Tuesday, May 27, 2008

I was a stand-up tomato

A fair number of my readers are not movie nerds, so perhaps it will not be complete redundancy or overkill to devote today's post to Sydney Pollack, the director and actor who died yesterday at the age of 73. I cannot think of him without thinking of the way Akira Kurosawa said his name when announcing the 1986 Best Picture Oscar: "Sydney ... Pollawack."

Like many of his generation (Altman and Lumet come to mind), Pollack came to movies through television, especially the prestige anthology series from TV's golden age. His best years in movies were the late sixties (They Shoot Horses, Don't They?) and seventies (Three Days Of The Condor). The skills he honed there working with actors (aided by his own experience as an actor, a role to which he kept returning throughout his career) made him a favorite of many stars of the period, and got him jobs on high-profile projects like Out Of Africa, the film for which he won his two Oscars (as director and producer).

No doubt the movie for which he is best loved is Tootsie, a certified canonical masterpiece in the pantheon of filmed comedy. It's often a surprise to casual movie watchers that this gimmicky picture from the early eighties is hailed by serious cinephiles as one of the best American films of all time. But few comedies from any period can beat its self-referential wit (Dustin Hoffman, a Method actor whose obsessive preparation made him notoriously difficult to work with, plays a Method actor who can't get a job because he's so difficult to work with), its fleet dialogue and perfect comic timing, and its spot-on casting (Bill Murray as Hoffman's deadpan roommate gives a particularly priceless performance).

Many of the Pollack tributes and obituaries in the media today reference the director's cameo as Hoffman's agent in Tootsie, and rightly so -- it's his best film and one of the best scenes.

Michael: Terry Bishop's doing Iceman. You promised to send me up for that. You told me I'd get a reading for that. Aren't you my agent?

George: Stuart Pressman wants a name.

Michael: Terry Bishop is a name?

George: Michael Dorsey is a name when you want to send a steak back. Wait, wait, wait!

Michael: You always do this to me.

George: It was a rotten thing to say. Let me start again. Terry Bishop is on a soap. Millions watch him every day.

Michael: That qualifies him to ruin Iceman? I can act circles around him. I played that part in Minneapolis.

George: lf he wants a name, that's his affair. People are in this business to make money.

Michael: I'm in it to make money too.

George: Really? The Harlem Theatre for the Blind? The People's Workshop at Syracuse?

Michael: Wait a minute. I did nine plays up at Syracuse. I got great reviews from the critics. Not that that's why I did it.

George: God forbid you should lose your standing as a cult failure.

Michael: You think I'm a failure?

George: I will not get sucked into this conversation. I will not.

Michael: I sent you my roommate's play to read. It had a great part in it for me

George: Where do you come off sending me a play for you to star in? I'm not your mother. I don't find plays for you to star in. I field offers. That's what I do.

Michael: Who told you that? The agent fairy? I could be terrific in that part.

George: Nobody's going to do that play.

Michael: Why?

George: It's a downer about a couple that move back to Love Canal.

Michael: But that actually happened.

George: Nobody wants to watch people living next to chemical waste! They can see that in Jersey.

Michael: I don't want to argue about it. I'll raise $10,000 and produce his play. Send me up for anything. I don't care. I'll do dog commercials. I'll do radio voice-overs.

George: I can't put you up for that.

Michael: Why not?

George: Because no one will hire you.

Michael: I bust my ass to get a part right?

George: And you bust everybody else's ass too. Who wants to argue about whether Tolstoy can walk when he's dying or walk when he's talking--?

Michael: That was two years ago, and that guy's an idiot!

George: They can't all be idiots. You argue with everybody! You've got one of the worst reputations in this town. Nobody will hire you.

Michael: Are you saying that nobody in New York will work with me?

George: Oh no, that's too limiting. Nobody in Hollywood will work with you either. I can't even get you a commercial. You played a tomato, and they went over schedule because you wouldn't sit.

Michael: Yes, it wasn't logical.

George: You were a tomato! A tomato doesn't have logic. It can't move!

Michael: (triumphantly) So if he can't move, how's he going to sit down? I was a stand-up tomato. A juicy, sexy, beefsteak tomato! Nobody does vegetables like me! I did a whole night of vegetables off-Broadway! I did the best tomato, the best cucumber! I did an endive salad that knocked the critics on their ass!

George: I'm trying to stay calm here. You are a wonderful actor.

Michael: Thank you.

George: But you're too much trouble. Get some therapy.


Eric Grubbs said...

Thanks for sharing, Donna. His death was a huge loss.

Victor said...

At least be glad Kurosawa mispronounced his name THAT way ...

To ask you something I mentioned the other day on The Discussion Group ... in the pantheon of transvestism, Donna ... SOME LIKE IT HOT or TOOTSIE?

Donna B. said...

I've got respect for Some Like It Hot. Some explosive laughs there. But I definitely prefer Tootsie, as I was discussing with Noel last night, because it's played essentially straight. There's less of a gag humor basis to it. I appreciate that there's a serious issue at the heart of Tootsie that gives it some gravity: who's going to stand up for older, less attractive women? They're essentially a forgotten class, a worthless commodity. And the movie can address that and have its grounded dramatic heart without getting serious -- while remaining fleet and nimble and funny.

Victor said...

We pretty much agree then on the specifics, but not the general ... TOOTSIE definitely has more "heart" to it and isn't as farcical.

I just give more weight to HOT's being belly-laugh funnier, though it does have one lump-inducing moment ... Monroe singing "I'm Through With Love" and Curtis coming up to her afterward.