–Arts and letters for the modern age–

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–Arts and Letters for the Modern Age–

The Existential Quandary of Sydney Pollack

by | Jul 5, 2023

Sydney Pollack would be remembered if he’d only acted in films, rather than both performing in, directing, and producing some of the best movies made over the last 50 years.

Some of the films Pollack acted in include: Eyes Wide Shut, Michael Clayton (which he also produced), and Husbands and Wives. Perhaps his most visible role was as an agent in Tootsie, which Pollack also directed.

A new book by Wes D. Gehring re-evaluates Pollack’s films in relation to the existential bent of his characters. It’s interesting how many movies Pollock made with men on horses that aren’t westerns. Or that every one of his romantic relationships revolves around a hook-up that dissolves by the end credits.

The Core Pollack Films: They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?; Jeremiah Johnson; The Way We Were; Three Days of the Condor; Bobby Deerfield; The Electric Horseman; Absence of Malice; Tootsie; Out of Africa; Havana.

Gehring pulls reviews ranging from industry scribes to small town reporters. The difference in perspective encompasses Variety, or a newspaper from El Paso or St. Louis. This creates a sense of the milieu in which the movies were presented. Every decade recounted feels like you’re in that decade.

It’s not out of step for Gehring to mention T.S. Elliot or the Meisner Technique (Pollack’s acting school), in addition to name drop films from the 1940’s and 1950’s.

Detailed attention is given to Pollack’s relation with Robert Redford and Burt Lancaster. The former appeared in seven Pollack films and the latter in three.

Any given chapter includes references to multiple Pollack films. For instance the first chapter on They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? cherry picks Castle Keep and The Swimmer, the latter a Lancaster vehicle Pollack directed but which was credited to fired helmer Frank Perry.

Before reading the book, there were Pollack films I’d seen over a dozen times like Three Days of the Condor and Tootsie.  Pollack movies I’d never watched like Out of Africa or Jeremiah Johnson were quickly in the queue.

Unseen previously but now a favorite was Pollack’s debut feature, The Slender Thread (1965), a gripping told-in-real-time thriller set at a suicide prevention hotline office. Sidney Potier and Anne Bancroft star.

Gehring constantly returns to the theme that Pollack, like Eliot, is a reflection of his various protagonists who’ve “arrived at the place they started only to see it for the first time.”

Sydney Pollack: A Subliminal Existentialist is published by the Indiana Historical Society Press.

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