They shoot movies, don't they?

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

When talking about great director-actor pairings in cinema, the mind thumbs through a long index of memorable teams: Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro; John Ford and John Wayne; Alfred Hitchcock and Cary Grant; Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart; Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly; even George Cukor and Katharine Hepburn. In each case, star and director clicked, and the results--over and over--were cinema magic.

That list has always seemed conspicuous for its notable omission of Pollack and Redford. The two met while both were acting in television in the early '60s (they co-starred in the film War Hunt in 1962), and the team continued with Pollack's second feature film as a director, This Property Is Condemned. Pollack and Redford paired up for six more films: The Way We Were, The Electric Horseman, Havana, Three Days of the Condor, Jeremiah Johnson, and most notably--for Pollack, at least--Out of Africa (1985), which finally won him Oscars for directing and producing.

The Pollack-Redford team isn't as well-regarded as some--particularly Ford-Wayne and Scorsese-De Niro--probably because the artistry of Pollack's films often takes a back seat to their populism. And to be sure, Pollack's commercial successes with Redford have been solid, though sometimes unspectacular. The Way We Were (1973) clinched Redford's image as a heartthrob. When he played a cool white-bread preppy opposite Streisand's urban Jewish-American princess, never before had a shaygits seemed quite so blandly sexual. You can attribute much of that image make-over to Pollack, who filmed Redford with the same sort of filter that softened the edges of MGM queens such as Greer Garson and Claudette Colbert during their heyday in the '30s and '40s.

Among their other efforts together was 1972's Jeremiah Johnson, a noble, environmentally conscious picture which, while extremely popular, doesn't have much mystique. The Electric Horseman (1979) might be considered a companion piece to The Way We Were by way of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In it, Redford plays a former cowboy who becomes a pitchman. Pollack and Redford seem to be poking fun at Redford's pretty-boy image, but that didn't stop the director from including the requisite longing close-up.

Havana, a Casablanca-style love story, made the daring move of giving the aged Redford close-ups through a gauzy lens. It was a risky venture for Redford, and his performance had the proper edge. He seemed like a weary gambler, aged by hard living, but it wasn't the image his fans were accustomed to, and they stayed away in droves. (In his more recent films, like Up Close and Personal, Redford returns to the idealized image of himself.)

Out of Africa, while sometimes too reserved emotionally, benefits from the striking vistas and superb performances of Meryl Streep and Klaus Maria Brandauer. They made it enormously popular, and rightly so, though Redford was badly miscast.

But Three Days of the Condor (1976) is probably Pollack and Redford's best teaming--a cagey little political thriller, whose power comes in its cold, almost detached violence. It's a quintessential '70s film, a thinking man's action film full of the dispiriting malaise that accompanied the post-Watergate era. Redford plays a bookish CIA employee, code-named Condor, who stumbles upon a counterintelligence plot buried in one of the books he reads. The aura of quietude Pollack gives the film is one manifestation of what makes him such a versatile director. It's a tone unlike anything Pollack has attempted before or since.

Such versatility is usually considered verboten to more rabid auteur-ists, but in truth, it is Pollack's seamless way of threading plot lines together that makes him seem craftsmanlike. While Pollack's string of hits is admirable in its consistency and quality, he can be transcendently canny, even sublime, usually without Redford anywhere in sight.

His first big critical hit, They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969), was a savagely bitter, tiring marathon of a film, set, not coincidentally, at a dance marathon during the Great Depression. Pollack gave the scenes a graphic sense of motion by mounting cameramen on roller skates, and he included the rarely used filmic device of the "flash forward" with startling skill. The film was so downbeat, it helped usher in an era in which the tone of most serious films was set in a minor key: Alice's Restaurant, Scarecrow, The Conversation, even Pollack's own Condor.

Pollack's two greatest personal successes, though, are quite different. Tootsie had the earmarks of a fiasco while Pollack was filming it: With notorious on-set squabbling involving star Dustin Hoffman, endless retooling of the script (more than 20 writers supposedly had a hand in it, including Elaine May), shooting delays and budget overruns, and the last-minute casting of Pollack himself in a major part, the initial buzz was horrible. "I don't value a film I've enjoyed making," Pollack has said. "If it's good, it's damned hard work."

If that's true, Tootsie must have nearly killed him, because Pollack conjured up something magnificent: the funniest, wittiest, most astute adult comedy of the 1980s, as fresh today as it was when released in 1982. Pollack leaves the film open for any number of alternative endings by imbuing an aura of reality to Hoffman's cross-dressing shenanigans. When Pollack won the Oscar for directing Out of Africa, I was a little disappointed that John Huston was passed over for the superior Prizzi's Honor, but found solace in thinking of it as a consolation prize for Tootsie--hands-down the best directing Pollack has ever done.

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