Sydney Pollack: A Subliminal Existentialist Book Review – Enlightening, Entertaining, A Treat

Sydney Pollack: A Subliminal Existentialist, from Indiana Historical Society Press, presents author Wes Gehring's passionate homage to director Sydney Pollack and examines ten of his best-known films, each widely considered both critical and commercial successes.

Gehring introduces both himself and Pollack by weaving his biography into his motivation for his interest in the director and even further his passion, as one would need to be passionate about a subject to spend the significant time necessary to research, review, and finally write, a book that delves into the films examining the thought, process of filmmaking.

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Francis Truffaut from Day for a Night (1973), said, "Shooting a movie is like a stagecoach trip. At first you hope for a nice ride. Then you just hope to reach your destination." Writing a novel is much the same.

The tome outlines "Introduction," "Prologue" and ten chapters dedicated to Pollacks more widely known works beginning with "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" (1969) "Jeremiah Johnson" (1972), "The Way We Were" (1973), "Three Days of The Condor" (1975), "Bobby Deerfield" (1977); "The Electric Horseman" (1979), "Absence of Malice" (1981), "Tootsie" (1982), "Out of Africa" (1985), and "Havana" (1990).

Pollack found his greatest success as the director of the celebrated pictures reviewed and won Oscars as both director and producer. He found early success as an actor, an acting teacher, and later as a producer. By 1982, he would be praised as a character actor, from Dustin Hoffman's scene stealing agent in Tootsie to a sympathetic cynic in Eyes Wide Shut. His ability to recognize quality material also made him a producer of such memorable works as The Fabulous Baker BoysSense and SensibilityThe Talented Mr. RipleyIris, and Michael Clayton.

Pollack is introduced to readers through the Prologue, "A Pollack Profile to 1969." During this chapter, we see through the lens of the author a young Sydney Pollack with many of the universal struggles that teenage angst presents.

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Pollack was a midwestern son, born July 1, 1939, in West Lafayette, Indiana, but grew up in South Bend. The prologue goes on to recall an interview with Pollack who describes himself as "a nervous guy," and his upbringing in this tense town in the Midwest certainly contributed to his "nervous" nature. Although the interviews author adds while Pollack may consider himself nervous, he spoke clearly and the only "sign of anxiety was his chain smoking."

The prologue, is of course, where we find out more about the man, as many know the films, even the early films, now considered classics and of significance, we understand Pollack had a passion for the theater and explained it was challenging as his father, David, who considered all theater folks, "faggots" so Pollack to appease both his passion and his father, played junior varsity football at South Central High School.

Gehring also explains that Pollack credited his drama teacher as doing what great teachers, those gifted with an ability to unlock the spirit within the student and encourage them to dream. Years later, we find, when this teacher, James Lewis Casaday, approached Pollack in Memphis, at the premier of the film The Firm, and just said his name, Pollack explains he dropped his barbecue ribs and the two men sat and "shared memories."

A great teacher unlocks a future the student has yet to realize is there. Casaday did that and Pollack never forgot, and frequently mentioned him. As both men are deceased the relationship between them lives on even today through the James Casaday and Sydney Pollack Scholarship Fund offered in South Bend, Indiana.

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The prologue travels with Pollack to New York City and the early days of acting and begin studying with Sandy Meisner where he stayed both as student, teaching assistant and teacher. Gehring explains what became known as 'The Pollack Process' as told by Sydney Pollack, "The first thing I want to see is where they [the actor] would go naturally in a scene and sometimes there's confusion. Most actors want desperately to be told what to do. This is a complicated thing. No actor reading this will believe it. But from being on both sides of it [as an actor and director] and having spent years teaching [I know] there is something very comforting to an actor when you gently steer [his or her] impulse and put it into proper form."

For film historians and cinephiles the prologue is where we begin to understand the complexity of Pollack's development as a director. Of course, a book titled "A Subliminal Existentialist," is enough to create curiosity and as a film reviewer and critic one wonders what can be presented that would be considered the philosophy of the talent.

Apart from cause related idealism, the philosophy of Pollack was seen in his work. As Gehring deep dives into these films, we understand he is looking to dissect Pollack's work.

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And while Sydney Pollack: A Subliminal Existentialist can not be considered a typical celebrity adulation inspired work, the chapters on the films contain all the insider, behind the scenes, tidbits, letters and memo's from studio executives, other director's comments on the work, film reviewer's like Cindy Adams, Leonard Maltin, Gene Siskel, and Roger Ebert, and we hear from Pollack himself who at times is the harshest critic of his own work. Of course, there is the author's adoration for Robert Redford, who he describes early as his "favorite actor/activist" that all add to the mystique of celebrity.

Sydney Pollack: A Subliminal Existentialist is a must read for film historians, cinephiles, directors, writers, film critics and anyone interested in the truth of the filmmaking process.

Enlightening and entertaining, Sydney Pollack: A Subliminal Existentialist is a treat. Available at bookstores everywhere.


Title: Sydney Pollack: A Subliminal Existentialist

Author: Wes D. Gehring.

Publisher: Indiana Historical Society Press.

Length: 255 pages, Hardcover.

ISBN: 0871954729, 9780871954725.

MSRP: $29.95 (US).

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