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PEOPLE IN AMERICA - Sydney Pollack, 1934-2008: He Directed, Produced and Acted in Many Popular Hollywood Movies


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I'm Barbara Klein.


And I'm Steve Ember with People in America in VOA Special English. Today we tell about movie director and producer Sydney Pollack. He made many popular movies with some of the biggest stars in Hollywood. The award-winning movies he directed in the nineteen seventies and eighties include "The Way We Were", "Tootsie" and "Out of Africa."



Sydney Pollack in New York City, 2006
Sydney Pollack in New York City, 2006

Sydney Pollack also acted in many films, including "Tootsie," released in nineteen eighty-two.In the movie, Dustin Hoffman plays an actor, Michael Dorsey. He has trouble getting acting jobs because he is very difficult to work with.He goes to see his agent, George Fields, whose job is to get him acting jobs. Sydney Pollock plays the agent.


Fields:"Nobody will hire you."

Dorsey: "Are you saying that nobody in New York will work with me?"

Fields: "No, that's too limiting.Nobody in Hollywood will work with you either.I can't even send you up for a commercial.You played a tomato for thirty seconds and they went half a day over schedule because you wouldn't sit down."

Dorsey: "Yes, it wasn't logical."

Fields: "You were a tomato! A tomato doesn't have logic! A tomato can't move!

Dorsey: "That's what I said! So if he can't move, how's he gonna sit down, George?


Later, Michael Dorsey proves his agent wrong. He dresses up like a woman and gets a job acting on a popular daytime television series.


"Tootsie" was a huge success. But filming it was not easy. Hoffman and Pollack argued about the movie. Pollack wanted to bring attention to the love affair between the two main characters. Hoffman wanted to make a funnier version of the story. The movie cost more money and took more time to make than it was supposed to.But in the end, "Tootsie" received ten Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture. It earned over one hundred and seventy million dollars in the United States.


Sydney Pollack received an Emmy award in 1966 for outstanding directorial achievement
Sydney Pollack received an Emmy award in 1966 for outstanding directorial achievement

Sydney Pollack made movies with big stars, high production values and often political or moral subjects. His movies were popular with the general public while also remaining sharply intelligent. He said that his movies were not about special effects and high technology action scenes. He said his movies were character driven stories defined by the performances of the actors.



Sydney Irwin Pollack was born in nineteen thirty-four in Lafayette, Indiana. His parents were Russian-Americans who met in college in Indiana.In high school, Sydney discovered his love of theater. He later moved to New York City to study at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theater. Pollack studied there for two years, then continued working as an assistant to the head of the school's acting department. In nineteen fifty-eight, he married Claire Griswold.


Sydney Pollack acted in many plays during this early part of his career. One person he met during these years was the actor Burt Lancaster.Lancaster suggested that Pollack try directing instead of acting. Pollack later said that his time as an acting teacher helped him a great deal in developing his method as a director.


During the nineteen sixties, Sydney Pollack began directing shows on television like "Ben Casey" and "Naked City."His first full-length movie, "The Slender Thread," came out in nineteen sixty-five, followed a year later by "This Property is Condemned." These were not successful.

Then, in nineteen sixty-nine, Pollack directed "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" This movie tells an intense story about a group of people in a dance competition during the Great Depression in the nineteen thirties.Jane Fonda and Michael Sarrazin give powerful performances as two struggling contestants. The film received nine Academy Award nominations, including one for Pollack.


Robert Redford starred in many of Pollack's movies. The two became friends in the early nineteen sixties.They worked together on seven movies.One is a western, "Jeremiah Johnson." Another is "The Way We Were" which stars the actress and singer Barbra Streisand.In "Three Days of the Condor" Robert Redford plays a worker at the Central Intelligence Agency who becomes caught in a deadly political plot.



Sydney Pollack's best movie is probably "Out of Africa" which was released in nineteen eighty-five. This beautifully filmed movie was based on a book by the Danish writer Karen Blixen about her life. She wrote the book under the name Isak Dinesen. She moved to Kenya in nineteen fourteen to buy land and operate a coffee-growing farm.

Pollack's movie version brought to life the great love story between Baroness Blixen and the big-game hunter Denys Finch Hatton.Two of the biggest stars of the nineteen eighties, Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, play the lovers. Here they meet for the first time.Karen Blixen is looking at the wildlife on her land when her horse runs away. She sees a lion walking towards her.


