R.I.P., Sydney Pollack


Rest in peace, Sydney Pollack. I’ll miss knowing he’s around. He was one of the old guard. One of those old guys – like Redford, Beatty, Nicholson – who re-made the Hollywood studio system into their own image. Pollack’s films are some of the most successful of all time.

A graduate of the Neighborhood Playhouse, and Sanford Meisner’s teaching, Pollack always brought that sense of moment-to-moment unpredictable reality to his films (and to his acting, let’s not forget) that is such a trademark of “the Meisner technique“. You can see it at work. Acting is sometimes (sometimes!) just as simple as listening and talking. That was what Meisner was all about – training actors how to do that, and how to do it in the moment.

While some of his films did nothing for me (Sabrina (correction), Out of Africa) – there are others that I count as dearest to my heart. Movies I adore, and can watch repeatedly. I love Absence of Malice. I love They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?. I love Tootsie. And yes, I love The Way We Were – even in its too-obvious set-up of opposing viewpoints mixed with romance. I just like the details of the performances, frankly, and that, in my view, is what Sydney Pollack was best at capturing. The way Bill Murray’s character is set up and framed in Tootsie – I mean, that’s what I’m talking about. Bill Murray had to perform it, and he did so brilliantly – but it’s Pollack’s sensibility that really highlighted him, and Murray is so important to the success of that film (even though he’s only in a couple of scenes). He becomes crucial. Pollack always understood details like that. Kim has posted the clip from Tootsie with the great scene between Dustin Hoffman and Sydney Pollack as his exasperated pissed-off at-the-end-of-his-ropes agent. There’s not a moment there that isn’t real and also funny. So so good. “Nobody wants to pay money to watch a play about people living next to chemical waste! If they want to see that, they can go to New Jersey!”


Speaking of his acting: his performance in Husbands and Wives is a comedic tour de force. I LOVE it. There are certain performances which are so meaty … so … rich … that I feel like I could almost love being at a Renaissance Fair so that I could eat the performance with my bare hands, licking my chops. It’s THAT good. That’s what his performance does for me in Husbands and Wives. It is SO slimy, so unself-aware – like: suddenly that guy is talking about yoga and sprouts and stupid TV movies and how fun they are? Does he realize how ridiculous he seems? Well, no, he doesn’t. Because he is the kind of guy who can justify ANY behavior in himself, because he is always right. And that girl he dates, that ridiculous girl (I would say that her performance is a slam-dunk “10 minute Oscar” … “I just adore cous cous!” “Knowing your astrological sign is CRUCIAL . I cannot stress this enough!!”) Watching Sydney Pollack drag his new-age hippie girlfriend out of the party of snotty intellectuals is one of the funniest and most embarrassing scenes I have ever seen – and she fights him as though it’s the final scene in Deer Hunter. Like – it is life or death. She is in the jungle in ‘Nam, as far as she’s concerned, not an upscale driveway in Westchester. Pollack is so so funny here, so exasperated and mortified … talking to himself at the wheel of his car, “What am I doing? I gotta be crazy – what am I DOING?” His only moment of real self-awareness.

I just love his performance in Husbands and Wives – it’s an all-time favorite of mine from Woody Allen’s films, in general.

Seriously. It’s so funny and so detailed and so alive that I want to eat the damn thing with my hands.

I will miss knowing he’s around. I love that old guard.

Knowing that he’s gone makes me miss Mitchell, who is sailing along the African coast on a cruise ship as we speak. I want to talk with him about Sydney Pollack. We always just loved him so much.

Rest in peace, Sydney Pollack. And thank you thank you thank you.

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22 Responses to R.I.P., Sydney Pollack

  1. Jeff says:

    Great post, Sheila. But one minor correction – I don’t think Pollack directed “Rain Man.”

  2. red says:

    Not so minor a correction, actually! He didn’t direct it – that was Levinson! DOH. Thanks, jeff – I’ll change. Let’s replace it with Sabrina, which also I really disliked.

  3. red says:

    I also really liked his performance in Eyes Wide Shut. I just think he’s wonderful as an actor: unselfconscious but also very meticulous – he is building these characters. I like him best in Husbands and Wives – where he can really strut his stuff. Judy Davis is a knock-out in the film but Pollack gives her a run for her money.

