It was a shock to read of Sydney Pollack’s passing this morning, although rumors of his illness had been circulating for months. By director standards — the job either requires or produced amazing metabolisms — he was not terribly old, a mere 73, and when I last spoke to him two or three years ago, he was still full of energy and curiosity. He was one of those rare filmmakers who seemed genuinely interested in work other than his own. One of his formative experiences had been working as Burt Lancaster’s “assistant” on “The Leopard” — a job that, according to Sydney, mainly consisted of being a native speaker of English, so Lancaster would have someone to talk to — and he could recall Visconti’s working methods with great precision. He helped me immeasurably some years ago when I was trying to get a documentary going on Budd Boetticher. The roadblock, then as now, was the expense of licensing clips from the studios. Sydney heard about the project from a mutual friend and volunteered out of the clear blue sky to put in a call to his old friend John Calley, who was then the head of Columbia. A few days later, Calley called me up, said that Sydney had vouched for me, and offered me free use of footage form the Columbia westerns (an executive decision that did not go down well with the underlings whose job it was to extract high fees for such things). A purely selfless act, rare enough in any business and particularly in this one.
I see the DVD Beaver mailing list is already full of disparaging comments about Pollack’s work, which is regrettable. He was, by his own admission, a determinedly mainstream director, and never courted the critical elite (his one attempt at an art film, “The Swimmer,” which he took over from the infinitely pretentious Frank Perry when Lancaster tired of him, is by far his least appealing work). Trained as an actor (by Sanford Meisner, whose version of The Method was far less mystical and far more palatable than the one peddled at the Actors’ Studio), he saw his work mainly as protecting his performers and bringing the best out of them, and certainly no one directed stars with more assurance and sensitivity in the 70s and the 80s. This was, after all, the man who made Robert Redford seem interesting, and kept a lid on Method madmen like Al Pacino and Dustin Hoffman. If his work declined in the 90s, it was because the pool of viable stars was beginning to dry up — imagine beginning your career with Lancaster and Mitchum, and finishing it with Cruise and Ford. It wasn’t his world anymore, though he continued to do good work as a producer (with “Michael Clayton,” most recently) and an actor (ditto). He was one of our last remaining links to a time when movies were not made primarily for 13-year-old boys, and I for one will miss him tremendously.
In today’s New York Times DVD column, I babble on a bit about Alexander Korda’s “The Thief of Bagdad,” now in a shiny new edition from Criterion, and King Hu’s historically important and highly entertaining martial arts film of 1966, “Come Drink with Me.”