Monday, December 10, 2012

Sydney Pollack: Havana

Sydney Pollack doesn’t instill fervency within one to go back and look at his films with fresh eyes in the way many have recently been passionately singing the praises of damned-upon-released films like Ishtar and Heaven’s Gate (the latter, especially, has seemed to be piquing interest in the blogosphere, thanks to its recent Criterion release, with many claiming that the film is some kind of misunderstood masterpiece). I don’t sense the urgency for bloggers and critics to run out and say, “oooh, I should revisit Havana because, gosh darn it, people were just so unfair to that movie when it was released in 1991.” Now, I’m a bit cynical with all this revisionist criticism stuff (what’s next, Howard the Duck or Hudson Hawk are masterpieces, too?), but I have to admit something: the minute I decided to do a retrospective on Pollack’s career, I was most interested in watching Havana for the very reason that it seemed so unfairly maligned at the time.  I mean the film couldn’t be that bad, right (“Seinfeld” even took a little bit of a jab at)? I was kind of excited to take a recent look at Havana in hopes that it might reveal itself to be one of those forgotten masterpieces – one of those films people like to go back and talk about now as if we were all crazy for thinking the film was bollocks to begin with. Well, I’m here to tell ya’ll: Havana is no such film. The film – everything about it from the performances to the faux Scorsese-esque energy Pollack tries to inject his film with – is inert. A lifeless film filled with lifeless performances and a lifeless romance at the heart of it.

Havana was Pollack’s follow-up to his Oscar winning “epic” Out of Africa; it was also the last time Robert Redford and Pollack worked together (more on that later). Perhaps expectations were too high following his Oscar winner, but nothing could have prepared me for what is the least interesting of the Pollack/Redford collaborations. I was excited to see why this ambitious project (Pollack had visited Havana many times, and constructed a really nice set based on his experiences there) just kind of fizzled out with audiences.

The film takes place in Cuba in 1958 on the eve of the Cuban revolution. Batista’s men are desperately trying to gather up the revolutionaries while the rebels continue to fight for their freedom and their country while American gangsters and gamblers exploit the country and enjoy the perks of uninhibited capitalism. At the heart of the story is Jack Weil, an amoral American poker player that is as slick as you would expect a Robert Redford character to be. He’s unwillingly caught up in the middle of the revolution as he is attracted to Bobby (Lena Olin), a wealthy Swedish revolutionary, and becomes obsessed with her. We’re introduced to these characters on a boat where Wiel is gambling with some political VIPs. However, as the game is interrupted, Wiel notices Bobby and that she’s in a bit of trouble, so, unbeknownst to him, he becomes mixed up with the rebels, specifically Bobby’s husband (an uncredited Raul Julia). The rest of the film concerns itself with whether Bobby and Jack will fall in love, escape Cuba together, and whether Bobby can help Jack gain a political conscience.

In plot synopsis alone, Havana doesn’t sound half bad. Throw in some great set design (Pollack tried hard to be able to get the film made in Havana) and a star performance like what one would expect from Redford, and you have the makings of a fine film. However, everything about Havana is the opposite. Here is a film so utterly devoid of energy; it just kind of sits there and goes through the motions. The love story is painful to get through – one of the rare occurrences where Pollack totally whiffs on the male/female dynamic in his film – and Pollack’s earnestness in making a Casablanca homage is well enough but too lofty a task for Pollack to overcome.

Pollack tries hard in certain moments, but he mostly comes across as distracted (Havana is lifeless, yes, but it's also all over the place in terms of what it's trying to be). One standout sequence, though, is when Pollack juxtaposes Wiel's actions with what's occuring on the even of the revolution. Wiel has taken two American girls back to his place for a night of drunken, freewheelin' fun while Pollack cross-cuts the action in the hotel room with the action going on across the city as Batista’s men are gathering up and murdering rebels. The use of music from the era (there’s a lot of Sinatra in this movie) plays like Pollack trying to be Scorsese; however, it works pretty well in this one scene – the only scene in the film that really has any kind of life to it – as the music fits the paradoxical tone of Wiel’s carefree actions with something so obviously more serious and less fleeting. Pollack has never been one to use a lot of cuts (that’s not to say he doesn’t know how to edit) and flashy editing techniques, but here, as he did in Three Days of the Condor, when he does decided to pull out this particular trick, it’s quite effective.