  4. Lisa says:

    WTF? When did he die? I’m gutted!

    I always loved him as Will’s dad on Will & Grace. He had great comedic timing, and played really well off Eric McCormack.

  5. red says:

    He died yesterday. He had apparently been ill for some time.

    i so agree that he had wonderful comic timing. I mean, that scene in Tootsie!!


  6. Emily says:

    The first thing I thought of when I heard he died was that New Jersey line from Tootsie. I love this guy. RIP, sir.

  7. tracey says:

    Oh, I loved him! Actually more as an actor than a director I have to say. Always elevated everything he was in. I’m so sad about this.

  8. Brendan says:

    He is so good in ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ that he makes Cruise look bad.

    Now I’m not a big Cruise hater…when he’s in the right thing he’s great. But to watch Pollock be so natural and in his body next to Tom Cruise? Oddly it made Cruise look like an old fogey trying to play cowboys and indians with an uninhibited little kid.

  9. red says:

    Bren – yeah, he’s just so so comfortable in his own skin. Even when he’s being a total dousche!!

    Love him!

    Oh, and also love his continued involvement in the Actors Studio and his commitment there.

  10. I have always thought his scene at the party in Husbands and Wives was one of the most uncomfortable things ever filmed. It makes me cringe and watch through my fingers every time I see it. It’s excruciating. That kind of genius (acting, editing and directing) doesn’t happen too often but when it does it’s awe inspiring to see. Woody couldn’t have picked a better actor for the part because Pollack never seemed like he was acting and if that scene is to work it must feel like a documentary with real people, and it does.

  11. Alex says:

    Terrible loss. I was pretty upset about this one. Great tribute Sheila. Sad, sad.

  12. red says:

    Jonathan – oh, absolutely you are so right – it totally does not look like acting, from that first Cassavetes-ish scene with the jumpcuts and the big announcement of the divorce – to the interviews at the end …

    This sounds condescending but it really really isnt: He was SO good at acting.

    So good that it’s nearly invisible!

  13. dougputhoff says:

    “Tootsie” is the second-funniest movie of all-time. I haven’t seen it in over fifteen years. I need to watch it again.

  14. red says:

    Doug – what’s the first?? I’m dying to know your opinion!

    Yes yes yes I LOVE Tootsie – just every single second of it.

  15. Sheila E says:

    I loved him, too, for his acting as much as his directing. Out of Africa is one of my all time favorites. Now I want to go rent Tootsie.

  16. uncle buck says:

    I’m slumming from Sir James’ (Wolcott’s) site.
    I’ll add to early old favorites, both starring Redford at HIS best: “Jeremiah Johnson” and “Three Days of the Condor”.
    Check them out next time you’re near a vid store.
    You won’t be disappointed.
    Thanks for the great post/tribute.

  17. red says:

    Uncle Buck – I love Three Days of the Condor as well – but I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen Jeremiah Johnson … putting it on the Netflix queue now. Thanks!

  18. aldorossi says:

    Loved the Husbands and Wives character as well. So perfectly depicts the subconscious tension: Upper class, educated, cultured New Yorkers don’t have ‘urges’, so rather than aknowledge and then deal with his lust for a younger woman as such, he has to justify his satisfaction by ignoring the glaring incompatibilities by “falling in love”.

    The Woody Allen character goes through the same issue by his fawning over the Juliette Lewis character and her questionable writing talents: “apewscious: I made it up!”

    So funny and so close to the bone.

  19. Gregg Koski says:

    Check out his performance as the doctor in “Death Becomes Her”, it is the highpoint of the film and a great lesson in comedic acting.

  20. red says:

    I love Death Becomes Her, in general – but yes, his performance is a mini-masterpiece of great timing!

  21. Campaspe says:

    Superb tribute, Miss Sheila. You brought back Husbands and Wives so vividly that now I feel like I HAVE to see it again … and The Way We Were. He always knew how to bring out the best in Redford.

  22. dougputhoff says:

    “The Odd Couple.” One of these days I’m going to have to write some more about it in my blog (which I hope to get back to one of these days).