The Directors: Sydney Pollack & Alan J. Pakula

Second installment in a series on film directors.

Contemporaries, Sydney Pollack (below, right) and Alan J. Pakula (below, left) arrived at directly features using different paths but directed some of the smartest, most earnest films of the 1970s and 1980s.

Sydney Pollack cut his teeth on Westerns before incorporating medical shows and crime dramas to his resume. Shotgun Slade was his entry as a director, before moving to Alfred Hitchcock, Ben Casey, Dr. Kildare, The Fugitive and Bob Hope Presents. His first feature was The Slender Thread (1965), starring Sidney Poitier and Anne Bancroft. That film led to This Property is Condemned, starring Natalie Wood and Robert Redford, written by Francis Ford Coppola. This film started a long association with Redford.

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Pollack with Burt Lancaster in The Scalphunters

His next film was The Scalphunters (1968) starring Burt Lancaster, which led to an uncredited assignment of assisting Lancaster on The Swimmer, and then as director on Castle Keep.

Beginning in 1969, Pollack’s career took off. In succession he directed: They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969), Jeremiah Johnson (1992), The Way We Were (1973), The Yakuza (1974), Three Days of the Condor (1975), Bobby Deerfield (1977), The Electric Horseman (1979), Absence of Malice (1981), Tootsie (1982), Out of Africa (1985), Havana (1990), The Firm (1993), Sabrina (1995), Random Hearts (1999), The Interpreter (2005). A very impressive list of films. Pollack worked with Redford, Jane Fonda, Barbra Streisand, Robert Mitchum, Paul Newman, Sally Field, Dustin Hoffman, Bill Murray, Meryl Streep, Tom Cruise, Gene Hackman, Harrison Ford, Sean Penn and Nicole Kidman.

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Jane Fonda with Pollack in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

Pollack was nominated for seven Academy Awards and collected two for Out of Africa. In addition, Pollack had 48 producing credits, many through his Mirage Enterprises company. Some of his production credits include Catch a Fire, Michael Clayton, Cold Mountain, The Quiet American, Sense and Sensibility, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Searching for Bobby Fischer, Bright Lights Big City, Dead Again and White Palace.

Alan J. Pakula began his film career as a producer, working with director Robert Mulligan on a series of very successful films starting in 1957 with Fear Strikes Out.  Their next film, 1962’s To Kill a Mockingbird is certainly a classic.  This was followed by Love With the Proper Stranger, Baby The Rain Must Fall, Inside Daisy Clover, Up the Down Staircase and The Stalking Moon.  That is in impressive list of dramas.

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The Parallax View

Pakula moved into directing films.  He continued to produce his films and occasionally he wrote film scripts.  His first directorial effort was The Sterile Cuckoo (1969) with Liza Minnelli, followed by Klute (1971), and a rather oddball project called Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing (1973).  It was the 1970s remember.

Two of his best films followed: The Parallax View (1974) and All the President’s Men (1976).  Again, remember the times: Watergate, The Pentagon Papers and Vietnam.  Pakula cashed in on the conspiracy, paranoid fueled times of mistrust of government and big corporations.  Even with a minimum of action, Pakula was talented at creating tension and suspense.  While films today are thick with music and editing designed to drive an audience and tell you what emotion to feel, Pakula’s films, much like Hitchcock decades earlier, let the story and each scene engage with the audience.  All the President’s Men is a masterpiece.  You already know how the story ends, and a lot of the events, but you don’t know the trail and how it builds to the conclusion.  Pakula makes it fresh and riveting.

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Pakula with the cast of All the President’s Men.

His next three films: Comes a Horseman, Starting Over and Rollover, each deliver entertainment and talented performers but are a bit of a letdown after the first half of the decade.  The are effective, just not compelling.

Next up was Sophie’s Choice (1982), a film he wrote, produced and directed.  This is a compelling film, a big box office success and winner of several awards.  A high-point in his career and one of the best of the decade.

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Kevin Kline, Meryl Streep and Pakula: Sophie’s Choice.

His next films: See You in the Morning, Orphans and Dream Lover are okay, but again, not up to the bar he has set.

He rebounds with Presumed Innocent (1990), a hugely successful murder mystery with Harrison Ford.  He adapted the film from the bestselling book, proving again he was capable of using source material and successfully using it to construct and effective film.  Adapting a novel or play is harder than it looks, in part because people know the material well, and your challenge is to be faithful to what works but try and add a freshness that works best for the screen.

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Denzel Washington and Julie Roberts: The Pelican Brief.

Consenting Adults (1992) has elements of an effective mystery.  It played well at the box office but is not a very memorable film in my opinion.  This was followed by The Pelican Brief (1993), another successful book adaption, which Pakula did himself, it was a commercial hit.  His last film was The Devil’s Own (1997), an action mystery with probably the two biggest film stars.  I found the film somewhat pretentious and weighted down by its own expectations.   That is the flip side of working with the biggest stars, huge budgets and popular source material.

Pakula would die tragically without making another film.  Even though he was 70 years old at the time, he had numerous projects in development.

Sydney Pollack and Alan Pakula started directing films at about the same time, worked with many of the same major stars and probably were pitched many of the same projects.  Both men came from careers working with dramatic material and stayed focused on this genre for most of their careers.  These men knew good writing and were intimately involved in the construction of their films.  Both men were active producers, of their own films, and produced films they did not direct.  Both men were able to bridge changing trends and studio tastes in films.  The success of their films, and being able to attract star talent, kept them in the game, when other directors struggled to find work.


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