Sydney Pollack: A Retrospective

RT looks at the filmmaker's highest-rated films.

by and | May 27, 2008 | Comments

With two Oscar wins and plenty more nominations under his
belt, Sydney Pollack was a filmmaker that Hollywood admired. He was also a
proven actor’s director whose fruitful relationships with performers like Robert
Redford resulted in films like Three Days of the Condor, The Way We Were,
and Jeremiah Johnson; even his off-screen friction with Tootsie
actor Dustin Hoffman gave way to one of Pollack’s most famous on-screen

Pollack undoubtedly knew how to frame a star, working with
the likes of Jane Fonda, Sally Field, Tom Cruise, Dustin Hoffman and Paul Newman
to superb results. He also worked freely within genres, infusing thrillers,
comedies, and Westerns with a personal brand of socio-political reflection.
Below, we count down the ten highest-rated films that Pollack directed, and then
take a look at the late filmmaker’s most memorable performances in front of the


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10. Sabrina (1995)
Tomatometer: 62%

Pollack took on the legacy of
Billy Wilder in updating the romantic comedy Sabrina, about a beautiful
young woman (Julia Ormond) caught between a charming playboy (Greg Kinnear) and
his no-nonsense brother (Harrison Ford). While comparisons to the original
abound — along with its cast of Golden Hollywood legends Humphrey Bogart, Audrey
Hepburn, and William Holden — Pollack’s Sabrina turned out this side of Fresh
and garnered two Oscar nominations, for John Williams’ score and the song
“Moonlight,” performed by Sting.



This Property is Condemned

09. This Property is Condemned (1966)
Tomatometer: 64%

A pre-Godfather
Francis Ford Coppola co-scripted Pollack’s second feature (along with Fred Coe
and Edith Sommer) based on a Tennessee Williams play; the result was the
consequently steamy, seamy tale of a boarding house floozy (Natalie Wood) and a
railroad man (Robert Redford) caught in a tragic romance in a poor Mississippi
town. Pollack would go on to direct Redford in six more films, including the
Oscar-winning Out of Africa.


The Scalphunters

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08. The Scalphunters (1968)
Tomatometer: 75%

At the tail end of the civil
rights movement, Pollack directed this social satire-masquerading-as-comedy
Western starring Burt Lancaster, Ossie Davis, Telly Savalas and Shelley Winters.
When a trapper (Lancaster) is forced to “trade” his prized pelts for an educated
slave (Davis), he goes after the offending Indians; when they are in turn killed
by a band of scalphunters (led by Savalas), he turns his attentions to them.
Pollack would team up with Lancaster again in his next film, The Swimmer,
co-directed with Frank Perry.


The Firm

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07. The Firm (1993)
Tomatometer: 76%

One of the few thrillers in
Pollack’s filmography (see Three Days of the Condor below) is The
which along with The Pelican Brief, helped launch a wave of
John Grisham fever in 1990s Hollywood. The tale of an ambitious attorney who
discovers sinister doings at his new law firm also captured star Tom Cruise at
the height of his thirtysomething career; Pollack would reunite with Cruise six
years later in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, appearing on the other
side of the camera.


Absence of Malice

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06. Absence of Malice (1981)
Tomatometer: 71%

One of the best movies about
journalism came courtesy of former Detroit Free Press editor Kurt Luedtke, who
co-scripted Pollack’s Oscar-nominated film about a man with familial mob ties
(Paul Newman) wrongly implicated in a crime by a hungry newspaper reporter
(Sally Field). Supporting actress Melinda Dillon picked up her second Academy
Award nomination for her role as a devout woman whose tragic secret gets
splashed across the front page.

Sketches of Frank Gehry

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05. Sketches of Frank Gehry (2006)
Tomatometer: 81%

Pollack’s lone documentary
feature focuses on his close friend, prize-winning architect Frank Gehry. The
director integrated interviews with art-world celebrities like Dennis Hopper,
Julian Schnabel, and even himself, creating an intimate and even look at the
“starchitect” behind such awesomely warped feats as Spain’s Guggenheim Museum.


They Shoot Horses, Don't They? Don't They???!!!