That one scene aside, one of the biggest problems with the film – and I never thought I would say this about a Pollack film – is the acting. A few things of note: the supporting cast is okay, but they’re not given much to do. Richard Farnsworth pops up briefly to remind us how awesome he is, Alan Arkin is great in his brief moments as the man that organizes all of Wiel’s high stakes poker games, and Raul Julia is the only actor that seems to have any kind of energy. He chose to not take a credit for the film since Pollack and the other producers wouldn’t put his name above the title alongside Redford and Olin. I wish Pollack had explored a little more of Julia’s character rather than Olin. Individually all of these actors are fine, but they’re not memorable nor are they given much to do outside of being something for the camera to focus on besides the well-constructed sets. I mean, for the first time in his career, it’s as if Pollack is more interested in the setting – which he usually uses quite nicely as an aide in commenting on metaphors found in the characterization – than the characters. His story was distracted by the on-location shooting of Out of Africa; however, where that boring National Geographic cinematography failed, the performances from Meryl Streep and Redford at least were memorable. In Havana, Pollack seemed to be so distracted by his sets and by recreating Cuba, that he forgot one of the most important elements in all of his films: a male/female relationship that is interesting to watch.

And that’s the next point I want to bring up: Lena Olin is terrible. Even in Bobby Deerfield, Pollack was able to make the film watchable thanks to his two lead performances. However, with Havana, Lena Olin is horribly miscast and just isn’t up to the task of co-starring with Robert Redford. When you consider the following names: Natalie Wood, Jane Fonda, Barbara Streisand, Faye Dunaway, Jessica Lange, Meryl Streep, and Lena Olin – which one doesn’t fit? Olin is terribly out of her league and just stinks up the joint here, and I put the blame solely on Pollack for casting her (Pollack did state in an interview that it was perhaps a mistake to cast her in the role) and. There’s no emotion, no sexual chemistry with Redford, just…nothing. I was shocked by how much I disliked her performance by how little Pollack was able to elicit from her. The more interesting dynamic of the story seemed to me to be the dichotomy of Julia the wealthy revolutionary that is passionate about his cause and his country versus Redford’s unethical gambler that only decided to grow a conscious because there’s a beautiful woman that acts as the catalyst. Had Pollack followed that path, showcasing Julia more in the process, Havana may not have been so lifeless.

So, the supporting cast is fine (I should also mention how great Tomás Milián is, a favorite of mine from his Spaghetti Western roles), and Olin is terrible.  And that brings us to Redford. He’s an even bigger problem than Olin because we expect so much from Redford. I expect to like Redford, to be pulled in by his performance. In every movie he’s made with Pollack – whether I’ve liked the film or not – I can always praise the performance of Redford. But Redford seems to be sleepwalking through this role. Jack Wiel should be an interestingly flawed character that has an epiphany, grows a conscious, and does the right thing by film’s end (Pollack obviously modeled his character after Rick Blaine from Casablanca). However, when Wiel does grow some balls (and ethics), it feels like a totally false moment. There’s no conviction in the performance (or in anything else in the film for that matter), and that’s a problem when you make a political film like the one Havana pretends to be: you gotta have conviction.  It’s said that this flat character with its equally flat performance is the last thing Redford would do with Pollack.

