“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.“
Cliff Robertson said those words of Sydney Pollack – actor, writer, producer and director.
Sydney Pollack began his career as an actor and as an acting teacher. He began his directorial career in episodic television with series like, Shotgun Slade, Ben Casey and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. His feature film career as a director started with 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 and 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 Oscars in the long run 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. There’s just so much to enjoy in Sydney Pollack movies, which, no matter the genre, always have deep relationships at the center. His best films are very relatable. And like most people I enjoy several in his 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 in April, and Tootsie (1982). Yet, I chose none of those as the subject of this post. In truth, I had a difficult time choosing which of Pollack’s films to dedicate a post to in celebration of his birthday on July 1st. I credit it to the fact that his work was so diverse – from exceptional thrillers to epics to comedies, Pollack had a knack – for people.
The Firm (1993)
Produced and directed by Sydney Pollack.
- Tom Cruise as Mitch McDeere
- Jeanne Tripplehorn as Abigail “Abby” McDeere
- Gene Hackman as Avery Tolar
- Holly Hunter as Tammy Hemphill
- Ed Harris as Agent Wayne Tarrance
- Hal Holbrook as Oliver Lambert
- Jerry Hardin as Royce McKnight
- David Strathairn as Ray McDeere
- Paul Sorvino as Tommy Morolto (uncredited)
- Wilford Brimley as Bill Devasher
- Gary Busey as Eddie Lomax
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, he 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. 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, a recent graduate of Harvard Law interviewing with different law firms. He is, in fact, being wooed by some huge firms from New York and Chicago. But it’s a small firm in Memphis, Bendini, Lambert & Locke that makes him an offer he can’t refuse – a substantially higher salary than the others, a low-interest mortgage rate so he can buy a house, bonus packages, and the Mercedes of his choice.
Once Mitch accepts the offer he and his wife, Abby attend a large party thrown by the firm so they can get to know everyone, a welcoming into the family that makes up the firm. 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?
Abby tells Mitch about her unease with the crowd but they move to Memphis anyway and start a new life with the firm. It’s not long before all starts going awry, however. I don’t intend on telling you the entire story – as if I could – but know that there are murders, wire tapping, mysterious trips, over-billing, organized crime, misadventures, chases, disguises, a guy who thinks he’s Elvis and all manner of sinister crookedness.
The Firm is entertaining, if not a totally fresh conspiracy tale given all the conspiracy movies we’ve come to know – like Pollack’s earlier Three Days of the Condor. There was also, it seems to me in retrospect, a huge outpouring of productions of legal thrillers in the 1980s and early 1990s and The Firm fits nicely in that niche as well. It’s not one of the best, but 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 and is enjoyable as the “conspiracy buster,” (EW). He’s certainly a lot more entertaining in this than in most of his later performances, where the off-screen Cruise overwhelms his on-screen characters. I also really enjoyed both Jeanne Tripplehorn and Gene Hackman’s performances. In fact, one of the best acted
scenes in the film is between these two – in the schoolyard, should you happen on by it. This is how it’s done.
The rest of the cast in The Firm is outstanding - a wonderful array of actors in great character performances. Ed Harris, who plays the FBI agent in charge of the case against the firm is very convincing. 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 Academy Award nominations given to The Firm, Best Supporting Actress. Interestingly, she’s on-screen for a total time of 5 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 does such a great job making Tammy unforgettable that it feels as though she’s in a lot more of the film. Small, but impressive performances, are also delivered by Hal Holbrook, Wilford Brimley, in a rare bad guy part as the firm’s “security director,” and Gary Busey.
The other Academy Award nomination received by The Firm went to Dave Grusin for Best Music, Original Score, which is really enjoyable to
listen to – piano-based and thrilling. (By the way, “piano-based” simply means the piano stood out for my non-musical ears.)
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.