This article on Sydney Pollack appeared in the Australian Jewish News on June 6, 2008 (and has been updated on May 1, 2009).
With the May 2008 death of Sydney Pollack at age 73, we have lost not only one of the world’s great Jewish directors and producers, but a great Jewish character actor. Very few individuals have achieved consistent and great success in all three roles, but Pollack did.
Scott Eyman of the Palm Beach Post describes Pollack as “acting Jewish and directing Gentile”. This is one of the keys to why he did so well with The Way We Were, which starred Robert Redford as Hubbell Gardiner and Barbra Streisand as Katie Morosky, as temperamentally unsuited lovers. Redford effortlessly plays the emotionally uptight Gentile guy who is attracted to – but also repelled by – Streisand’s fiercely passionate and fiery Jewish woman. Take the following exchange between them:
Katie: “It’s because I’m not attractive enough, isn’t it. I’m not fishing, really. I’m not. I know I’m attractive, sort of. But I’m not attractive in the right way, am I? I mean, I don’t have the right style for you. Do I?”
Hubbell: “No. You don’t have the right style.”
Katie: “I’ll change.”
Hubbell: “No, don’t change. Be your own girl.”
Katie: “Why can’t I have you?”
Hubbell: “Because you push too hard … there’s no time to relax and enjoy living.”
These words were written by (Jewish) scriptwriter Arthur Laurents, based on his novel. But in bringing them to screen, Pollack successfully captured the emoting Jewish woman-ice king goyish guy dilemma in a way no other film has before or since. Redford starred in seven of Pollack’s films. According to David Edelstein in the “New York Post”, their ease at collaboration arose from Pollack’s background – the Jew who grew up in “decidedly non-Jewish Indiana … who clearly didn’t want to make movies with a lot of ethnic pushiness.”
Aside from The Way We Were, I particularly loved Tootsie, where Pollack’s “cool” directorial style ran directly up against Dustin Hoffman’s histrionics. The behind camera creative tension in this film is beautifully reflected in the hilarious but touching on-screen exchanges between Hoffman as the actor Michael Dorsey/Dorothy Michaels and Pollack as his bemused Jewish agent.
Despite his good and occasionally great films, it is Pollack the person, the actor on screen, the unmistakeably Jewish persona, who I and millions of others will remember. Pollack’s character is almost always identifiably Jewish in a way that reminds me of my American-Jewish uncles – or perhaps my ideal vision of wise, intelligent, witty, urbane and handsome uncles. Aside from Tootsie, there is his “Victor Ziegler” in Eyes Wide Shut (to many, the best thing about this flawed film), Marty Bach in Michael Clayton, Dick Mellon in The Player and an uncredited role as Meryl Streep’s doctor in Death Becomes Her. To get your biggest dose of Pollack, however, watch him deliver a powerful performance in Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives as Judy Davis’ partner. In addition to wit and humour, here he also gets to play rage; the pairing of two of the great Jews of twentieth century film (Allen and Pollack) along with two great non-Jewish actresses (Mia Farrow and Davis) is powerful if at times uncomfortable and uneven.
I saw Pollack in person once, when he came to Australia in 1999 to promote Random Hearts, the second of his two films with Harrison Ford. In person he was everything which I had seen on screen, but also appeared to be a little embarrassed about all of the attention focused on him.
Pollack will continue to haunt us for a long time to come – he was also seen in 2008 playing Patrick Dempsey’s father in Made of Honor, and Michael Clayton maintains a great popularity with its DVD release. But Pollack, prolific and hard-working to the end, also co-produced two films with Jewish characters and contexts that were to be released after his death: The Reader, directed by Stephen Daldry (The Hours) from the acclaimed Bernhard Schlink novel and Margaret, directed by Kenneth Lonergan and starring Anna Paquin as “Lisa Cohen” – which opened in the US on April 27 (2009) (Australian release currently undated). Co-producers in each case are Scott Rudin and Anthony Minghella, who also died in March 2008, resulting in an eerie presence for both films.