Never cinematically hip, cutting edge, or fashionably cool, he was nonetheless undeniably a class act, and he gave to what could have been the glitziest and most superficial of Hollywood vehicles a ring of authenticity and substance. You expected a Pollack movie to be smart, impeccably crafted, and about something (more than you'd expect from so many of his mainstream contemporaries' work); the best of them rewarded you with moments of sheer movie entertainment that could be savored for years to come.
I'll let others eulogize the man in detail and depth, but merely want to point out here the startling breadth of his directorial achievement within a fairly small filmography: he made a genre-defining espionage thriller in Three Days of the Condor, a classic romance in The Way We Were, and one of the greatest American comedies in Tootsie (an appreciation of the Michael Dorsey story on its 25th anniversary can be found here).
Pollack also got some of the best career performances out of a number of Hollywood icons (see, besides Hoffman and Redford, Paul Newman's stellar work in Absence of Malice), and he was a pleasure to behold when he acted on screen himself; a nervy confidence, a kind of expansive reveling in his own bristling intelligence makes his roles in Tootsie and Michael Clayton infinitely watchable (he was arguably the one sign of energetic life in the largely moribund Eyes Wide Shut). His good taste as a producer is borne out by the many prestige projects he backed (Clayton among them).
As is true of so many of the Big Guys we've been losing lately, the loss of Sydney Pollack seems emblematic of the loss of an irretrievable movie past. You might say that he is already missed.
Romantic Comedy Bulletin
I don't know if you heard me speak on the Hollywood By Phone conference call just before Valentine's Day, but if you didn't, I'll be on again this Wednesday, May 27th, 5:30 Pacific Time. I'll be taking all your questions on writing the romantic comedy live on this conference call -- you can register for the call and submit your questions here: www.screenplaybyphone.com/askbilly