When the immensely successful director Sydney Pollack died at age 73 of cancer several months ago, there was an outpouring of praise for him as an artist and a person. I read a lot of the pieces, but just caught up with one of the best, thanks to a colleague who passed on the June 9 issue of Newsweek to me. The article was a tribute by famed architect Frank Gehry, by way of reporter Cathleen McGuigan.
The headline summed it all up as far as Pollack's career's concerned: "In a Formula Town, a Genuine Artist." But there was lots more to be said, and Gehry, a great artist himself, has never been one to pull his punches.
The two men were longtime friends, and the architect was actually the subject of the filmmaker's last work, the 2005 documentary "Sketches of Frank Gehry." Gehry met Pollack through the director's wife, Claire Griswold; they shared the same shrink. Griswold was an actress with an interest in architecture, and she came to work in Gehry's office during the summer before she started architecture school. "No more gorgeous creature on earth existed!" said Gehry.
The men would see one another at dinner parties now and then, and Gehry said that he felt intimidated at first by "the Hollywood thing." He also said that he was judgmental about the commercial aspects of filmmaking. "Where was the art?" he asked.
"I was talking to him one night, and there was probably a little edge to my voice, asking him what he was doing. I was being holier than thou, self-righteous — and I was poor and suffering and making architecture that nobody wanted. He didn't take umbrage, he just started talking about it. If you do a Western, he said, it's pretty set, there's a formula the studios want. But there's a space in there to make art — 10 to 20 percent — and it's enough to swing it. I'll never forget it because I went back and looked at my own work, and I was in the same box he was in. An office building is an office building — it's pro forma. But I also had 10 to 20 percent wiggle room. He made me understand that like no one had. He could've gotten pissed off at my question but he didn't."
Pollack got to do the documentary in a roundabout way. He was also a pilot and, at the opening of Gehry's Guggenheim Bilbao in 1997, he flew his plane from London and stopped to see the building just out of curiosity. Pollack had a little drugstore camera with him, and several weeks later he sent Gehry 10 photos he'd taken. The architect judged them to be "the best pictures of the building."
According to Gehry, Pollack "was tough, he was a control freak, like a director has to be. He would follow through on every detail, every meeting … . But he was extraordinarily modest — he didn't have that pushy, self-important thing going. He was this big handsome guy with a beautiful smile. When I saw him a few weeks ago, he knew he was dying. His voice was lower than usual. He knew there was no way out. But he was still smiling."