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MOVIES : You're Sydney Pollack. The movies you've directed--among them 'Tootsie,' 'The Way We Were' and 'Out of Africa'--have gotten 43 Oscar nominations, and your latest film, 'The Firm,' is based on a mammoth bestseller and stars Tom Cruise. So . . . : Sydney, What's With the Angst?

June 27, 1993|LAWRENCE CHRISTON | Lawrence Christon is a Times staff writer

John Grisham's novel "The Firm," besides being a page-turner, is a parable of greed in the money-loving '80s. To bite the golden apple, it reminds us, is to invite poison. But what happens when it's the only thing that shows up on the menu?

Sydney Pollack directed the film version, which opens Wednesday. For all the doubt and ambiguity and even mortal disconnect that often show up in the characters of Pollack's films (usually men, such as "Jeremiah Johnson" or the Denys Finch Hatton character in "Out of Africa"), his gut sense is that the purgatory of dishonor is a terminally unhealthful place--which makes his film differ somewhat from the book.

"It's a simple story, which puts someone in a Garden of Eden to be tempted by something that seems better than it is," Pollack says. "It shows a man caught between lawmakers and lawbreakers. There's nothing wrong with crooks having lawyers. Everyone is entitled to a lawyer. No country could claim to be civilized if its legal system weren't available to everyone in it. It's when the lawyers themselves become bad guys that you begin to have a serious problem. But it's not a cut-and-dried matter. As (protagonist) McDeere says, 'How can you tell if you're crossing the line when they keep moving it?' "

"The Firm" would seem an ideal project for Pollack, one of America's preeminent directors whose work has been popular with both audience and critics. Certainly his agent, Michael Ovitz, thought so. One would think too that after a career in which his movies have earned 43 Academy Award nominations, including four for best picture, and in which he's been nominated three times, winning once for 1985's best picture, "Out of Africa," nothing could faze him.

However: "After I read the book, I was beside myself. There was no way I could do this in a movie. It had so many characters and such a convoluted plot that it'd need a 300-page script that would translate into a five-hour movie. Dan Pyne wrote one version, which was good. David Rabe wrote another, which was also good. But they didn't work for me." (Rabe's name remains in the final screen credit, along with Robert Towne and Pollack's longtime collaborator, David Rayfiel.)

The making of "The Firm" presented him with a deeper parallel dilemma as well: Just where does a mature, sophisticated moviemaker at the top of his game, an industry spokesman and a member of its elite, find himself in today's film environment? To the extent that the making of every movie creates its own emotional tone, this one was conceived in a state of near panic.

Granted, Pollack is a notoriously painstaking craftsman. "Relentless and meticulous," says screenwriter Towne. "This is a mainstream movie and everything, but it wasn't made like one. It was made by desperate men trying to discover something rather than duplicate something."

Too, the dust still hasn't settled from the critical 1990 implosion of "Havana," and Pollack knows, like everyone else in the movie industry, that a flop is like a heavyweight championship fight, where a loss can knock you out of top contention for years. And to the normal doubt and uncertainty that go along with any creative enterprise--particularly a screen adaptation of a hugely popular work to which readers supply their own pictures--Pollack feels added misgivings far beyond his personal stake in the hit-or-miss ratings game.

The creative health of the film industry worries him. So does the cultural atmosphere of postmodern, postwar America, whose mounting rancor is chewing its field of dreams into a rubble of surly mediocrity--a bad place for art and an inhospitable place for Pollack's main area of concern: the hopelessly complex struggle for understanding between men and women.

"I find directing enormously difficult," he said recently one afternoon in his production office. "It's very demanding. It provokes all kinds of anxieties. You doubt yourself all the time and worry like hell. I don't know why anybody'd want to do it, or if the kids in film school know what they're letting themselves in for. That's why I've enjoyed the bit of acting I've done."

Pollack was a bonus hit in "Tootsie," and last year alone appeared in "The Player," "Husbands and Wives" and "Death Becomes Her." "I feel no terror when I'm acting. There's no tension. It's just a part. Of course, if I really wanted to be an actor and gave up doing what I do, I probably couldn't get a job."

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