of his works in achieving only minor notoriety. But it’s a hell of a book, heartbreaking and beautifully written even with the knowledge that it’s been translated from German.

And it would be nice to say that Bobby Deerfield yanked Heaven out of obscurity, but it really didn’t. Alvin Sargent (who would eventually win an Oscar for his screenplay for Ordinary People) penned the adaptation of Remarque’s novel, and the treatment soon piqued the interest of Sydney Pollack. By this point Pollack was well-established in Hollywood, having the Robert Redford-starrers Jeremiah Johnson and Three Days of the Condor under his belt, and so the next stop in the life of the script was in front of the on-fire Al Pacino. Pacino was drawn to the role of American F1 driver Bobby Deerfield, saying he identified with his journey more than any role he’d taken to date.

Continue reading Bobby Deerfield (1977)

Three Days of the Condor (1975)

When people say it’s just like a ’70s spy thriller! or if you like ’70s spy thrillers, you’ll love this!, the movie they’re all referring to whether they know it or not is Three Days of the Condor. This is how we measure the influence that the Pollack-Redford political drama has had on our current film industry: in remakes, spinoffs, tributes, allusions, shoutouts and straight-up copies of the original.

Written as the novel Six Days of the Condor by James Grady, the book translated to the screen so well thanks to the the meticulous aplomb of Sydney Pollack and the solid performances of the entire cast. Three Days of the Condor wasn’t written to be an overtly political film, all appearances to the contrary, and according to Pollack and Redford the “thriller” aspect of “political thriller” was the part they tried to emphasize. It worked. Still, the political associations were all but unavoidable in 1975; Watergate was certainly still fresh, but more immediate was the leaking of highly sensitive CIA documents known as the Family Jewels scandal. This occurrence ended up being one of those Hollywood coincidences where a movie gets made about a particular subject and then that particular subject, one day out of the seeming blue, becomes the particular subject of the day’s news. Three Days of the Condor came out too close to the Family Jewels scandal to be able to say anything explicitly about it, but it managed to wrestle with the issue all the same.

Continue reading Three Days of the Condor (1975)

The Yakuza (1974)

Sydney Pollack’s The Yakuza was released at a time when depictions of Asia in Hollywood films were either simple vehicles for big stars or grossly Westernized misrepresentations. There are notable exceptions, of course, and The Yakuza is probably one of them. Starring Robert Mitchum as a retired detective returning to Japan for a new case, the film manages to give real playing time to actors who aren’t straight from Hollywood. Chief among these is Ken Takakura, who shines as the conflicted brother of a former love interest of Mitchum’s character.

As was the case with several of his films, Sydney Pollack wasn’t the first director to be attached to The Yakuza. Robert Aldrich, best known for The Dirty Dozen and the brilliant Flight of the Phoenix, was initially slated to reteam with Mitchum after their collaboration on The Angry Hills back in 1959. Aldrich, a fine director, would have done fine with The Yakuza, but it just seems more interesting as a part of the early Pollack filmography. Following Jeremiah Johnson and The Way We Were and preceding Three Days of the Condor, the Tokyo- and Kyoto-set noir provides a nice break from the Redford-starrers.

Continue reading The Yakuza (1974)

Jeremiah Johnson (1972)

Starring Robert Redford’s burly mane, Jeremiah Johnson is the story of an absolutely incredible beard and the mountain man who carries it around on his face. The beard just wants to live a quiet life, moving gently in the Rocky Mountain breeze and catching a few snowflakes, but other forces dwelling in the range cause trouble for the beard. As seasons pass in the valleys below, the beard wisens to the truths of the world and becomes a broader, more understanding beard.

Sydney Pollack directed five or six films – five including 1969’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, and six if you count 1968’s The Swimmer, which Pollack eventually took over without an actual directing credit – and plenty of TV before he got to Jeremiah Johnson in 1972. Not long before production began, it was Clint Eastwood in Johnson’s role and Sam Peckinpah set to direct him, but the pair clashed and Eastwood said “Dirty Harry sounds a lot less dangerous” (paraphrased) and Redford was cast in his place. Having worked together on This Property Is Condemned in 1966, it was Redford who secured Pollack as Peckinpah’s replacement. Contrary to what one may think when watching Redford ride around on horseback for two hours Jeremiah Johnson actually cost quite a bit of money, and it was money that the studio wasn’t prepared to give out after advancing Redford a hefty salary. Pollack mortgaged his house and financed parts of the film himself, all the while strictly adhering to the budgetary and time constraints the studio laid down.

In short, you wouldn’t blame Pollack for being a bit sour after such a stressful production. But the director cited it as a great trial-by-fire learning experience, essentially because the money he was risking was his own. It probably helped that Johnson did well and remains a bit of a mountain-man classic today.

The kernel of the film, at least for me, comes when Jeremiah sits by a freshly-killed dinner with his de facto family – a wife he was all but forced to marry and a son he was all but forced to adopt. First, the irony of a man sojourning to the Rockies to live a life of quiet solitude and ending up married with a kid is a rich one. As they sit around munching rabbit or whatever Jeremiah teaches his non-English speaking wife a new word: “Yes”. He then asks her some questions about himself, the last of which is “I am a fine figure of a man, yes?” Now, this lady has no idea what in the hell this guy is talking about. She’s goaded into answering all the same, showing off her new word “yes”. Jeremiah sits back satisfied.

A definition of manhood in any form, validity apparently notwithstanding, keeps cropping up in Jeremiah Johnson. He achieves legendary status among some of the puny town-dwellers, achieves something of a nemesis status among a tribe of Crow Indians, and achieves something that begins as pity but matures into respect with two like-minded mountain men. What of himself? Does “being a man” equal “living a full life”, or is there a gap there somewhere that leaves this manly man’s man ultimately unfulfilled?

Pollack and Redford manage to pull an extremely strong narrative out of what could easily have been a semblance of shots of Jeremiah riding a horse. The beard helps. Tragically, the beard’s career went sharply downhill following Jeremiah Johnson and was hardly ever seen in Hollywood again, sinking into a drunken oblivion and leading a shattered existence that would one day serve as the basis for Leaving Las Vegas.