Reluctant director Pollack shapes a legendary career
September 30, 2002
For a guy who doesn’t enjoy directing, has no particular acting ambitions and got into producing mainly as a default position, Sydney Pollack has had some career in film.
The 68-year-old Pollack ? whose credits span directing (18 films, including “Out of Africa” and “The Way We Were”), acting (eight movies, including Woody Allen’s “Husbands and Wives,” and the Pollack-directed “Tootsie”), and producing (25 films, including “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and “The Fabulous Baker Boys”) ? was presented with Aspen Filmfest’s Independent By Nature Award Friday night. Over the course of two hours at the Wheeler Opera House, Pollack entertained the crowd with anecdotes from his various careers, insight into Hollywood and an engaging but plain-spoken manner.
Perhaps the most surprising revelation of the evening was Pollack’s insistence that he doesn’t enjoy the process of directing a movie. “I don’t enjoy directing. I like having directed,” he said.
Pollack claimed he can happily go five years without directing a movie (something he has never actually done; he has directed 18 films over 37 years.) Pollack pointed to the enormous amounts of work and pressure that come with making the big-budget, major movie-star pictures he has specialized in since the beginning of his career. Pollack called the world of big-budget films “a dead end,” noting the cycle of escalating budgets and expectations major films bring.
Producing, said Pollack, has been a vehicle for him to remain artistically engaged without the constant headaches. Producing, he added, has given the added pleasure of broadening his involvement with more independent-leaning projects. Pollack’s Mirage Productions, formed in 1985, has produced some 25 films, and Pollack seemed to take particular pride in the directors ? including Ang Lee, Ken Branagh and Steve Kloves ? whose first films, or first American films, were produced by Pollack’s company.
As for acting, Pollack said he gave up on his ambitions decades ago, after he was steered away from a failing acting career, and into directing, thanks to the assistance of Burt Lancaster. Now Pollack, who has appeared in a handful of films by some of the best directors, sees acting as a form of “espionage” on other directors.
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“Directors get to see how actors work. Actors get to see how directors work, and actors get to see how other actors work,” said Pollack. “But directors never get to see how other directors work. Never.” So, Pollack explained, he has taken parts in films by Woody Allen, Stanley Kubrick, Robert Altman and others, simply to get a glimpse at how they operate on a set.
Pollack got good laughs in explicating the differences between Allen and the late Kubrick. With the scrupulous Kubrick, scenes will be shot dozens of times until it is perfected. Allen has a different method: “If an actor doesn’t get it right in two or three takes, Woody Allen fires them,” said Pollack, noting that he himself was a substitute for the fired Harvey Keitel in “Husbands and Wives.” And Allen, added Pollack, doesn’t generally talk to the actors, even to inform them they have been dismissed. “You know you’ve been fired when you get a card that says, ‘Go to Los Angeles,'” he said.
Pollack’s direct personality, his admitted reputation for being “an actor’s director” and his track record in making quality films seem to have made him a popular figure in Hollywood. Perhaps the biggest demonstration of his esteem was the message Woody Allen sent in, congratulating Pollack on his award. Even Pollack expressed amazement that Allen, notoriously hostile of awards and ceremonies, joined the likes of Robert Redford in offering words of congratulations. Following the reading of several notes came the screening of video messages, from actors Harrison Ford, James Caan and Julia Ormond, and director Anthony Minghella, Pollack’s partner in Mirage Productions. Ormond’s appearance was memorable for the way-off-color joke about the abundance of beaver at the Maroon Bells; Caan’s message was notable in its expression of warmth, even though, as Caan notes, Pollack has never put Caan into any of his movies.
The event had a neat touch of Hollywood drama. After the screening of a half-hour reel of highlights from Pollack’s directing career, the screen was raised to reveal a pair of grand pianos, glowing in warm light. Musician brothers Dave and Don Grusin then played excerpts from the music from “Tootsie.” The music completed, Dave Grusin stepped forward to say some kind, clearly heart-felt words about Pollack, with whom Grusin has collaborated on nearly 10 films. Grusin, a former Aspenite, presented Pollack with the award, a silver buckle from local smith Jim Hayes.
Pollack then gave a short talk about the contrasting feelings that come with presenting and accepting awards. He told the story of the time he was contacted by B’nai B’rith. The Jewish organization wanted to present country singer Willie Nelson with its Man of the Year Award. Some people at B’nai B’rith knew Pollack and Nelson were friends, and would Pollack call Nelson and inform him of the award? Pollack called Nelson, and Nelson’s line was memorable: “What, did they run out of Jews?”
Aspen Filmfest Executive Director Laura Thielen, who acted as Pollack’s interviewer, had the easy part of the night. Pollack was an interviewer’s delight. Thielen asked her first question ? how Pollack got into the various facets of his film career ? and it would be some 20 minutes before Thielen had to pose another question.
[Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org]