Wednesday, July 17, 2013
What he really wanted to do was be an actor
BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post is part of The Sydney Pollack Blogathon occurring through July 22 at Seetimaar — Diary of a Movie Lover
By Edward Copeland
For 40 years, from 1965 to 2005, Sydney Pollack directed 19 feature films. His last directing effort appeared as an installment of PBS' American Masters series on the architect Frank Gehry. Prior to that, he directed lots of episodic television. As Pollack reached the end of his life (and beyond it) he produced projects more than he directed and toward the end he also resumed the artistic endeavor where he started, acting more and more often. When he ventured into show business, he aimed toward acting. His father hoped that Pollack would pursue a career in dentistry, but after catching the theater bug in high school in South Bend, Ind., he left for New York following graduation and studied with legendary acting teacher Sanford Meisner at Meisner's Neighborhood Playhouse (The same year he directed the American Masters special on Frank Gehry, he executive produce another episode of the series on Meisner). Eventually, he became an assistant to Meisner and even taught acting to others, though in a 2006 interview with Venice Magazine, Pollack resisted calling the technique he learned and passed on "The Method." "People call a lot of things 'The Method,' but there really isn’t one Method," Pollack said, "but it’s all derived from Stanislavsky. It’s all derived from Stanislavsky, but Stella Adler taught it different than Sandy Meisner and Strasberg taught it differently from both of them, and Harold Clurman taught it differently than the three of them, and Bobby Lewis took it in his own direction, as well. They each took The Moscow Art Theater of Stanislavsky and basic principles, and then developed their own approach. The goal was always the same: to find a way to analyze the construction of truthful behavior within imaginary circumstances."
As he acted a lot in television of the 1950s, Pollack's interest turned to directing. While Pollack directed and produced some great and good films (my favorite being 1982's Tootsie, where he took his first substantial acting role since an episodic television appearance on a 1964 episode of the crime drama Brenner starring Edward Binns and James Broderick), after Tootsie, he acted or did voicework in more films and TV shows than his entire filmography. In many ways, I found Pollack more interesting at times as an actor than as a filmmaker, and that's where his career in the arts began, with his single Broadway role in 1955's The Dark Is Light Enough by Christopher Fry and starring Katharine Cornell, Tyrone Power and featuring Christopher Plummer.
Pollack began directing episodic television in 1961 and had ceased television acting in 1964 with that appearance on Brenner. As he jettisoned acting to concentrate on directing, he made a single movie: the 1962 Korean War drama War Hunt. The film starred John Saxon and Charles Aidman, but in addition to Pollack's supporting role, the movie offered appearances by Gavin MacLeod, Tom Skerritt and uncredited work by another future director, Francis Ford Coppola, as an Army truck driver. The biggest name among the ranks (at least he would be eventually) turned out to be a young Robert Redford. Pollack would direct Redford in seven films: This Property Is Condemned, Jeremiah Johnson, The Way We Were, Three Days of the Condor, The Electric Horseman, Out of Africa and Havana. Redford served as one of the producers of A Civil Action which featured Pollack in an acting role.
The headline at the top of this piece isn't quite true. Pollack return to acting in 1982's Tootsie (aside from a brief cameo in 1979's The Electric Horseman) proved to be quite a reluctant one. He already had cast Dabney Coleman to play George Fields, agent to prima donna/unemployed actor Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman) but Hoffman pushed Pollack into taking the role himself, seeing the dynamic they had in their disagreements over the script. Pollack didn't want to leave Coleman in the cold so he cast him in the role of movie's fictional soap opera's director instead. Hoffman's instincts didn't fail him or the film as his scenes with Pollack provide many of the movie's comic highlights. You get that in the scene above, in the scene in the Russian Tea Room where Michael surprises George by showing up as his new alter ego Dorothy Michaels and, in perhaps my favorite scene between the two of them, when Michael shows up at George's home late one night to try to explain the romantic complications, including the fact that the father (Charles Durning) of the woman he loves (Jessica Lange) bought Dorothy an engagement ring. Forgetting for a moment what this all means, Pollack's reaction to news of the proposal comes off as priceless.
