“You don’t identify him with one kind of film. He can do it all. He has what I call an omni-talent. 360 degrees.”
Sydney Pollack began his career as an actor and as an acting teacher. He transitioned to director with episodic television with series like, Shotgun Slade, Ben Casey and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and the first feature he directed was The Slender Thread starring Sidney Poitier in 1965.
“In those days the film industry looked to television for its directors.” – Pollack
Sidney Pollack’s over forty films received a total of 46 Academy Award nominations, including four for Best Picture. Pollack himself was nominated three times and received his only Oscar for directing, Out of Africa (1985) for which he also won the Best Picture honor as producer. Out of Africa, which stars Robert Redford and Meryl Streep earned eleven Academy Award nominations in all with seven wins, including Pollack’s two. I think it’s telling and certainly worth mentioning that Pollack directed twelve different actors to Oscar-nominated performances during his career: Jane Fonda, Gig Young, Susannah York, Barbra Streisand, Paul Newman, Melinda Dillon, Jessica Lange, Dustin Hoffman, Teri Garr , Meryl Streep, Klaus Maria Brandauer and Holly Hunter.
Perhaps more impressive than the Oscar nods Pollack received during his career is that among the 100 best-loved American movies ranked by American Film Institute (AFI) in June, 2002, Pollack is the only director credited with two films near the top of list. His The Way We Were (1973) is ranked #6 and Out of Africa (1985) is ranked #13. I think that may surprise people because Sidney Pollack is rarely mentioned among top director lists, but there’s just so much to enjoy in his movies, which, no matter the genre, always have solid relationships at the center. Pollack had a knack for people and despite the fact that his movies range from thrillers to epics to comedies, the best of them are relatable on a personal level.
Like most people I enjoy several movies in Pollack’s repertoire with my favorites being They Shoot Horses, Don’t They (1969), The Way We Were (1973), Three Days of the Condor (1975), a terrific thriller I had the privilege to see on the big screen at the Turner Classic Movies Film Festival, and Tootsie (1982). But while perusing my movie collection recently I ran across Pollack’s 1993 legal thriller, The Firm starring Tom Cruise, which is based on a popular novel by John Grisham and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it and so here I am discussing a non-classic as I am compelled to do now and again…
THE FIRM (1993)
Produced and directed by Sydney Pollack.
Admittedly, Sidney Pollack had a lot of trouble trying to visualize John Grisham‘s hugely popular novel, The Firm, as a feature film. He felt that if he followed the book exactly, he couldn’t make the film work. So, Pollack made changes to the script that many disagreed with. One of those changes is the ending of the story in the film, which is quite different from the one depicted in Grisham’s novel. I have no problem with the changes Pollack made to the film, except that it is too clean, if that makes any sense. I start then with what I like least in The Firm. While the overall story told in Pollack’s version of the story is clear and enjoyable, there are several convoluted moments in the film where one wonders what’s going on. It’s a bit messy and I feel the ending should be a bit messy too. Having said that, with a running time that exceeds two hours, The Firm manages to keep me interested for its duration.
As The Firm opens we see Mitch McDeere (Tom Cruise), a recent graduate of Harvard Law interviewing with different law firms. He is, in fact, being wooed by notable firms from New York and Chicago. But it’s a small firm in Memphis, Bendini, Lambert & Locke that makes Mitch an irresistible offer that includes a substantial salary , a low-interest mortgage rate so he can buy a house, several bonus packages, and the Mercedes of his choice. Bendini, Lambert & Locke become “the firm.”
Once Mitch accepts the offer he and his wife, Abby (Jeanne Tripplehorn) attend a large party thrown by the firm so they can get to know everyone, a welcoming into the family. Mitch is sold immediately, but Abby sees early signs of trouble. Although, honestly, they’re pretty blatant. One woman at the party, the wife of one of the partners tells her, “oh, you’re allowed to work and children are encouraged.” Stepford much???
