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Sydney Pollack : Consummate Insider's Views on the Industry, MPAA and Movies

September 30, 1990|Nina J. Easton | Nina J. Easton covers the film industry for The Times. She interviewed Sydney Pollack in the director's office at Universal Studios

In Hollywood, where the creative and business communities are often at odds, director and producer Sydney Pollack is that rare filmmaker who is a respected player on both sides. So the addition of his name to a recent petition urging the Motion Picture Assn. of America to revamp its movie-ratings system carried enormous weight.

After months of discussions, the MPAA last week did away with its X rating and substituted a new category, NC-17 (no children under 17 allowed). It will be trademarked to prevent pornographers from adopting it, as they did with the X. The change is expected to clear the way for American directors to make stronger, adult-themed films without being branded pornographers.

The MPAA's decision is only one of the many wrenching changes that the genial 56-year-old Pollack has seen during his long career as one of the country's top directors. In the fickle world of Hollywood, Pollack is part of an elite minority of filmmakers who consistently make movies popular with both critics and audiences. As a result, he enjoys more creative freedom than almost any other director in the business. Yet, he is troubled by the current pressures on Hollywood's creative community.

By his own admission, Pollack is not a guerrilla filmmaker. His movies--"The Way We Were," "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" "Three Days of the Condor," "Absence of Malice," "Tootsie"--are mainstream fare featuring such big-name stars as Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep and Sally Field. All told, Pollack's films have earned 43 Academy Award nominations, including four for Best Picture. Pollack himself has been nominated three times, and won in 1985, for that year's Best Picture, "Out of Africa."

Pollack's "Havana," due out at Christmas, stars Robert Redford as an American gambler who meets the wife of a Cuban revolutionary (Lena Olin) on the Miami-to-Havana ferry just days before Fulgencio Batista's overthrow in 1959. "It's not a political film," says Pollack. "The revolution really serves as a canvas and a background for the love story." But then, Pollack sees all his movies as love stories.

Given his stature in the film community, Pollack is often looked to for a stamp of respectability on Hollywood issues. It is not a position he is comfortable with. In conversation, Pollack is expansive and candid when discussing his own work, but when the talk shifts to controversial industry issues, he becomes more cautious. After the interview, Pollack confessed that he had to think long and hard before signing the ratings petition.

Question: You were among several directors who signed a petition asking the Motion Picture Assn. of America to reconsider its rating system after Wayne Wang's "Life is Cheap . . . But Toilet Paper is Expensive" got an X. This was the latest in a series of independent films to receive the dreaded X. What concerns did you have about the ratings?

Answer: Let me answer that by first saying that I was probably not as angry as many of my colleagues--only because I feel the goals of the rating system are admirable goals, and that the idea of having some way to tell uninitiated people what they're going to see is not, in and of itself, a bad idea. For many years, it worked rather well. There were quite good films that were released with X ratings at one time-- "Midnight Cowboy" and "Last Tango in Paris," for example. If you run those films today, they're still good films. There is art in them. There is a real aspiration to clarify human issues.

But the X rating has gotten confused over the years with out-and-out pornography. That places a very unfair stigma on people who are trying to depict aspects of life that are very human. I felt--not having seen Mr. Wang's picture by the way--that as a filmmaker I can't help but feel worried. It's very, very hard to make a judgment on what is art and what isn't art.

Q: Last week the MPAA revised its ratings system. What do you think of this solution to the controversy?

A: It was what we asked. I think it's a constructive step in trying to become more realistic than we've been about this very real problem.

Q: Can we expect to see a slew of more sexually graphic films now?

A: Unfortunately, I think we will. That's the sad and depressing part of any kind of leniency. There's going to be a whole slew of people who will take advantage of this. But that's the price we have to pay for instituting a system with more fairness.

Q: Hollywood's writers and directors have pushed for a legal protection called "moral rights"--embodied in the 104-year-old international Berne Convention--giving them the ability to sue anyone who alters their work in a way that harms their reputations. But wouldn't giving artists this kind of power turn the American notion of copyright law on its head? As Ted Turner said when he was criticized for colorizing films: "I think they look better in color, and they're my movies."

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