The death of all around Renaissance guy Sydney Pollack is sad for any number of reasons, not of the least of which is that he was one of those ubiquitous, delightful screen eminences that you kind of assumed would be around forever. Recently, of course, he was pretty much the only thing worth watching in the otherwise by the numbers Patrick Dempsey vehicle Made of Honor, and just this last Sunday, he turned up as executive producer of HBO's excellent docudrama Recount. Nonetheless, despite his long list of estimable credits (extending back to the Golden Age of New York television), including a best director Oscar for Out of Africa, I think he'll be most fondly remembered for his hilarious turn as a long-suffering agent opposite Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie (still the greatest American comedy that nobody knows for sure who actually wrote).
In any case, as I was reading the various Pollack obits today, something I had missed sort of jumped out at me. It seems that in a 2002 Sight and Sound Directors' Poll, Pollack revealed his choices for the Top Ten films of all time. To wit: Casablanca, Citizen Kane, The Conformist, The Godfather Part II, Grand Illusion, The Leopard, Once Upon a Time in America, Raging Bull, The Seventh Seal, and Sunset Boulevard.
An interesting, if fairly predictable list, especially the Bergman and Renoir choices, which are the kind of art house staples somebody of Pollack's generation and temperament could be expected to make. But the one that really raised an eyebrow for me is Sergeo Leone's 1984 crime epic Once Upon a Time in America.
Don't get me wrong, it's am ambitious, visually stunning film, and some of the sequences in a lovingly recreated turn of the last century Lower East Side are quite literally breathtaking. But still, it's a tad, shall we say, quirky. As visionary a director as Leone was, it remains a fact that he was a little tin-eared; he famously titled a film Duck You Sucker in the unshakeable belief that said title was actually a common American catchphrase familiar to every living denizen of the U.S.A. Once Upon a Time in America is a lot better than that (it's a multigenerational saga of Jewish and Italian gangs in the 20s and early 30s) but it's worth remembering that its main character -- a Jewish mobster played (brilliantly) by Robert DeNiro -- is named David "Noodles" Aaronson. This means of course, that at some point in the film, inevitably -- and you can't help waiting for it -- a woman looks longingly into his eyes and says "I love you, Noodles."
Okay, it's a great movie anyway; when you're done here, you could do a lot worse than rent the special two disc DVD version, which restores the original nearly four hour version that wowed them at Cannes back in the day. After all, it's what Sydney would have wanted.