They shoot movies, don't they?

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.

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.

His other greatest achievement isn't even for directing; it's for his performance in Woody Allen's 1992 film Husbands & Wives. While probably no one was surprised to see Pollack acting in a film, the depth and power of his performance was astonishing. Playing a man going through a midlife crisis, Pollack--then 57--captured his character's confused and petulant vulnerability with clarity and pathos. He won the New York Film Critics' award for best supporting actor that year; he deserved it. When he was not nominated for an acting Oscar, a brief, minor outrage was expressed in some circles.

Maybe 30 years from now, historians and critics will be discovering the inner turmoil and thematic complexity of The Scalphunters and last year's Sabrina, and Pollack will be hailed as a latter-day Sturges, a pioneer of the outer limits of film grammar, while Kubrick fades into distant memory. But I doubt it. At his best, Pollack has refined, and even improved upon, the conventions of established genres; at his worst, he's made indifferent, underachieving films. Pollack probably is now what he always will be: an exemplar of the life force that keeps the machine of Hollywood churning out good movies, one of the noblest and least respected of professionals--the entertainer. His epitaph could be written today: "He sure made a lot of good movies." And I'll bet--as with Cukor--future generations will agree.

They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, The Way We Were, Tootsie, and Out of Africa are all screening at the Festival, as is Woody Allen's Husbands & Wives, in which Pollack stars. Actress Teri Garr will present Pollack with the Great Director award on Saturday night after the screening of Tootsie, in which Garr co-stars with Dustin Hoffman and Jessica Lange.


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