Director Sydney Pollack Dies

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Everett Collection

Director Sydney Pollack in 2005

The last time I saw Sydney Pollack he was doing me a gallant favor. He had become, in recent years, my narrator of choice for the documentaries I produce and write. He had done the voice-over for one of them in the summer of 2007. Sometime after Labor Day it became clear to me that I needed him to do a bit of additional taping. By that time it was also clear to me that Sydney was ill with the cancer that carried him off Monday. I was quite prepared to replace the work he had already done, but I felt I owed him an invitation to come in and record the lines I needed. Tentatively I asked. Tentatively, he agreed.

The day before the session, he called and asked me to listen to his voice. He thought the therapy he was taking had roughened it. I listened to him, said I thought he sounded fine, and the next day he turned up in the studio — calm and professional — and did his usual superlative job — no fluffs, no fuss — achieving that unique blend of sympathy and authority I treasured. It was only when we chatted for a few minutes afterward that I detected in him an implicit acceptance that the chances of a good outcome in his case were not good. There was no melodrama or self-pity in his tone; it was as if we were discussing some small problem that had cropped up on one of his sets. I also felt that he had perhaps valued these few minutes of routine work as a brief furlough from the country of the ill.

Narration is a form of acting, which is how Sydney, who was 73 when he died, began his career, and he did a lot of it in recent years — usually playing strong, sardonic, occasionally self-deluded men. A wry worrier, he once said to me that the responsibility for directing big-budget studio pictures had begun to weigh on him, making him tense and anxious; he directed only about a half-dozen films in his last 20 years. He became a much more prolific producer, with the pictures he made through his Mirage company tending to be smaller in scale, more eccentric, more personal than his studio pictures had been and he enjoyed godfathering them. The individuality that films like Birthday Girl and Forty Shades of Blue flung in the face of increasingly conventionalized studio production appealed to his romantic side; the business of bringing them in on time, on budget, appealed to his realistic side.

Those were the poles of his sensibility. He was capable of making something as funny as the great cross-dressing farce, Tootsie, or as dark as his take on depression-era America, They Shoot Horses Don't They? But his filmography is marked most indelibly by the lush romanticism of Out of Africa (for which he won the Oscar) on the one hand, and by taut thrillers like Three Days of the Condor and The Firm on the other. It can be argued that the contradiction between those two modes is more apparent than real. High romance disorders the spirits of those who succumb to it; the implicit paranoia of the thriller disorders the very institutions of society. But I suspect the picture he most enjoyed doing was his intimate documentary about his friend, Frank Gehry, the architect, in which he was also an interviewer and an occasional camera operator. It had the scale, tone and leisurely production schedule that suited him.

Sydney had power in Hollywood. But he wore it easily. He was not a social high-flyer. He infinitely preferred a different kind of flying — as the pilot of his own jet. It always seemed to me that he approached flight as he did his movies, enjoying the mastery of its techniques and the beauty it put him in touch with. He was, like most good directors, a practical dreamer. Unlike a lot of them, he was neither self-aggrandizing nor self-important and the thought of never working with him again leaves me (and a lot of people I know) feeling not merely saddened, but somehow diminished.