Oscar-winning director kept in step with the times

He won acclaim for mainstream movies with all-star casts

Sydney Pollack 1934-2008

May 27, 2008|By Dennis McLellan | Dennis McLellan,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Sydney Pollack, the Academy Award-winning director of Out of Africa who achieved acclaim making popular, mainstream movies with A-list stars, including The Way We Were and Tootsie, died yesterday. He was 73.

Mr. Pollack, who was also a producer and actor, died of cancer at his home in Pacific Palisades, Calif., according to Leslee Dart, his publicist and friend.

"Sydney Pollack has made some of the most influential and best-remembered films of the last three decades," film scholar Jeanine Basinger said recently.

In looking at Mr. Pollack's films, she said, "what you see is how he kept in step with the times. He doesn't get locked into one decade and left there. He had a very sharp political sensibility and a keen sense of what the issues of his world were, and he advanced and changed as the times advanced and changed."

After launching his show- business career as an actor and acting teacher in New York in the 1950s, Mr. Pollack moved west in the early 1960s and began directing episodic television before turning to films.

Beginning with The Slender Thread, a 1965 drama starring Sidney Poitier and Anne Bancroft, Mr. Pollack is credited with directing 20 films, including They Shoot Horses, Don't They ?, a 1969 drama about Depression-era marathon dancers starring Jane Fonda that earned Mr. Pollack an Oscar nomination for best director.

Known for what New York Times film critic Janet Maslin once described as "his broadly commercial instincts and penchant for all-star casts," Mr. Pollack directed seven movies with Robert Redford, beginning with This Property Is Condemned (with Natalie Wood) in 1966.

The Pollack-Redford collaboration also produced The Way We Were (with Barbra Streisand), Jeremiah Johnson, Three Days of the Condor (with Faye Dunaway), The Electric Horseman (with Ms. Fonda), Out of Africa (with Meryl Streep) and Havana.

As a filmmaker, Mr. Pollack had a reputation for being a pains- taking craftsman - "relentless and meticulous," screenwriter and friend Robert Towne once said.

"His films have a lyrical quality like great music, and the timing is impeccable," cinematographer Owen Roizman, who shot five films directed by Mr. Pollack, including Tootsie and Havana, said in 2005 when it was announced that Mr. Pollack would receive the 2006 American Society of Cinematographers Board of Governors Award for his contributions to the art of filmmaking.

"He is never satisfied. ... His passion is contagious. It inspires everyone around him to dig a little deeper," Mr. Roizman said.

Film critic and historian Leonard Maltin said "the hallmark" of Mr. Pollack's career "has been intelligence, both in his approach and his selection of subject matter."

"Good, bad or in between, his films at the very least respected their audience," Mr. Maltin told the Los Angeles Times. "And, of course, he worked with grade-A collaborators on both sides of the camera - the best screenwriters, the best actors - and it shows."

Out of Africa , the 1985 drama based on Danish author Isak Dinesen's experiences in Kenya during the early 20th century and her romance with English big-game hunter-adventurer Denys Finch Hatton, earned Mr. Pollack two Academy Awards: as director and as producer of the film, which won for best picture.

Mr. Pollack also received a best director Oscar nomination - and a New York Film Critics Circle Award - for the 1982 comedy Tootsie, starring Dustin Hoffman.

Pressed by Mr. Hoffman to play his actor-character's exasperated agent in Tootsie, Mr. Pollack finally consented to his first big-screen acting role since the 1962 film War Hunt, during which he met Mr. Redford, who was making his film debut.

As an actor, Mr. Pollack later appeared in a number of films, including Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives, Robert Altman's The Player, Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut and the recent Oscar-nominated Tony Gilroy film Michael Clayton. Mr. Pollack also turned up in guest roles on TV series such as Frasier, Will & Grace and The Sopranos.

Dennis McLellan writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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