Tuesday, May 27, 2008
In Memory of Michael Dorsey's Agent
It’s been less than a year since I first viewed the MICHAEL CLAYTON trailer and mentioned to someone how cool it was to see Sydney Pollack billed right up there with the likes of Clooney, Swinton and Wilkinson. That can’t be something he ever anticipated way back when Dustin Hoffman browbeat him into taking on the role of George Fields in TOOTSIE, a movie he was already directing and would go on to be one of the true classic comedies of the past quarter-century.
Funny thing is, as brilliant and funny as he is in that film (“I begged you to get some therapy.”), he didn’t appear in front of the camera again for another decade when in 1992 he turned up in enjoyable bits in THE PLAYER and DEATH BECOMES HER along with an astonishing supporting performance in Woody Allen’s HUSBANDS AND WIVES. His work in that film seemed to get lost in the controversy surrounding the release along with the deserved acclaim that Judy Davis received but chances are people simply didn’t realize he wasn’t acting. He just came off as so believable in that role that it was hard to believe he wasn’t really that guy, down to the immensely painful sequence where he tries to forcibly remove new girlfriend Lysette Anthony from a party as he simultaneously realizes what everything he’s done has come to. With someone else in the role it could come off as either too comical or too melodramatic, but as Pollack plays it the scene is raw, painful and genuine. There was his role in EYES WIDE SHUT with that amazing scene around the pool table where it just goes on and on but I feel like I can listen him methodically discuss his role in possibly nefarious acts for days. And more recently there’s been his spot-on work in MICHAEL CLAYTON and guest shot on THE SOPRANOS which make me wish we could have more performances from him that would elevate the material in such ways. His presence in films also sometimes made him seem like a truly decent individual right down to his very final moment in TOOTSIE when he drops all discussion about the charade upon hearing about Charles Durning’s proposal and, smiling, asks “What did you say?”
But it’s his work as a director which seems tremendously important right now. It seems like we’ve been losing greats from the film world lately more than usual and I can’t help but wonder if Pollack’s death means some sort of irrevocable shift. His films from personal favorite TOOTSIE to THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR to ABSENCE OF MALICE to OUT OF AFRICA to THE FIRM to THE INTERPRETER are the sort of thing which have fallen by the wayside in the past decade—quality pieces of work produced by Hollywood, intended for adults, out to see a movie on a Saturday night. Without him there to keep on trying to get those films made, I don't know who else is left to do it. In addition to his smooth craftsmanship (and, sometimes, great use of Scope) the projects he worked on had a continuing preoccupation with man-woman relationships in terms of honesty, trust and identity presented in a context which may have sometimes been overly slick, but was always humanistic. The line “You think not getting caught in a lie is the same thing as telling the truth” seemed to turn up in a few of them, a line of confrontation which could say what he was interested in exploring with his films as much as anything.
Today I had to go to jury duty downtown which wasn’t much fun at all, but getting there required parking in the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Hall, a reminder in that early hour that I still had yet to see Pollack’s final film, the acclaimed documentary SKETCHES OF FRANK GEHRY. Now his passing comes just after the premiere of RECOUNT, a film he was set to direct before illness forced him to withdraw but still has an Executive Producer credit on. Those pieces of unfinished business remind me of how THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR concludes on an uncertain beat before ending abruptly. That was Sydney Pollack—still driven and determined, but then the finish comes before we’re ready.