From the S&S archives: Sydney Pollock: A man for the stars
CANNES, France — At least one Hollywood film maker believes there's still some merit left in the star system.
Stars mean something to a movie, director Sydney Pollack said in an interview with The Stars and Stripes on the Carlton Hotel pier here.
"It's nonsense to say they're not necessary," said the cigar-chomping Hoosier. "Obviously, you don't pay that kind of money to a Barbra Streisand or a Robert Redford if they're not important to a picture."
Before coming to Cannes as the official U.S. member of the local film festival jury, Pollack finished filming his seventh feature, "The Way We Were," starring Streisand and Redford.
"Certain pieces of film work with stars in them," Pollack said, adding, "'Airport' probably wouldn't have been the success it was with unknowns. So it's wrong to say that the star system is dead."
To date, none of his pictures have lost money. His other works include "The Slender Thread," "This Property is Condemned," "The Scalphunters," "Castle Keep," "They Shoot Horses Don't They" and "Jeremiah Johnson."
Pollack, a former actor, has used top box office names in all his movies — Sidney Poitier, Anne Bancroft, Burt Lancaster, Natalie Wood, Jane Fonda and Shelley Winters.
The man with the perpetual suntan explained why he agreed to participate in the Cannes competition: "Having had two films here, I thought it would be nice to see things from the other side."
In 1979, "They Shoot Horses ..." was a festival entry and last year "Jeremiah Johnson" was shown at Cannes.
Among those on the jury with Pollack are veteran actress Ingrid Bergman and English writer Lawrence Durrell.
"There are many people here I know well, and whose work I admire, but I believe I can be totally objective in my choice," he said.
Pollack first attracted attention as a TV director with "A Cardinal Act of Mercy" which won five Emmies. He also copped a best director's Emmy for "The Game," a Chrysler-Bob Hope Theater production.
The tall, dark-haired director, who has been noted for his novel approach to story telling, credits Burt Lancaster with starting him in films.
"First, I was a dialogue coach on a (1960) John Frankenheimer picture ('The Young Savages')," he said.
Then in 1963, he was hired to go to Europe to dub Luchino Visconti's film "The Leopard," which starred Lancaster.
"I certainly wasn't hepped up on the dubbing business, but I got to work for several weeks with Visconti, a very assured director with a terrific sense of humor."
What directors has he most admired?
"Whenever anyone asks me that, I don't know how to reply. I really admire the usual film makers that everyone names, Visconti, Fellini, Truffaut and Bergman.
"However, I grew up studying Kazan's work. But at least people are very interested in directors now. The French always have been and the U.S. is becoming more so these days."
Midwesterner Pollack says his father still lives in Indiana, just outside South Bend. After completing school, the future film maker was drafted by Uncle Sam in February 1957.
The Army assigned him as a truck driver at Fort Carson, Col. "I knew nothing about mechanics, so I ended up greasing the brake drums."
During off-duty hours, Pollack worked as a waiter in a Colorado Springs pizza parlor.
During his Army stint he also married TV actress Claire Griswold, whose father is Maj. Gen. Francis H. Griswold, then vice commander to Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Curtis Le May.
"I was only a Spec. 4 when I met him and scared witless," he recalled with a grin.
Pollack took a three-month "early out" in the fall of '58, to teach acting at. Sanford Meisner's Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City.
He numbers among his students, his wife Claire, Suzanne Pleshette, Keir Dullea, Rip Torn and James Caan, who scored last year in "The Godfather."
"Almost everybody who studied at the school became fairly well known either in TV, films or the stage," he said.
Most of Pollack's own acting chores were on Broadway — "A Stone For Danny Fisher" and "The .Dark is Light Enough" — or "live" video dramas such as Playhouse 90.
However, he made one movie, a Western, "War Hunt" which co-starred Robert Redford. "That was in 1960, and it was really a good little picture," said Pollack.
He has since directed Redford in three films. "This Property is Condemned," "Jeremiah Johnson " and "The Way We Were."
Of acting, he says, "I don't like to do it much anymore. It's been 12 years since I acted."
Was Streisand temperamental or difficult to direct?
"No. I liked working with her very much. You hear those rumors about stars being difficult to work with. But so far, its never proven true about anyone I've heard that about, including Streisand, Anne Bancroft or Shelley Winters."
Isn't there a humanist or social strain running through most of the director's works such as in "They Shoot Horses ..."?
"Yes, I think it's probably true," he replied. "It's not something that concerns me on a conscious level. It's personal.
"It's there too in 'Castle Keep.' These are films of irony and loss of innocence, in a way ... It just happens in the making of it."
A father of three, Pollack says, "I've never made a film I wouldn't take my kids to."
However, the actor feels there's too much "attempted sex" in today's product.
"I don't find it sexy, I find it's junk. Mostly it's nonerotic. I like it when it's well done and when it's an integral part of what's being said."
Pollack considers Marlon Brando America's finest actor. "I'd like to work with him very much," he said.
However, the director considers Brando's rebuke of the Academy Award "a lousy thing to do" to the film industry.
"If be felt so strongly about the issue, let him go make a movie about the plight of the Indian," Pollack said,
The director has received high praise from film critics for 'They Shoot Horses ..." and his current "Jeremiah Johnson," considered a classic study of a mountain man.
The former film earned Jane Fonda a New York Film Critics best actress award and Gig Young a 1969 best supporting actor Oscar.
Pollack is excited over his latest effort, "The Way We Were", which teams Streisand and Redford. He calls it, "a political love story with a serious background."
The film maker said, "Redford gives a less subtle performance than he did in 'Jeremiah Johnson' and he has a lot more range "
Pollack is scheduled to direct three more projects: A screen version of John Lahr's best seller "The Autograph Hound;" "The Antagonists," to be filmed in Israel for Universal Studios; and Derek Marlowe's "Do You Remember England?" which the director terms, "a gothic love story."
Pollack doesn't write his own screenplays as do fellow directors Richard Brooks and Francis Ford Coppola.
"Actually, I've done a lot of rewriting," he said. "So eventually, I'll try one. Sometimes it hurts in terms of objectivity, but it's the way for a director to make the most personal kind of film, something truly his own. It gives him a terrific advantage. I envy guys who do write their own screenplays."
A scene in "The Scalphunters" reflects Pollack's sense of humor that often finds its way into his films, As a blowsy, blonde girlfriend of a renegade, Shelley Winters sees some hope in a bad situation as hostile redskins surround their camp, and says, "Aw, what the hell, they're only men!"