They shoot movies, don't they?

Sydney Pollack does -- and his reliable, sturdy movies earn him this year's Great Director Award

Film history is strewn with the corpses of underappreciated artists and overappreciated craftsmen. This is not a point over which to become sanguine; rather, it is a simple fact of cinematic life, predictable as the tides.

What is less predictable, however, is which directors will fall into which category--and when. In just the past 10 years, revisionists have downgraded films from the likes of Ingmar Bergman, Stanley Kramer, and Joe Mankiewicz, while directors such as Samuel Fuller and Nicholas Ray have only now received their due as master storytellers whose ferocious personalities were stamped on every frame of their movies.

The jury is still out on Sydney Pollack, this year's USA Film Festival Great Director honoree. While he may not fall into the category of overpraised craftsmen, it would be equally hasty to call him an undervalued artist. He may be exactly where he ought to be: firmly entrenched as one of the most dependable film directors of his generation. No big-budget overruns, no pompous auteur-ism on the set, no dizzying camera movements or heady themes that won't play well in the heartland. Need it done? Fast, good, and profitably? Pollack's as good as they get.

If you're seeking to better understand the boundaries that define a Pollack film, consider a comparison with George Cukor, the man who directed Camille, Gaslight, Born Yesterday, and most of the Tracy-Hepburn films. Both directors have an amazing capacity for thriving in divergent genres. While especially at home in light comedy and sparkling romances, neither man is frightened away from complex dramas, action pictures, or the occasional dopey melodrama. Like Cukor, Pollack's reliable, sturdy movies are, as a body of work, practically unassailable--a panoply of styles and themes for virtually all tastes.

Consider Pollack's record: 17 feature films as a director, and only three certifiable duds among them: This Property is Condemned, Castle Keep, and Bobby Deerfield. Even Pollack's first film (1965's The Slender Thread) and his most notorious flop (Havana) have their strengths. If you're reading this and still haven't seen at least one Pollack film, congratulations on the recent emergence from your coma, because if the rest of Pollack's filmography doesn't ring any bells, it should: The Way We Were, Absence of Malice, The Firm, Tootsie, Three Days of the Condor, Out of Africa. Hardly a complaint could be lodged against any one of them.

But a "Great Director"? Well, let's define our terms. Last year's honoree, Paul Schrader, certainly hasn't made as many films as Pollack, nor as many good ones. (Schrader's script for the 1975 thriller The Yakuza, the most expensive screenplay of its time, was directed by Pollack.) But Schrader's bullheadedness, his willingness to put everything on the line for a movie he believes in, his obsessiveness in explicating the inner lives of his characters, and his apparent disdain for popular acceptance, makes every one of his movies minor events, even the failures. You don't call Schrader for a contract directing job: He does what he wants, and sink or swim, you have to respect him for it.

Pollack, on the other hand, is the consummate insider professional. His name has marquee value, he commands one of the top salaries in the business, and his participation in a project carries a certain cachet among the cognoscenti. And you simply don't get that far in Tinseltown by stirring up controversy, unless your name happens to be Oliver Stone and you don't mind everyone waiting for you to fail. When Nixon tanked at the box office, don't think half of Hollywood wasn't privately grinning at Stone's downfall, fueled by his prima-donna arrogance. But when Havana laid the biggest egg of the 1990 season, that didn't stop Pollack from getting as his next project the highly coveted job directing The Firm. After all, reason the Powers That Be, Syd's one of us--a former actor and popular personality who has worked regularly with some of the biggest stars in the business. We like him.

And therein lies the greatest disappointment about Pollack--that the real sin in his long, successful career is one of omission. You'd be hard-pressed to find two knowledgeable people who'll debate the relative merits of his work--not because opinion is unified one way or the other, but because his films simply don't lend themselves to much of an opinion. You'll find no protesters picketing his movies, alleging charges of pornography or blasphemy, as with Martin Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ or David Lynch's Blue Velvet, and no disgruntled purists unhappy with his adaptation of a best-selling novel; Pollack's 1993 film version of The Firm, in fact, greatly improved upon the rambling, peculiarly popular potboiler, making it far more cinematic, and extracting a killer performance from Gene Hackman along the way. You'll read no brow-furrowing editorials about his contemptible glorification of violence, as with Sam Peckinpah and Quentin Tarantino. He's a rara avis in the post-film school, Spielberg-DePalma-Scorsese-Lucas era of moviemaking--a chameleon who holds no preference over what color he is at any given moment.

At least part of Pollack's superlative financial success can be attributed to the quality of the casts he has assembled for every film he's ever directed; even the failures boast big names. Burt Lancaster became his patron (he directed Lancaster in 1968's The Scalphunters), and he has massaged great performances from cinematic legends including Jane Fonda, Barbra Streisand, Meryl Streep, Robert Mitchum, Paul Newman, and Dustin Hoffman. But he'll always be most closely associated with one actor: Robert Redford.

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