It is here that Havana is most interesting: off the set. When thinking about this film and what’s on the screen, there doesn’t appear to be anything to cover that we haven’t covered with Pollack’s other films. So, I would like to switch gears and move away from the film itself and spend the rest of this space to talk about the two men that worked on seven films together and whose relationship turned sour after Havana.  I’m not writing about this because reading about celebrities that have a falling out is inherently interesting (hint: it’s not), but I think it’s important when looking at the career of Pollack to talk about his relationship with Redford.  

After Havana, the two long-time collaborators and friends had falling out (it was still unresolved when Pollack died in 2008). As documented in Michael Feeney Callan’s exhaustive biography of Robert Redford, Redford was always wary of his fame – a reluctant star if there ever was one – and Pollack was constantly telling Redford what a great leading man he was. It’s well known throughout this retrospective the love Pollack has for the Hollywood system, but as Redford began to focus on smaller films with his Sundance project (while becoming a more vocal, proactive political activist), he started to scale back from Hollywood. Redford wanted to focus on more political issues (which him and Pollack were always simpatico on), but he didn’t feel the passion to that within the big Hollywood system any longer. Pollack was reluctant to leave what he loved and continued making big, safe movies with big, bankable (safe) stars. The two never collaborated again as Redford had started to resent the way Pollack directed him on set, spoke of him to the press (Redford couldn't handle the how Pollack made him out to be a screen idol), and the way the director preferred that he not disassociate himself with his Hollywood Leading Man persona.  When you read Callan’s biography and see the way Redford speaks fondly of his friends who were directors (like Alan J. Pakula) compared to the more professional tone in which he speaks of Pollack, it’s really quite sad to think that this once great collaborative team couldn’t reconcile prior to Pollack’s death.

But Redford – who really was only a box-office drawing leading man from 1969-1976 – was disenfranchised with people telling him how great he was, and Pollack, sadly, was the biggest culprit. The director would make it known that he thought Redford could be doing “more” with his “status,” but after Havana, apparently, it was time to cut the chord. The two would never work again. Pollack would move on and continue to make the same types of films while also taking on more acting gigs (some of the best work Pollack ever did was late in his career as an actor with great supporting performances in films like Eyes Wide Shut, Changing Lanes, and Michael Clayton) while Redford would ease away from being a presence in front of the camera to being a presence behind it. Callan states that while doing research for his biography, Paul Newman said that, “Sydney wanted to be Bob, and Bob wanted to be Sydney.” What a sad, interesting (and probably true) statement that says a lot about why these two men worked so well together for so long, and why they severed ties. 

Redford’s performance screams of a man worn out by it all – a perfect tone for Jack Wiel if only the film had focused more intently on such aspects rather than doing what Pollack always tried to: shoehorn in a romance. In a way, Jack Wiel is the perfect character for Redford and Pollack’s relationship to end on; he’s like an amalgam of previous Redford/Pollack creations. Whether it’s the social/political convictions of Jeremiah Johnson; the reluctant participant in something much bigger (government related) a la Three Days of the Condor; the laissez-faire attitude of his Hubbell Gardiner from The Way We Were; the go-with-the-flow/don’t stand in the way of nature mentality of Finch Hatton from Out of Africa; or the cynical sellout Sonny Steele, who gains a conscience thanks to a beautiful woman with political convictions like in The Electric Horseman. And had Havana been about that – had it been about the career of these two men and their work together – then I think the film would have worked. Ditch the girl in the A-story and make the film about the two men in her life (Julia and Redford). That, to me, seems like an interesting version of Havana.

Instead, what we’re left with is a beautiful looking set (shot in Santo Domingo because it was another island that was separated by rich and poor), decent supporting performances, and a tired lead performance in a film that is more playing at being something much meatier – a faux-important film with political convictions – than actually being about anything worth a damn. You feel every minute of Havana’s needlessly exhausting 140 minute runtime, and it’s a shame that all of this talent is wasted on such a blah film. Thankfully, Pollack would amass an impressive cast for his next film and make it work, adapting a hugely popular novel and making one of the most entertaining movies of his career. 


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