About Me

A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Sydney Pollack

In my day job, I usually find that the winning authors produce the goods consistently, book in and book out, year after year, and then sometimes come up with a novel that's truly and remarkably special, and every once in a while disappoint a tad, but by and large work with remarkable consistency.

Like many great film directors, Sydney Pollack represents a very different path that I have a hard time adjusting to. The one masterpiece. The many good films. The highly and wildly overpraised turd. And then so much that you have a hard time believing came from the same director who did everything else. If my clients were as up and down as a Sydney Pollack and a Martin Scorcese I'd be grayer and balder if I weren't already so much of both.

In Pollack's case, I consider Out of Africa to be Oscar bait, critics bait, the kind of turgid lugubrious epic that comes along every so often and which just isn't really very good. I don't think this one has stood the test of time. If it shows up all the time on cable, it must be some network I never watch. I can hardly remember a thing about the movie. I saw it at the Loews State, a glorious old theatre on the site of the Virgin store in Times Square. I don't think I rushed to see it. I have this idea I might have seen it some day after work at Scott Meredith in 1986, which would mean I might have waited even as long as three months. Or not.

But I should talk about his two masterpieces.

The first of them is Tootsie. That one I saw with my father and younger brother at the old twin in Chester, NY, with a very very full house that was enjoying itself quite thoroughly, and why not. Is there anyone who doesn't know the plot? Dustin Hoffman is a desperate actor rooming with Bill Murray. friends with Teri Garr, who decides to become an actress in order to get a job on a soap opera. There he falls in love with female lead Jessica Lange, captivates and then disappoints her father (Charles Durning) spurns the advances of the lecherous old male lead played by George Gaynes, and drives his agent played by Sydney Pollack himself to utter distraction in the Russian Tea Room. I'm not sure I'd call this the greatest comedy of all time as in this Boston Globe column from a few months ago, in part because I still don't appreciate some of the gushier romance stuff. But at its best it doesn't get better. II can still see 25 1/2 years later: Bill Murray at his deadpan best; Hoffman in drag coming to Pollack's table at the Tea Room; Pollack on the phone telling Hoffman why he's toast; the show-runner talking to Hoffman about his contract renewal; Hoffman slapping George Gaynes; the tender upstate interlude (didn't I just say I didn't like this part of the movie?); Hoffman's improvised monologue to explain how the nurse is really a he in the greatest soap opera traditions. Like many of Pollack's best movies, the film reflects an old studio era approach to casting in which the roles are filled from top to bottom with really good people who are invariably just right for what they are doing. Something which I thought Iron Man needed just a little bit more of.

Second, The Firm. No, I don't think too many other Sydney Pollack appreciations are going to single this out as his best work, but it's nice to go off on my own every once in a while. This is a great, great movie. As with Tootsie, it's cast top to bottom with a just right mix of stars and character actors and names who are all so perfectly right for their roles. Tom Cruise, Gene Hackman, Holly Hunter, Wilford Brimley, Ed Harris, David Straitharn, Hal Holbrook, Gary Busey, Paul Sorvino. What a cast. It improves on its source material. The Firm by John Grisham is a great novel because of its captivating beginning, but it has a bad bad ending. It drifts off to nowheresville without a good final confrontation between the good guys and the bad guys and with all the chess pieces somehow ending up on different boards. The screenplay by David Rabe, Robert Towne and David Rayfiel comes up with a much better ending that gives Mitch McDeere (Tom Cruise) a final scene with the villainous mafia bad guys that back Bendini, Lambert and Locke, the kind of good ending I wished to find in the book. Dave Grusin's jazzy piano score for the movie is fantastic and was a deserving Oscar nominee. There's nothing I value more than a movie that makes background music to the soundtrack of my life, that should always be turned on when it's on cable. This is one of those movies. And this one I saw at the Loews Astor Plaza, which is one of my fondest moviegoing memories at this late lamented modern movie palace.

Three Days of the Condor forms with The Parallax View a wonderful diptych of political movies of its day. The Way We Were isn't really very good. There's good and bad to be said up and down his filmography. But these two movies put him in the pantheon, and his occasional supporting role as an actor (Tootsie, Eyes Wide Shut, Michael Clayton, more) is an icing on the cake.


December/Stacia said...

You're wrong, Doctor Brewster! I'm very proud of being a woman!

That entire speech still gets quoted around my house all the time. That and the bit about dealing with my miiind, and not my lips!

Becky said...

The way you described Out of Africa, I thought of the English Patient. Ugh, boring!

The Brillig Blogger said...

So I spent some time with my eldest brother while visiting the new Borders in Southbury, and he took extreme exception to my comments on The Firm. He says the movie is awful, that the book is better, that I'm further off base than the centerfielder catching a fly ball on the warning track. Maybe I was adopted?

Rollie Raleigh said...

I think of Pollack as a good director (not great) despite OUT OF AFRICA (about which I agree). I cannot agree about THE FIRM, which suffers most from having Tom Cruise, who even Kubrick could not salvage from his deer-in-headlights acting (EYES WIDE SHUT). Other than the excellent TOOTSIE, I think THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR stands out. Pakula's PARALLAX VIEW is too predictable to be paired favorably with THREE DAYS. Pakula fairs much better with ALL THE PRESIDENTS MEN. The common thread to both THREE DAYS and PRESIDENT'S MEN is both had fine source material (books) from which to draw.
Just my two cents. I enjoy your blog - films and novels expand when discussed.