I practically grew up on Sydney Pollack, the actor, the producer and the director. And as many of the eulogies note, his passing is practically that of an era in Hollywood when directors tried to make accessible adult-themed movies. Never a true auteur, Pollack nevertheless did the kind of things directors of even the highest artistic vision don't always do. He could get great performances out of actors who were playing in often conventional storylines. If you didn't know a Pollack film, you certainly knew a Robert Redford performance.
While it's a given that his later directing output was substandard, Pollack was an important Hollywood figure in other ways, and not just as an actor. He remains the best host of Turner Classic Movies' "The Essentials" showcase of the no-brainer films, mainly because without any trace of ego (looking at you, Peter Bogdanovich) but with all the passion and smarts, he could crystallize what made an essential movie an essential movie. This is where his acting ability really served him well; he knew how to "sell" it.
But I'll leave the eulogies to others, except to say that my all-time favorite Sydney Pollack film wasn't the obvious (Tootsie), but the darkest: They Shoot Horses, Don't They? I saw it on TV when I was a little kid (my wife marvels at some of the stuff I was allowed to see as a kid), and I was awestruck by how easily our greed could consume us. I was also awestruck by how good an actress Jane Fonda was, because back then all I knew was that she was Henry's daughter. It's a penetrating performance, and you can thank Pollack for getting it out of her.
The briefest and sharpest of eulogies comes from The New York Times' A.O. Scott, who really nails it with this paragraph:
His passing is a reminder that things have changed, that the kind of movie he made, which used to be the kind of movie everyone wanted to make (and to see), may be slipping into obsolescence. His last completed feature, The Interpreter, with Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn hashing out the traumas of post-colonial African politics at the United Nations, struggled to find the mix of topicality and high intrigue that had come so easily in the 1970s, but it mostly seemed forced and preposterous. The blend of big stars, meaty, serious themes, lavish production values and unstinting professionalism that once would have seemed foolproof looked downright anachronistic.
Rotten Tomatoes has this appreciation, but perhaps the most thorough comes from Salon's Stephanie Zacharek. Former CL film critic Felicia Feaster reviewed two of Pollack's last films: Sketches of Franky Gehry and The Interpreter. Also check out the Turner Classic Movies' message board and blog, Movie Morlocks, for more remembrances.
Speaking of TCM, it will show the spy thriller Three Days of the Condor tonight at 1:30 a.m.