Bright Lights Film Journal

Sydney Pollack (1934-2008) – Good Director, Great Actor

One of the best, certainly one of the most unusual, episodes of the half-hour anthology series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, was 1960’s “The Contest for Aaron Gold.” Directed by Norman Lloyd and based on a story by Philip Roth, it’s about a camp counselor, a teacher of ceramics, who observes a special talent in Aaron (Barry Gordon), one of the boys he is instructing in arts and crafts. While the other boys are using their clay to make crude snakes and pots, Aaron is making a finely detailed sculpture of a knight. But there’s a problem. The sculpture is missing an arm, and for some reason, Aaron refuses to complete it. The night before the boys’ parents are due to arrive, the counselor decides to complete the sculpture himself – with unexpected results.

I recall this episode today, among other reasons, because of the extraordinary natural performance by the actor who played the camp counselor. It was the late Sydney Pollack, and to see him in this role is to wonder why he didn’t have the major acting career of a Hoffman or a De Niro. Instead, of course, Pollack became a director, and – not surprisingly – directing actors was one of his greatest strengths. As the various obituaries that have appeared over the past couple days have shown, nearly everybody has their own favorite Pollack film. Mine is They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969), a terrific allegorical closed system melodrama (like 12 Angry Men, or any other dramatic work in which a group of characters interact within a narrowly confined time and space) about a dance marathon taking place during America’s Great Depression. They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? captures the emotional and economic desperation of the Depression far better than most films about the era, and features stunning performances from an ensemble cast that includes Jane Fonda, Susannah York, Red Buttons, and Gig Young – the latter winning an Oscar.

Eventually, Pollack did return to acting, at first in films he directed himself like Tootsie (1982), later in films by others, most memorably Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives (1992) in which he played the lead opposite Judy Davis, and Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999). Tootsie and Eyes Wide Shut, in particular, demonstrate how Pollack’s welcome presence could anchor a film in reality, no matter how far-fetched the context.

In addition to his work as actor and director, Pollack was one of Hollywood’s finest producers. The IMDB lists 47 films on which Pollack was credited as producer. I will mention just three: The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), Michael Clayton (2007) in which he appeared, and Recount (2008), a smart, thoroughly engrossing, and (as you might expect) well-acted film about the 2000 election that premiered on HBO only two days ago. I never met Pollack, alas, but I miss him already.