Following Tootsie, Pollack returned to the directing-producing track for a decade. During this decade he won his two Oscars for Out of Africa, but looking at the projects in that decade on which he worked solely as a producer or executive producer actually look more interesting than most of the movies he directed in that time. Some examples of his producing output from 1982 to 1991: Songwriter, The Fabulous Baker Boys, Presumed Innocent, White Palace, (surprisingly) King Ralph and Dead Again. With Tootsie, Pollack displayed a grounded, realistic comic side, but when 1992 arrived and he began to act up a storm, his range widened, even if for the most part Pollack got pigeonholed as either a lawyer or a doctor, he played distinct members of each profession. Ten years after Tootsie, he managed roles in three films (and found time to executive produce two movies as well: HBO's A Private Matter and Leaving Normal, which had the misfortune of being too similar to Thelma & Louise and coming out a few months after the other film). The photo at the top of this post shows Pollack in his first 1992 role, Dick Mellon, business lawyer to besieged studio exec Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) in Robert Altman's The Player. As Mellon, Pollack plays a no-nonsense Hollywood figure who has seen it all and never changes his vocal tone, no matter how serious the situation becomes, and doles out truisms such as in this exchange with Mill. "Rumors are always true. You know that," Mellon tells Mill. "I'm always the last to hear about them," Griffin sighs. "No, you're always the last one to believe them," Dick corrects his client. Pollack, as in the case of his casting in Tootsie, hadn't been the first choice of the director. Of course, Pollack had helmed Tootsie and opposed casting himself as George Fields. With The Player, Altman tried to cast as many of the character parts with lesser-known faces because his film contained so many star cameos and he wanted to avoid as much audience confusion as possible. Initially, Altman sought writer-director Blake Edwards, who also started his career as an actor, though he hadn't appeared on screen since 1948, for the part of Mellon, but it didn't work out and he went with Pollack, who only had that one role in Tootsie in 30 years. While The Player offers darker, satirical laughs than Tootsie did and Pollack doesn't get the laughs out of Dick Mellon that he did out of George Fields, he garnered more laughs in his most dramatic, deepest film role yet as Jack, the divorcing best friend of Gabe Roth (Woody Allen) in Husbands and Wives. I wasn't as crazy about the film as others, but Pollack delivered one of his greatest acting jobs, ranging from the at-ease midlife divorced man finding renewed vigor with a twentysomething aerobics instructor (Lysette Anthony) and then turning downright nasty on her at a party when she doesn't meet his standards for intellectual heft. He literally drags her from the soiree and tosses her toward his car, accusing her of being an "infant." It's a scary side of Pollack that we'll see more of in other roles. His third on-screen role of 1992 didn't receive a credit, but the cameo in Death Becomes Her provides what could be Pollack's funniest moments as an ER doctor examining Meryl Streep. The clip below leaves out his character's final punch line.
Until his death from cancer in May 2008, seeing Pollack act became a much more common sight than spotting his directing credit. He turned up in legal entanglements again in films such as A Civil Action, Michael Clayton and Changing Lanes. He guided Tom Cruise into the sexual netherworld of the rich and powerful in Stanley Kubrick's final film, Eyes Wide Shut. He took roles in the last two films he directed, Random Hearts and The Interpreter. Pollack even provided the voice for the studio executive in The Majestic and the French film Avenue Montaigne. His final film role was in the romantic comedy Made of Honor where he played the father of the male maid of honor (Patrick Dempsey). On television, he did more voice work on comedies such as Frasier and King of the Hill. He also played a doctor on an episode of Mad About You and had a recurring role as Will's father on Will & Grace. He even played himself on an episode of Entourage, his last TV or movie appearance. Of all his late appearances though, the one that stands out to me also came in 2007 and put him in the role of another doctor. In the batch of the last nine episodes of The Sopranos, Pollack played jailed oncologist Warren Feldman, incarcerated with the dying Johnny Sac (Vincent Curatola) in the great episode "Stage 5." This scene I believe gives a great example of how talented Pollack truly could be as an actor.