04. They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
Tomatometer: 83%

Dreams are dashed left and
right in Pollack’s deeply moving spectacle of ambition and desperation at a
Depression-era dance marathon, which earned a total of nine Oscar nominations
but won only one, for Gig Young’s performance as the contest’s tireless MC. It
also earned Jane Fonda her first Oscar nod, marking a turning point in Fonda’s


3 Days of the Condor

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03. Three Days of the Condor (1975)
Tomatometer: 89%

Re-teaming with Robert
Redford would prove very successful for Pollack, and he put Redford’s leading
man magnetism to work as Joe Turner, AKA Condor, a low-level CIA intelligence
operative who becomes the target of a covert assassination plot. Evoking the
Hollywood thrillers and unsettled political climate of the 1970s (and suggesting
Jason Bourne long before the Bourne saga hit theaters), Three Days of
the Condor
excelled in creating taut, believable Hitchcockian suspense.



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02. Tootsie (1982)
Tomatometer: 89%

Dustin Hoffman became
Hollywood’s favorite cross-dresser with Tootsie, a comedy about a thorny
actor so desperate for work that he turns to drag and becomes a soap opera
sensation — as a woman. The comedy was nominated for ten Oscars, winning one
for Jessica Lange as Best Supporting Actress; Pollack’s onscreen turn as
Hoffman’s aggravated agent brilliantly segued on-set tensions between the
director and his star into one of the film’s most crackling scenes.


Jeremiah Johnson

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01. Jeremiah Johnson (1972)
Tomatometer: 100%

Pollack’s best-reviewed film
is yet another of his many collaborations with Robert Redford, the hard-bitten
saga of a 19th century mountain man who encounters life, death, and
Indians in the wide open terrain of Utah. While passed over by the Oscars — it
was the year of Cabaret, Deliverance, and The Godfather
Jeremiah Johnson nevertheless remains Pollack’s most critically
celebrated work. As with many Pollack films, the Western isn’t merely a genre
exercise; it’s also an existential character study that examines the impact of
living the anti-establishment life, a driving theme in 1970s New Hollywood.

Sydney Pollack started out in the business as an actor, appearing in 60s
television fare like The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
He acted less frequently when he found his calling in directing and producing,
which, in a way, made him a more fascinating actor; he found the freedom to
choose roles that played to his strengths and particular style. Here, we take a
look at Pollack’s best roles in movies not directed by himself.


Husbands and Wives

Husbands and Wives (1992)
Tomatometer: 100%

Husbands and Wives is arguably Woody Allen’s most realized drama (that
doesn’t involve murder), with its cinema verite filmmaking and strong
performances from Allen, Judy Davis, Mia Farrow, and Sydney Pollack. The role
of Jack is vintage Pollack, a man who never lets go of his measured regality
even as his life begins to crumble away.

There aren’t any Pollack clips on YT, but check out this fantastic scene with Davis.


Eyes Wide Shut

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Tomatometer: 78%In Kubrick’s
Eyes Wide Shut
, Pollack portrays Victor Ziegler, the closest this infamously
murky movie gets to having a “bad guy.” He’s a complacent figure, watching as
his friend and doctor, William (Tom Cruise), goes on a nightmarish trip of
sexual politics and self-discovery.


Changing Lanes

Changing Lanes (2001)
Tomatometer: 78%

Pollack made an acting career out of lawyers, businessmen, and meeting room
dwellers whose moral ethics never made a sinner out of him, but never quite the
innocent man, either. He delivers a speech in Changing Lanes that sums up
his MO: “I can live with myself because at the end of the day I think I
do more good than harm. What other standard have I got to judge by?”


Michael Clayton

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Michael Clayton (2007)

Pollack re-entered
the public consciousness at large with his brawny supporting role in Michael
. Working in a law firm filled with “fixers” probably means your
moral compasses are slight askew, but Pollack gives his role major gravitas,
becoming a voice of reason as George Clooney freefalls into a diabolical


Made of Honor

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Made of Honor (2008)
Tomatometer: 12%

The wacky parent has long been a staple in romantic comedies Pollack gets his
turn in the Patrick Dempsey-Michelle Monaghan vehicle, Made of Honor. It
may not be the most glamorous final role, but at least demonstrates Pollack’s
willingness to continually push himself as an actor, even after a spot was
reserved for him as a major movie director and producer.

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