Wednesday, May 28, 2008

R.I.P. Sydney Pollack

Director, producer, and Hollywood heavyweight Sydney Pollack passed away yesterday at the age of 73, after succumbing to pancreatic cancer. (I never even knew he had cancer; when did this happen?) He was the embodiment of what some like to call "old school" Hollywood, and may have been one of its last champions.

I haven't seen the films that Pollack is most likely to be remembered for 50 years from now ("The Way We Were," "Tootsie," "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?," "Three Days of the Condor"), and those of his films that I have seen - "Out of Africa" and lesser efforts like "The Firm," "Sabrina," and "The Interpreter" - frankly didn't impress me (though "Sabrina" is a favorite of my father, who prefers it - sacrilege! - to the Billy Wilder/Audrey Hepburn original). Nonetheless, even his weaker ventures were clearly the work of an old-school craftsman of considerable taste and intelligence, qualities reflected as much in Pollack's record as a producer ("The Fabulous Baker Boys," "Sense and Sensibility," "The Quiet American," "Michael Clayton," to name just a few I've really, really liked) and actor (he was superb in "Michael Clayton") as his directorial oeuvre. Whatever his function, the movies he was involved in were movies made for grownups. In this he was kindred spirits with the recently-deceased Anthony Mingella, two of whose films he also produced or executive-produced ("The Talented Mr. Ripley," "Cold Mountain").

A.O. Scott has a thoughtful assessment of Pollack's legacy, in which he compares Pollack's directorial style to that of William Wyler. I tend to think Wyler was the superior director, but Scott does make a reasonable argument - which has also been voiced by others - that the two shared a self-subsuming, star-dependent approach to filmmaking that was the antithesis of the auteurism of the '60s and '70s, and that has been fading from the modern cinematic landscape:

The old A pictures, made for mass appeal and Oscar glory, no longer have the industry cachet or cultural impact they used to. The studios send their specialty divisions out in search of awards on the relative cheap, while action franchises, raunchy comedies and family-friendly animation bring in the big money and attract the heavy investments.

There are exceptions, from time to time, movies that try to steer between the art house and the lowest common denominator in the great Hollywood middle-brow tradition. Tony Gilroy’s “Michael Clayton,” a tale of corporate malfeasance with a smart script, a few murders and George Clooney’s charisma, may be the best recent example. It’s hardly an accident that Mr. Pollack’s name appears in the credits twice, as a producer and as a member of the cast.

It would be nice if “Michael Clayton” turned out not to be an anomaly but rather a sign that the old mainstream has not entirely run dry. And I hope that there are at least aspiring filmmakers and producers out there who dream of being the next Sydney Pollack.

Amen to that.