Hollywood lost a giant this weekend. Sydney Pollack, director, actor and uber-producer, passed away from cancer, leaving behind an impressive and highly influential body of work. Always on the cutting edge of social issues, Pollack's work is a legacy of immortal classics that often created the mold that subsequent films in their respective genres would follow. Here are some of my personal favorites.
Jeremiah Johnson (1972). In one of the great metaphorical films of its time, Robert Redford stars as a soldier running away from the Mexican-American War, only to find his idyllic frontier life disturbed by violence and vengeance at the hands of those he has accidentally wronged. A beautiful, moving film discussing pacifism during the final stretch of the Vietnam War, the political underpinnings would drive this film to become a classic of the genre and create an icon that represented that period in history.
The Way We Were (1973). Once again teaming up with Robert Redford, Pollack directed this moving classic romance that is the epitome of films that follow a couple over a period of years. Again playing with politics, this film pitted two lovers against one another as their irreconcilable political differences often drove a wedge between them. Most interesting about this film is that its stars, much like their characters (Redford and actress/singer Barbra Streisand), would both prove to be lifelong politicos -- some of the loudest Hollywood voices speaking out on hot button issues.
Three Days of the Condor (1975). Even more Robert Redford! This time Redford stars as a CIA agent who leaves for lunch at just the right moment, returning to his office to find every single one of his co-workers murdered. Now, before you begin to think that this is what you were daydreaming about at lunch, it isn't. Whoever killed them is now after him and all bets are off. This tense, paranoid thriller of the post-Nixon era used the wave of public distrust in government agencies to pitch perfect effect, creating a film that is still edge-of-your-seat satisfying today.
Tootsie (1982). Regardless of how political his films were, Pollack knew how to weave them in any genre. Having tackled the thriller, the romance and the period drama, he moved into goofball comedy with the award-winning classic Tootsie. This time attacking the rampant sexism still present in the workplace in the '80s, Dustin Hoffman plays an out-of-work actor who cross-dresses as a woman to get a role on a popular soap opera. What he then experiences is life from the point of view as a woman -- and it ain't all fun and games. Pollack proved that through sheer, audacious comedy you could still shine a bright light on social ills.
Sabrina (1995). Okay, time to take a break from all of the political trappings. Pollack directed this charming modern remake of the Audrey Hepburn/Humphrey Bogart classic. And while it doesn't quite live up to the original, it is a heartfelt, wonderful attempt with a fantastic cast. Harrison Ford, Greg Kinnear and Julia Ormond all lend their incredible charisma to this wonderful tale of love, greed and redemption. I find myself alternating versions when I'm in the mood to see this classic story as I can't help but get drawn in by the particularly wonderful chemistry Pollack assembled.
Editor's note: Turner Classic Movies (TCM) will devote an entire evening of programming Monday, June 2, to pay tribute to Sydney Pollack. Highlighting the line-up are such films as The Slender Thread (1965), which marked Pollack's directorial debut; Tootsie, which ranks second behind Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot on the American Film Institute's list of best film comedies; and Jeremiah Johnson and Three Days of the Condor, two of the filmmaker's seven collaborations with star Robert Redford. Pollack hosted TCM's weekly movie showcase The Essentials from 2003 to 2004.
In July, TCM will present film critic and commentator Elvis Mitchell's extensive, in-depth interview with Pollack, among the last interviews he ever gave. The interview will air Monday, July 7, at 8 p.m. as the premiere episode of the network's new original series TCM Presents Elvis Mitchell: Under the Influence. It will be followed by a presentation of Tootsie, as well as by the Gene Kelly classic An American in Paris, one of the films Pollack claimed as a strong influence on his life and work.