Whether at a distance (like at a press conference) or close up (like across a coffee
table) Sydney Pollack exudes what I'd call a European sensibility, combining intelligence,
humour and worldliness with a warmth of personality that transcends the natural bonhomie
We meet in the elegant surrounds of a suite at Sydney's Park Hyatt, looking across
historic Circular Quay towards the Opera House, his manner informal without being
cheerfully chummy. I again (after the press conference) notice the small bump on the upper
left side of his brow, where a horn might be - but the thought passes. Pollack is far from
demonic and even his harshest critic would agree that he has never displayed the burn
signs of Hollywood that mark filmmakers as demons. (I'm stretching this, but bear with
"close to the hellfire of Hollywood without being
consumed by it"
But we do, in fact, start by talking of fire, as Pollack generously accepts the
invitation to recount the details of the barbecue meal he cooked the previous Saturday
evening for his friends Tom and Nicole (Cruise and Kidman) in one of those iconic moments
that is larger than the sum of its parts, bringing together the Aussiness of the setting
(and of the lamb) with the universality of the participants. (See at left for a link to
the menu and recipes; the things we do for you!)
But back to the heat of Hollywood: Pollack seems to have worked close to the hellfire
of Hollywood without being consumed by it. We are talking art v commerce now. "When I
started making films," he says, "there weren't these divisions. Movies were
movies were movies. It was the single greatest decade in American film history, never mind
what people say about the 30s and 40s. From about 1965 to about 1975, it stands out . . .
there's never been another 10 year period like it. It was a period of social upheaval,
with sexual and gender upheaval and the new wave influencing us in filmmaking. There was
ferment in the industry."
(A selection of the films made between 1965 - 75: The Godfather, The Graduate, The
Pawnbroker, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Cool Hand
Luke, The Manchurian Candidate, The Sting, 2001 A Space Odyssey, The Conversation, In the
Heat of the Night, All the President's Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Bonnie and Clyde,
Deliverance, Little Big Man & Taxi Driver [officially 1976])
"something of lasting value"
So what happened? What changed? "When Jaws broke the $100 million barrier, it
changed Hollywood forever. Hollywood had often made B movies that became art. But once
$100 million was there to be taken, it became a possibility. Everybody said, hey this is
an oil well. So hollywood started chasing the bigger grosses and it got harder if you were
outside the groove. My films were always just outside their genre…Like Jeremiah
Johnson or Three Days of the Condor."
As we talk art and commerce, Pollack becomes a little uneasy, until we find a suitable
form of words. "Something of lasting value, yes, I'm more comfortable with
that." He makes a valid point when he says "by staying within the genres [that
Hollywood knows and understands] and using standard stars, you can try for intelligence,
and within that framework you may and up with … let's not say art, that would be
pretentious, but as you say, something of lasting value."
Of course, that's what he's done with Random Hearts. Whether it's art or not doesn't
matter really, even if we could all agree on a definition of that. But it does have
"something of lasting value" to offer the audience, namely a sincere examination
And the transparent way Pollack describes the creative process, it is easy to recognise
the intelligence behind the screenplay. One of the examples he quotes is a short line of
dialogue played on a phone answering machine near the end of the film. "We agonised
for months over that line - and we still aren't sure it's the right form of words."
"His shield has been intelligence - and humour"
And then there was Tootsie, with Dustin Hoffman as the out of work actor who lands a
part as a female on a tv soap, and becomes a star. A female star. "To me," says
Pollack, "Tootsie was a serious movie - I know it was funny but it deals with serious
ideas and the parameters of male-female sexuality post the sexual revolution." It's
the same anchor of serious ideas that marks all Pollack's works - and explains why he
hasn't been burnt in the Hollywood fire. His shield has been intelligence - and humour.
But he still can't quite explain why the same year (1982) that he made Tootsie, Barbra
Streisand made Yentl and Blake Edwards made Victor Victoria, also dealing with people
finding themselves in gender switching circumstances. "There was a Zeitgeist - I love
using that word, but I'm not sure I know precisely what it means - something perceived in
people's concerns that was universal," he muses.
He also explains (via an extended and amusing anocdote) why he played Tootsie's agent,
George Fields: Hoffman insisted; "he said he would only believe the Field character
if it was me . . ." Acting, as he said at his Sydney press conference, was never
really his bag. "But there was the bonus of watching other directors work, 'cause we
directors get to see actors work, but never get to see other directors work." (He
also plays a support character in Random Hearts - for reasons of economy, as the character
was required for four months and it was cheaper this way, he says, wearing his producer's
"why he stopped shooting in widescreen format"
Referring to the film's aspect ratio, Pollack explains why he stopped shooting in
widescreen format - ironically, when he made Out of Africa in 1985 - "because I
realised then that more people were seeing my films on video than in cinemas and the pan
and scan method of duplicating films completely changed the films." So he now shoots
in 1.85 with a 1.33 mask in the camera so he can frame his shots for both the big screen
(1.85) and the tv screen (1.33). "Luckily," he added, "now there's DVD, a
wonderful new medium that at least gives you a choice of formats as well as sound and
picture quality more like film."
(In April 1997, a Danish court ruled that the pan scanning conducted by Danish
television was a 'mutilation' of the film Three Days of the Condor (1975) and a violation
of Pollack's moral rights and his legal right as an artist to maintain his reputation by
protecting the integrity of his work. Nonetheless, the court ruled in favor of the
defendant on a technicality.)
"Random Hearts is a film for grown ups"
Random Hearts is a film for grown ups, a story that throws together two people after a
tragedy that is deepened by revelations that shatter their lives. 'Dutch' Van Den Broeck
(Harrison Ford) of Washington Police Internal Affairs, is devoted to his wife, Peyton
(Susanna Thompson). Kay Chandler (Kristin Scott Thomas) a New Hampshire Congresswoman
running for re-election, is devoted to her husband Cullen (Peter Coyote) and their
daughter Jessica (Kate Mara). Their busy lives are gatecrashed when a plane on the way to
Miami plunges into the ocean, killing all passengers - including the couple in 3A and B,
traveling on Mr and Mrs tickets. As the real identity of this couple is revealed, the
trust on which the two marriages have been based dissolves. Dutch and Kay are thrown
together in a tramuatic moment of their lives and grapple with the consequences of their
loss in a unique way.
It's about truth, lies and trust, and Pollack tackles the story with verve while
keeping the humanity and the focus balanced. "The challenge to me was how to jump all
forms of courtship, in a scene that takes place in the front seat of a car, in a way that
is quite inappropriate. We didn't have a reason to make this film unless we could see
their anger and lust confused, humiliating both characters. The story explains how they
get pushed together by tragedy …"
"as focused and passionate about food and cooking as he
is about filmmaking"
If you heard him describe the meal he cooked for Tom and Nicole, you may conclude that
he is as focused and passionate about food and cooking as he is about filmmaking. It's
just few of us get to enjoy the former, compared to the latter.