Somewhere in Egypt I read that Sydney Pollack had died. Pollack was a favorite of mine– both as an actor (for which he never got enough credit) and as a director (Out of Africa is one of my all-time favorites). I will miss his creative work. His work on behalf of future artists will insure his legacy for years to come.
When news broke Monday that Sydney Pollack had died of cancer at age 73, the tributes poured out.
Many critics praised his work ethic, of directing high-class, star-driven, commercially viable movies for 40 years, from “The Slender Thread” (starring Sidney Poitier and Anne Bancroft) in 1965 to “The Interpreter” (starring Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn) in 2005. Others focused on his prime productive period in the ’70s and ’80s, when he made such classic films as “Jeremiah Johnson,” “Three Days of the Condor,” “Tootsie” and his Oscar-winning “Out of Africa.”
David Edelstein at New York magazine complimented Pollack’s work as an actor, portraying men comfortable with power and wealth – either in comic roles (as Dustin Hoffman’s agent in “Tootsie” or Will Truman’s philandering dad on “Will & Grace”) or, more menacingly, in thrillers such as “Eyes Wide Shut” and “Michael Clayton.”
And Robert Redford emerged from his shell of privacy to speak to Time magazine about his nearly five-decade friendship with Pollack. (The two met as young actors on the set of “War Hunt,” and Pollack proceeded to direct Redford in seven films.)
What was glossed over, and sometimes missed altogether, in the numerous obituaries and appreciations was Pollack’s pivotal role in the creation of the Sundance Institute. He was a founding member of the Sundance board and one of the founding creative advisors of the Sundance Filmmakers Lab.
“His deep commitment to artists and his generosity in mentoring emerging filmmakers will always be a cornerstone of the work of the Institute,” Michelle Satter, director of Sundance’s Feature Film Program, said in a statement this week.
It goes deeper than that, though. Pollack was in at the beginning of what made the Sundance Institute what it is today.
It goes back to Pollack’s long friendship with Redford, of course. In his interview with Time, Redford recalled, “I think that the best times that he and I had were when the film industry was a different business. It was mainly because, in more of the films he and I did during the time we worked together, we were going against the grain.”
When Redford bought the old Timp Haven ski resort in Provo Canyon in 1969, he brought Pollack up to shoot a movie there: “Jeremiah Johnson,” the brooding 1972 Western in which Redford played an ex-soldier trying to live as a mountain man. The resort, rechristened Sundance, became the base of operations for Redford’s ideas of conservation and artistic development.
When the fledgling Utah/U.S. Film Festival was launched in 1978, Redford was on the festival’s board and Sterling van Wagenen (who later directed the second and third “Work and the Glory” films, and then was Redford’s brother-in-law) was the festival director. In 1979, in the festival’s second year, Pollack came to Salt Lake City and led a discussion on directing, according to Lawrence Smith’s 1999 memoir, Party in a Box.
When Redford convened the first planning conference to create the Sundance Institute in 1979, Smith’s book says, Pollack was one of the filmmakers in attendance. When the institute established its labs, Pollack was a frequent adviser.
But Pollack’s most permanent contribution to Sundance’s legend may have been a single suggestion he made in 1980 to Smith and the organizers of the U.S. Film Festival (which Sundance took over in 1985 and officially renamed the Sundance Film Festival in 1991). Here is the moment as Smith describes it in his book:
“It was spring of 1980, and he said something that forever changed the course of the event. He was wearing his traditional Levi’s and cowboy boots, and he leaned back in a big leather chair, speaking in that raspy voice that one gets only from years of smoking, ‘You know what you ought to do? You ought to move the festival to Park City and set it in the wintertime. You’d be the only festival in the world held in a ski resort during ski season, and Hollywood would beat down the door to attend.’ ”
If you’ve ever been to the Sundance Film Festival and cursed the cold, the snow and the icy sidewalks, now you know whom to blame.
* SEAN P. MEANS writes a daily blog, “The Movie Cricket,” at blogs.sltrib.com/movies. Send questions or comments to Sean P. Means, movie critic, The Salt Lake Tribune, 90 S. 400 West, Suite 700, Salt Lake City, UT 84101, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.