The craft of … Sidney Pollack

Sidney Pollack died this morning aged 73. 

I saw him in London just last summer, when he was presenting his film Sketches of Frank Gehry, followed by a Q&A with Gehry himself, to discuss both the movie and their respective ways of working. He was funny and vigorous, full of excitement about his future projects, and it’s a great shame to lose him so soon.

Pollack is a Mastersvo hero on three counts. First, he was a classic Hollywood craftsman. His films are crisp, elegant and beautiful, with a sure touch for matching form and function: the directing serves the story, never the other way around. Second, he successfully blended the personal, the political and the popular, bringing believable characters to genre pictures in films as different as Three Days of the CondorTootsie and The Firm. And third, as an actor, he was an astringent, bracing supporting presence, raising the game of everyone he played against, whether Woody Allen (Husbands and Wives), George Clooney (Michael Clayton) or Tom Cruise (Eyes Wide Shut). And, of course, Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie:

Not all his pictures work. Random Hearts is glum, despite the sparkling Kristin Scott Thomas, Havana is Casablanca at twice the length with half the wit, and The Interpreter, despite some great set pieces, hinges on a premise that makes no sense at all. On the other hand, I prefer his version of Sabrina to Billy Wilder’s (heresy I know), and Sketches of Frank Gehry is one of the best portrayals of creative craft on film. 

Pollack’s producing partner over the past decade was Anthony Minghella, and it’s easy, looking at their work, to see why. Both of them made movies with an elegance, a quiet political engagement and an optimism that is rare in contemporary film, and that should offer inspiration to us all.

Pollack began his career as an actor, and brought an actor’s technique to his directing. Here’s a great note on his craft from a BFI interview that he gave some years ago:

“Every time I get into an intellectual situation which I’m discussing with the studio head or someone, I remember acting classes with my teacher, Meisner, where he would say, ‘What is this scene about?’ to the actor and the actor would say, ‘Well this scene is about the fact that I need money to go to see my dying mother’. And then Meisner would say, ‘Well let me see you act that you need money to go. Let me see you act that’.

“And they didn’t know what to do. Because you can’t act something that doesn’t have anything to do with behaviour. He used to say, ‘My aunt Alice can tell you that the scene is about getting money to go to see your dying father. It’s got nothing to do with acting. That has nothing to do with the scene. That’s just facts. What is the scene about?’ And he would keep on until you got to a point where you said, ‘This is a scene where I have to do the thing that I hate most in the world. It embarrasses me so badly to ask this guy for this money, because I hate to be beholden.’ And then it becomes that. And that’s what the writing process is for me and also what the directing process is.”

PS. There’s a great piece on Pollack’s performance in Eyes Wide Shut here.

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