After the party Abby tells Mitch about her unease, but they move to Memphis anyway and start a new life with the firm. Unfortunately, it’s not long before all starts going awry. I don’t intend on telling you the entire story – as if I could – but know that there are murders, wire tapping, mysterious trips, serious over-billing issues, organized crime, misadventures, chases, disguises and a guy who thinks he’s Elvis. In other words there’s enough sinister goings on to keep you entertained. Of the excess of legal thrillers made in the 1980s and early 1990s, of which I’ve seen many, The Firm may not be one of the best, but it’s not one of the worst either.
Of Tom Cruise’ performance in The Firm, John Grisham said, “did a good job. He played the innocent young associate very well.” I agree. Cruise is perfectly suited for the role of Mitch at that point in his career and is enjoyable as the “conspiracy buster,” (EW). Cruise is certainly a lot more entertaining in this than in most of his later performances, where the off-screen Cruise overwhelms his performances in my opinion. The rest of the cast is also enjoyable including a wonderful array of actors in great character performances. To begin, there’s Ed Harris, who plays the FBI agent in charge of the case against the firm. Then you have David Strathairn, who plays Mitch’s older brother who’s doing time for manslaughter. And then there’s Holly Hunter who’s just fantastic as Tammy, a woman who by choice and circumstance gets embroiled in the plot to get the firm. Hunter received one of the two Oscar nods for The Firm – Best Supporting Actress. Interestingly, Hunter’s on-screen for a total of five minutes and 59 seconds, one of the shortest (to that time) performances ever to receive an Oscar nomination. I was quite surprised when I read this bit of trivia in IMDB because she’s so good in the role that it feels as though Tammy’s a huge part of the movie. Smaller parts are played convincingly by Hal Holbrook, Wilford Brimley, in a rare bad guy part as the firm’s “security director,” and Gary Busey.
Particularly impressive in major roles here are Jeanne Tripplehorn and Gene Hackman. Then again, has Hackman ever brought anything but his A game to any movie? Well, he’s as impressive as ever here. One of the most enjoyable scenes from an acting perspective is between Hackman and Tripplehorn. The scene takes place in a schoolyard, should you happen to tune in. This is how it’s done.
The other Oscar nod received by The Firm – aside from Hunter’s supporting recognition – went to Dave Grusin for Best Music, Original Score, which is a thrilling, piano-based ride. (By the way, “piano-based” simply means the piano stood out for my non-musical ears.)
Upon its release The Firm received decent reviews and went on to become the third highest grossing film of 1993. It’s worth noting that John Grisham was at the height of his popularity then and had, I believe, three novels on the New York Times Best Seller list the week The Firm was released. That’s not a bad promotion for the movie.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that I am a huge fan of Sydney Pollack the person. Or, at least, the person he seems to be in every clip and/or interview I’ve ever seen him in. I am always compelled to listen to him closely. He’s one of those directors whose love of film (like Martin Scorsese for instance) is evident by the passion with which they discuss the movies. It’s not only admirable, but contagious. Turner Classic Movies (TCM) features Pollack on a clip in which several filmmakers discuss letterbox vs. pan and scan and although I’ve seen the clip more times than I can count – who hasn’t? – I can never look away from it because of Sydney Pollack and the way he describes the importance of staying true to the work as dictated by the original format. And Pollack didn’t just talk the talk. In 1997 he brought a lawsuit against Danish TV for screening Three Days of the Condor in pan-and-scan in 1991. The court ruled that the pan scanning conducted by Danish television was a ‘mutilation’ of the film and a violation of Pollack’s legal right as an artist to maintain his reputation by protecting the integrity of his work. Nonetheless, the court ruled in favor of the defendant on a technicality. (IMDB)
In tribute to Sydney Pollack the film fan, albeit a fan with extraordinary knowledge of film, here’s a clip from AFI during which he discusses our fascination with The Godfather films. And the following clip, as you’ll see, is from when Pollack was a host on The Essentials on TCM. Here he introduces Stanley Kubrick’s, 2001 A Space Odyssey.
For his love of film and for the films that he made that I love, I post this in honor of Sidney Pollack (July 1, 1934 – May 26, 2008).