Sydney Pollack (1934-2008) – a Remembrance
By Bruce Coughran
I have been away at a meditation retreat center (Tassajara Zen Mountain Center) for the last two months and have not had any news from the world at large except for the occasional comment by one of the visitors. When I finally got back online for the first time the first thing I read was of the death of Sydney Pollack. My heart sank. Maybe the re-encounter with the larger world was part of it, but I was truly caught breathless. I hardly knew Sydney, but he was a big factor in my life as a filmmaker, not only as a role model and great artist, but also as a personal mentor.
Like many people of my generation, I loved and was inspired by many of his films, probably ‘Three Days of the Condor’ and ‘Tootsie’ being my favorites. I started making films later in life, and when I first moved to LA one of my first encounters was with Sydney. I went to a screening of ‘Three Days of the Condor’ at the DGA and got to talk to him briefly afterward. I told him how much I loved the films and that I had just made my first short film at a program at UCLA and had some questions I would love to ask a seasoned director. He told me to call his assistant, and some time later he spent the better part of an hour on the phone with me.
Now, at the time Sydney was extremely busy. He was still directing, producing and running Mirage Enterprises, which was quite active with literally dozens of projects going on, as well as doing the occasional acting turn (with other pretty-good directors like Woody Allen and Stanley Kubrick). Still, he took the time to talk to me, just some seemingly sincere, but otherwise random beginning director about directing actors. I told him about the troubles I had had with one of my actors and he told be about his experiences directing Harrison Ford. He spoke to me directly, as a peer, without the slightest trace of superiority or condescension. He said things like “You have to convince the actors to want to go on the ride with you.” He had just directed ‘Random Hearts’ (which had not done well) and said “Even I can make a bomb.” He was truly gracious, generous, warm and giving.
I kept in touch with him over the years, and had a chance to talk to him maybe four other times. The last time was at the Palm Springs International Film Festival in 2007. I was working at the festival running the panels and seminars, and Sydney was being honored for his body of work. I had asked his assistant the week before if I might be able to see him when he was in Palm Springs and she said he was just scheduled every moment. But as I was ending a panel on photographers, I ran into him on the street as he was walking to lunch. (I realized later he was probably going to lunch with Douglas Kirkland, one of my panelists, who was a close friend of his and had shot stills on several of his pictures including ‘Out of Africa’.)
We talked for a few minutes. I told him again how much he had inspired me (I always feel dopey doing that, but it was really the truth) and how appreciative I had been for his counsel over the years. He was, as always, gracious and giving. Sydney obviously loved life. He traveled a lot (when I talked to him in Palm Springs he had just done a bicycle trip across Indonesia) and he was an avid pilot and loved to fly (even after his only son was killed in a small plane crash in 1993). He has an amazing body of work, but he also had a lot of humility. He was still vital and alive at 72 and I had to believe he had work still left to do. But that was not to be. When I heard he had cancer, I guess I hoped that it was not so. I really hardly knew him, but I feel like I have lost a dear friend. I think Sydney had that effect on people.
I want to mention one other image of Sydney. Immediately after the attacks on the World Trade Center there was a rash of attacks on artists. It was bizarre and vicious. (The most obvious was the attack on Bill Mahr for suggesting that such a deed may have required some courage on the part of the hijackers. This comment lead to his then very popular show being canceled in short order.) There were also attacks on several projects that in some way showed the motivations of people who did terrible things.
In this terrible, scary environment Sydney was one of the few voices that dared to speak out. (He is less well-known for his tireless work for artist’s freedoms of expression and the rights of artists to not to have their works altered, but he was a major voice.) Sydney cut through all the hogwash that was spewing through the media at the time. He very eloquently made a point that was something like this: Art, especially storytelling art, is by its nature about looking at things from another point-of-view than your own. It is because we all have a limited range of experience, a few really close relationships, a few really powerful experiences, a few really important life transitions, which we look to stories about how other people are and live their lives and experience the world around them. This is the purpose of storytelling; not to tell us what we want to hear, but to tell us what will challenge us to see things differently, and to grow.
To me, Sydney will always be the voice of a committed and thoughtful artist. He often told the story of his first directing job. An Indiana boy, he had gone to New York to become an actor and had been trained by legendary acting teacher Stanford Meisner. He stayed on after the two-year training and became Meisner’s assistant. When he went to Hollywood, as he put it, “no one was much impressed by my acting, but they were very impressed by the fact that I had been Sandy’s assistant.” He got a job on a Bert Lancaster film as the acting coach for the child actors.
After the film, Lancaster called Sydney into his office at the studio and asked him what he wanted to do. I don’t remember what he said, but to whatever it was Lancaster replied “you should be directing.” He then (in “Old Hollywood” fashion) called the head of the studio with Sydney sitting there and said on the phone “This Sydney Pollack should be directing. Give him a picture to do.” And that resulted in a change of career to being a director. And thank you Bert for that, we have a wonderful bunch of films thanks to you.
But I think that Bert Lancaster saw in Sydney the same thing that I saw and I think was a common experience for people who met Sydney. It wasn’t bravado or seething “passion”. Sydney respected material (he was known for his relentless work on the scripts he directed) and he respected actors. He was thoughtful and committed to the process, and to a rigorous search for excellence. And he was genuine and warm and giving as a human being. The world is a little less for his absence. And I will miss him.
(originally published in Film News and Views, July, 2008)