Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Sidney Pollack Film Festival

Man I hate death. Lousy stinkin' death.

And I hate that I wait for someone to die before I write an appreciation of his or her work. I gotta do something about that.

We lost the great director/actor/producer Sidney Pollack this past Memorial Day. He died at age 73 of cancer. Lousy stinkin' cancer.

Pollack's films as a director are characterized by intelligent, grown-up subject matter handled with style and flair. He was able to craft thoughtful entertainment from some unlikely sources.

I'm not a big fan of all of his films: The Way We Were is maudlin and overwrought, while Out of Africa, which won an armload of Oscars, moves at a snail's pace.

But the good ones are fantastic. Here's my suggested list for a Sidney Pollack mini-festival:

They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969): A Depression-era dance marathon becomes a crucible for a group of disparate contestants. Jane Fonda and Michael Sarrazin are up front and center, but Pollack -- a terrific character actor himself -- fills the screen with great bits for old-timers like Red Buttons, Gig Young and even Grandpa Munster, Al Lewis. The dance marathon becomes the grinding wheels of Depression economics and what was billed as a lighthearted lark turns horrifying. One of Pollack's best and an all-time great.

Tootsie (1982): Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman) can't keep an acting job until he hits on the idea of trying out for a woman's part in a soap opera. Pollack's crowd-pleasing gender-swap comedy is just about note perfect, with one of Hoffman's best performances (which is saying something) and more outstanding character work from the likes of Charles Durning, Teri Garr, Dabney Coleman and Bill Murray. And an actor by the name of Sidney Pollack ain't half bad in this either. In a dead heat with Horses for the title of Best Sidney Pollack film.

The Interpreter (2005): When a United Nations interpreter overhears an assassination plot, the Secret Service is called in to investigate. The reception was lukewarm for what would end up being Sidney Pollack's final feature film as a director, but it's a tough, tight thriller with some serious challenges to accepted ideas of morality. And duty. And vengeance. Nicole Kidman is frosty and willfully foreign in the title role, while Sean Penn counters her with an earthy, disheveled performance. Maybe not quite the masterpiece that the first two films in this mini-festival are, but excellent in its own right and definitely worthy of a little critical reassessment.

Also well worth checking out are most of Pollack's collaborations with Robert Redford (Three Days of the Condor, The Electric Horseman, the unfairly vilified Havana), as well as Absence of Malice, The Firm and his remake of Billy Wilder's Sabrina.

Bye Sidney. You'll be remembered.

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