Finch Hatton: "I wouldn't run. If you do, she'll think you're something good to eat."

Blixen: "Do you have a gun?"

Finch Hatton: "She won't like the smell of you."

Blixen: "Shoot it."

Finch Hatton: "She's had breakfast."

Blixen: "Please shoot her."

Finch Hatton: "Let's give her a moment."

Blixen: "Oh my God, shoot her!"

(The lion walks away.)

Blixen: "How much closer did you expect her to let her come?"

Finch Hatton: "A bit. She wanted to see if you would run. That's how they decide -- a lot like people that way."

Blixen: "She almost had me for lunch!"

Finch Hatton:" It wasn't her fault, baroness. She's a lion."


"Out of Africa" won seven Academy Awards, including Best Director and Best Picture for Sydney Pollack.

Five years later, Pollack directed "Havana", also starring Robert Redford. This movie was followed by "The Firm" and "Sabrina."In two thousand five Pollack directed "The Interpreter" starring Sean Penn and Nicole Kidman. Part of the movie was filmed in the United Nations building in New York City. It is the only movie ever filmed inside the buildings of the UN General Assembly and Security Council.


Sydney Pollack once said that he backed into filmmaking and never actually trained for the job. He said that directing movies made him very tense. He noted that every fifteen-minute period in making a movie represents thousands of dollars, so a director is concerned about the clock every minute.


Pollack also produced many films during his long career. He started a production company called Mirage Productions in the nineteen eighties.He said that he liked the creative part of being a producer. And he said he liked producing because not getting the praise or the blame for a movie was a big relief.

His production credits include "Sense and Sensibility", "The Talented Mister Ripley" and "Cold Mountain."He also produced "Michael Clayton" which was nominated for Best Picture in two thousand eight.

In two thousand five, he directed and produced "Sketches of Frank Gehry," a documentary about the famous architect. Here, Pollack talks about his friendship with Frank Gehry.

Sydney Pollack: "Frank's got his own original and sort of perverse way of doing things. We've been friends for several years. We spend a lot of time together bemoaning the difficulties of trying to find personal expressiveness within disciplines that makes stringent commercial demands. Several people approached him with the idea of making a documentary about him. When he asked me if I'd do it, I thought he was crazy. It's not just that I didn't know anything about making documentaries, I didn't even know anything about architecture. That's why you're perfect, he said."



Throughout his career, Sydney Pollack never stopped acting. He said that once in a while he could not resist being able to spy on other directors by acting in their films. He said that he learned new methods and techniques from these directors. Pollack has played many kinds of roles in movies such as "Husbands and Wives" directed by Woody Allen; "Eyes Wide Shut", directed by Stanley Kubrick, and "The Player", directed by Robert Altman. He even made appearances in television shows such as "Will and Grace" and "Entourage."

In "Michael Clayton" Pollack plays a high-powered lawyer named Marty Bach. He is head of a group of lawyers involved in a difficult case. Here is a scene with Pollack and George Clooney who plays one of the lawyers, Michael Clayton.


Marty:"Everybody knows how valuable you are, Michael, everyone who needs to know."

Michael: "I'm forty-five years old and I'm broke. I've been riding shotgun for twelve years and I got no equity. I'm sorry,I don't feel reassured."

Marty:" Nobody told you to go into the bar business."

Michael:" I only opened it so that I have something else, I'd have a way out."

Marty: "I had no idea that you were so unhappy."

Michael: "How many times did I ask you to put me back on a litigation team."

Marty: "Hey, anyone can go to court, you think that's so special?"

Michael:" I was good at it!"

Marty: "Wonderful, so are a lot of people. At this, what you do, you're great."


Later in his career, Pollack was involved in many film and acting organizations. For example, he served as director of the Actors Studio West in Los Angeles, California and as a chairman for the American Cinematheque.

Sydney Pollack died of cancer at his home in Los Angeles, California in two thousand eight. He was seventy-three years old. His many films will continue to influence generations of movie lovers.



This program was written and produced by Dana Demange. I'm Steve Ember.


And I'm Barbara Klein. You can learn about other interesting Americans on our Web site, www.unsv.com. Join us again next week for People in America in VOA Special English.

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