In honour of the great man himself, I present to you, my review of Sydney Pollack films I was forced to see as a young child; somewhere between the ages of two and twelve. I believed then, and now, that none of his efforts from 1975-1985 contained anything remotely interesting to a person of my age. Which raises the question of why my mother would drag me to these things. I don’t know; it certainly wasn’t for my entertainment. I would have been happy watching Sesame Street.
The good news is I got revenge by making mom sit through Robocop, Blade Runner, two of the Jaws sequels, and Godzilla 1985. Oh and one of the mid-90s Pokemon movies, just because.
Three Days of the Condor (1975). Robert Redford is the prehistoric version of a news reader for the CIA, checking books and publications for derring-do ideas that the agency might later put to good use. Or uh, bad use, since this is the 70s, and we all know American government agencies in the 70s are always doing the exact opposite of whatever their lawful chartering legislation requires. Redford reads something interesting in a pulpy novel one day, goes to lunch, and when he comes back, his department is uh… right-sized with .45cal severance packages. Redford gets in touch with seniors bureaucrats at CIA, thinking he is in danger, but they try to off him too. Eventually he holds a woman (Faye Dunaway) hostage and the woman, instead of thinking he is a dangerous psychopath with paranoid delusions, buys into his unlikely story and helps him.
- Number of screenings: Two as a child. I don’t understand how that happened because it was rated “R”. Tried to watch 20 minutes as an adult and failed.
- What I got out of it: This one was honestly confusing because I did not believe then (and really do not to believe now) that the government was prepared to gun down its own (expensive and time-consuming to train) academics on the off chance they had stumbled upon a secret war plan. Kids are not readily inclined to accept things like trading loyalty for money. If only Redford’s character had waited ten years and read Hunt for Red October, instead of a war-for-oiiiiiil conspiracy thriller. By the way, how many CIA study groups were unceremoniously gunned down at their place of work in March of 2003? Just asking.
The Electric Horseman (1979). A washed-up five-time rodeo champ (Robert Redford, again) is recruited to sell breakfast cereals for a sinister megacorp. The horse he is supposed to ride for these ads is a former racehorse, now injured, and it has to be drugged to get it on stage. Apparently it doesn’t handle the hustle-bustle of cereal promotion very well. Redford the rodeo champ decides this is too cruel a fate for such a majestic animal. He steals said horse to release it into the wild, leading the authorities on an extremely athletic (for the horse!) cross-country chase.
The whole “riding the horse to exhaustion across a continent to save it from occasional sedation and use in commercials” storyline didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. You may be surprised to learn that it (according to IMDB) is almost kinda sorta based on a real incident:
This movie was inspired by a case where “The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour” (1971) invited Penny Chenery in 1973 to bring her horse, the legendary Triple Crown winner Secretariat to appear on the show. Chenery, knowing her horse wouldn’t care for a TV studio, declined.
A lot of 1970s paranoia movies seem to be derived from the basic concept of “Let’s imagine a scenario where somebody suggests an arbitrarily stupid idea, and instead of common sense ruling the day (as it did in real life), they make the stupid idea real!” I am inclined to believe that most of these projects got greenlit because the studio execs were using powerful hallucinogenic controlled substances.
- Number of screenings: Two as a child, none as an adult.
- Not shown: The released racehorse, not having any concept of how to fend for itself or socialise with a wild herd, succumbing to predators or disease in the wild. Also not shown: the Electric Horseman having to pony up a few million bucks in damages for the theft of the horse, plus damages to assorted law enforcement vehicles and personnel along the way.
- What I got out of it: I remember that the electric cowboy outfit seemed cool. That would have made a wicked Halloween costume. Don’t know how many cereal boxes it would have sold. I didn’t know the names of any rodeo champs at the age of six, so it seems like an odd thing to use as a marketing tool. Did they run out of ballplayer or cartoon character endorsements?
Tootsie (1982): A washed-up actor (Dustin Hoffman) can’t get any acting gigs, so he decides to play drag queen and lands a leading role on a daytime soap opera. Unfortunately all his male co-stars end up falling in love with him, and of course he can’t blow the scam by going after his female co-stars (Jessica Lange and Teri Garr) either.
This is probably the only one of Pollack’s flicks that did not require my childhood brain to try and grasp the minutiae of current events or the alleged nefarious doings of a secret government agency. At the time I recall this film being the most enjoyable of a bad lot, but not nearly enjoyable enough to warrant a second viewing.
- Number of screenings: One as a child, none as an adult.
- Most inexplicable plot hole: As if Jessica Lange would ever consider dating Dustin Hoffman. When this movie was released, she had shacked up with Sam Shepard, the future cinematic Chuck Fargin’ Yeager. Sam Shepard has more cool in his toenail clippings than Dustin Hoffman has in every fibre of his being.
- What I got out of it: Cross-dressing as a career advancement strategy seems like more trouble than it’s worth. As Dennis Rodman later proved.
Out of Africa (1985): Danish woman (Meryl Streep) assents to marriage of convenience to titled Swedish cousin, tries to start plantation in Kenya. Ends up getting VD, a failed marriage, and an on-again, off-again affair with an American aviator (Robert Effin’ Redford) with commitment issues. The actual person portrayed by Redford was British, but surprise surprise, a realistic accent is beyond the realm of the possible for this gifted thespian.
- Number of screenings: At least four as a child; none of those were my idea, obviously. One as an adult. Love the cinematography but that’s it.
- What I got out of it: The savannahs of eastern Africa are incredibly beautiful and flying biplanes over vast animal herds is fun. Having Meryl Streep as a love interest is not. Also actual wild lions hanging around your grave site is cool. Mental note: Provide funding for airlift of lions to local cemetary.
Also as a result of my pint-sized movie critic career, I have decided that Robert Redford is the winner of the All-Time Kick in the Pants Award. When I die I am going to provide funding for random strangers to kick him or his heirs in the nads, in perpetuity. Meryl Streep would have won that award for Kramer vs. Kramer (another overwrought drama seen two or three times in early childhood), but she redeemed herself with a hilarious portrayal of Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada.
If you or your heirs would like to apply for the role of Redford nad-kicker, enlist in the comments below. Don’t think that you’ll be getting free money either, because although I’ll be dead, I’ll be keeping an eye on you to be sure that you do the job. Anything worth doing is worth doing right.