Music Cue: Remembering Sydney Pollack

Scott Simon reflects on the life of filmmaker Sydney Pollack, who died on May 26.

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Sydney Pollack loved big stars and good stories. He became friends at a conference a few years ago. Good enough that he called me Scooter and in recent years Sydney offered me personal advice on some movie matters. When I once complained about something, the usual wail that someone in Hollywood didn't keep their word or mean what they said, Sydney gently reminded me to grow up.

Every business has B.S. he said, they just pay a little more for it out here. Many admiring obituaries this week have saluted his most successful films, "The Way We Were," "Out of Africa," and "Tootsie," one of the truly great comedies. But I love to hear Sydney talk about some of his earlier films, "The Slender Thread" where suicide hotline worker Sydney Poitier talks down a desperate caller played by Anne Bancroft.

You can imagine how excited the studio was, he told me, two people talking on the phone. This property is condemned. Natalie Wood is a small town southern ingénue who dreams of riding the train out of her ordinary life. And Robert Redford is the railroad man who comes to town to close it up. And Redford again with Jane Fonda in "The Electric Horseman," the celebrity TV journalist tracking a game and profane old cowboy who's just trying to do the right thing by his horse.

Fonda and Redford traded barbs like Reese and Robinson turn double plays. Sydney said those films reminded him that big stars filled the screen, but they need a real story to act. Otherwise they get bored and won't flash that special fire and fascination that makes you want to watch them because they're not much interested in what they're doing.

For all the gender analysis applied to "Tootsie" in the 1980s, it struck me as the story of an actor who finally finds a character he can play with conviction who just happens to wear pantyhose. A few months ago after Sydney told me he was sick and I didn't bother him for advice, just talk, told him how much we had enjoyed a recent film he had produced and in which he had a cameo.

We're real proud of it, he said, but it didn't do the business that it should. That phrase struck me. Sydney explained in words I have to paraphrase that he always set out to make pictures that were so good and of which he was so proud that everybody from the age of 15 to 95 would want to see them. He didn't want to make movies that put the audience into slots by age, location, or ethnicity.

For Sydney Pollack, one of the blessings of making movies was the chance to reach as many people as he could with something that gave them pleasure, the thrill of discovery, the release of laughter, the joy of love. Made the people who worked on the movie proud of what they had done and reminded them, as Sydney said, they weren't working in a cement factory. And he added with his special saving grace, with all respect to cement factories.

(Soundbite of song, "It Might Be You")

Mr. STEPHEN BISHOP: I've been saving love songs and lullabies and there's so much more no one's ever heard before, something's telling me it might be you, yeah, it's telling me it must be you. And I'm feeling it'll just be you all of my life, it's you, it's you I've been waiting for all my life. Maybe it's you, it's you, maybe it's you, it's you I've been waiting for all of my life. Maybe it's you.

SIMON: Stephen Bishop, the theme from "Tootsie."

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