"The only thing that really interests me is the relationship between men and women, because it's a metaphor for everything else in life," Sydney Pollack told a NEWSWEEK reporter in 1985, just before "Out of Africa" opened. He won two Oscars for that movie—as producer and director—and it cemented his position at the top of Hollywood's A list, a consummate professional who could make films that were both glossy and intelligent, commercial and adult. But whatever the subject or genre, there would almost always be a love story—usually star-crossed and impossible—at the heart of it.
"There aren't a lot of good love stories left," he went on to say, but he found ones that resonated deeply with audiences—whether turning Isak Dinesen's memoirs of Africa into a tale of doomed romance between Meryl Streep's proud Danish aristocrat and Robert Redford's dashing, commitmentphobic Denys Finch Hatton, or creating the explosive, odd-couple romantic chemistry of Redford and Barbra Streisand in his madly popular "The Way We Were," a touchstone for a generation of women.
Pollack worked with the biggest stars in Hollwood, but Redford was his main man. They met, as fellow actors, in the 1962 film "War Hunt." Redford starred in seven Pollack movies, beginning with his Tennessee Williams adaptation "This Property Is Condemned" in 1966. Their peak may have come with the taut, autumnal, paranoid thriller "Three Days of the Condor" in 1975, the first mainstream studio movie to show the CIA in a villainous light (a portrayal that later became a commonplace). Even in the midst of this suspense movie, Pollack created an intriguingly off-beat romance, tinged with sadomasochistic undertones, between Redford and Faye Dunaway, who plays a woman he's hijacked to hide him in her apartment while assassins track him down.
Pollack made only one comedy in his career, but it's become a classic. "Tootsie" works so well in part because it's played for emotional realism, not cheap laughs; the love story intrigued him more than the farcical cross-dressing gags. Pollack, who had trained as an actor under the legendary Sanford Meisner (and later became his assistant) understood actors as few directors do, and he got great work out of them. Everybody in "Tootsie" is at the top of their game, from Dustin Hoffman and Jessica Lange down to Bill Murray and Pollack himself, who plays Hoffman's agent. Jane Fonda credits Pollack's "They Shoot Horses Don't They" as a turning point in her evolution as an actress. (Gig Young won an Oscar for his work in that film.) Take a look at "The Firm," his solid 1993 John Grisham adaptation. It's not the best or the worst of Pollack's movies, but the depth of talent is extraordinary. He wisely made Tom Cruise a team player and surrounded him with indelible supporting performers like David Strathairn, Holly Hunter, Gene Hackman, Ed Harris, Gary Busey, Jeanne Tripplehorn and Wilford Brimley. The acting gives what could have been a routine thriller its quirky humanity. He lost his touch for a time after that success; "Sabrina" and "Random Hearts" were badly misconceived. But Pollack bounced back, taking the camera in hand himself to make the illuminating personal documentary "Sketches of Frank Gehry" (2005).
Though he didn't take his own acting career seriously, Pollack was always a delight to watch when he did pop up in other peoples' movies. Perhaps his greatest role was in Woody Allen's 1992 film "Husbands and Wives," as an unhappily married man trying to become a swinger a little too late in life. Stanley Kubrick used him well in "Eyes Wide Shut"; he lent worldly-wise weight to "Michael Clayton" (which he also produced). And it was a wonderful surprise to see Pollack steal scenes in "The Sopranos" as the wife-killing oncologist Dr. Warren Feldman.
Onscreen you can sense the man's intelligence, his toughness, his sense of humor, his lack of pretension—all qualities that came through when you met him. I once had the pleasure of watching a UCLA-USC football game with him in my hotel room in Denver, where we were both attending a film festival. Pollack was a sports fan, and he wasn't about to miss the big game to promote his movie.
It was widely known that Pollack had been gravely ill, but his death still came as a shock—and something of a double blow, following on the heels of the premature death of Anthony Minghella, his partner in his production company, Mirage. As the producer of such movies as "Sense and Sensibility," "The Talented Mr. Ripley," "Iris," and the low budget Sundance winner "Forty Shades of Blue," Pollack encouraged both new talent and resolutely grown-up entertainments. In Hollywood the sense of loss was palpable, coming at a time when his kind of movies—and his kind of in-his-marrow professionalism—increasingly feel like endangered species.