Washington — The elevator doors slide open, revealing a bellman, a middle-aged couple, and a luggage cart piled high with suitcases, a red one perched precariously on top. We stand there in a freeze frame, director Sydney Pollack, his wife, and I, as the elevator doors start to crunch the emerging suitcases. The red one topples. Pollack whips into action, pushes the elevator's hold button, signals the flustered couple out into the lobby, helps the bellman wheel the luggage cart out, then motions his wife and me in front of him as the doors slide closed after us. He does it all in one quick, authoritative shot. Cut. Print. That's a take.
In life, as in art, Sydney Pollack just can't resist directing. Pollack is the director of a controversial new film about journalism, ''Absence of Malice, '' and was in town for its Washington premiere to benefit the Reporters' Committee for Freedom of the Press.
It was rather like the Roman gladiators doing a benefit premiere for the lions. ''Absence of Malice'' focuses on the dark side of American journalism, a film noir version of investigative reporting, the murky opposite of ''All the President's Men.'' In ''Absence of Malice'' the antiheroine is Sally Field playing Megan Carter, a reporter so obsessed with a scoop that she runs with an unverified story implicating a warehouse owner named Michael Gallagher (Paul Newman) as a suspect in a mob slaying. The story had been leaked by the head of a government organized-crime task force to flush out a lead in the case; as bait , he left Gallagher's file open, then left the room. The series of stories she writes nearly ruins the life of Gallagher, who is innocent. It is finally a lethal series, which does result in a death: that of Gallagher's best friend. This riveting film raises grave questions about facts vs. truth, about unnamed sources and about humanity in journalistic ethics.
The title comes from a line of dialogue between reporter Megan Carter and the newspaper's lawyer, who allows that a story may run because it is ''absent malice,'' therefore not libelous. He suggests: ''The truth . . . is irrelevant . . . we have no knowledge your story is false, so there is no malice involved. He [Gallagher] is powerless to do us harm and democracy is served.''
Pretty stiff stuff to screen for a reporters' committee benefit. ''Welcome to an evening of self-flagellation,'' growled CBS's Mike Wallace as he introduced the film to a crowd of reporters, editors, and media darlings who appear in newspaper stories as often as they read them. It was an interesting glimpse of the press as society, and a powerful segment of it, as familiar bylines and faces appeared to be photographed in black tie or, for the women, evening dresses. At a glance you could see Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, Robert Novak of Evans & Novak, Daniel Schorr, Ben Bradlee, Roger Mudd, Eric Sevareid, Larry Speakes, and Jody Powell. But the real head-turners were Sally Field and Paul Newman, who went upstairs after the screening for a bash of a buffet which included crab legs, beef with bordelaise sauce, tortellini salad, and strawberry cake. Guests sat down at candlelit tables covered with black and white plaid tablecloths and tiny pink orchids.
But before Columbia Pictures -- which hosted the bash -- let them eat cake, it screened the film. ''I hear it's a simple story line. All the reporters wear black hats,'' muttered one member of the audience to another beforehand. Not exactly, as cheers and a sustained burst of applause indicated when the film ended. The film, written by former Detroit Free Press executive editor Kurt Luedtke, took the kind of long, tough look at journalistic ethics which many other reporters could applaud. Director Sydney Pollack, who had threatened to wear a football helmet with his dinner jacket, could grin again.
''Oh, I was petrified to go in and ask the audience -- that this picture is about in a critical way -- to respond to the movie,'' said Pollack the next day. ''I was terribly worried about how it would be received, and I was really delighted that they were all such good sports about it.''
It is difficult to imagine Pollack petrified about anything. He is a big, slightly hulking guy who might have been sculpted by Rodin: ''The Thinker'' in a Harris tweed jacket, cream turtleneck sweater, dark brown trousers, and brown leather boots. A tall man, with the presence of a former actor, good looking in a virile way, with strong, almost gruff features, blue eyes behind silver-rimmed aviator glasses, and a full head of crisply curling gray hair.
He strides through life with the easy confidence of a man whom other men follow naturally. After the premiere the men who worked on the film crowded around Pollack, congratulating him on his success as he stood under the marble canopy of Kennedy Center. ''You guys are responsible,'' he said, passing the praise along.
Sitting in his suite at the Fairfax Hotel, he talks about leadership, which he says is essential to directing. ''You have conservatively between 80 and 120 people on a team when you're making a picture. That can turn into absolute anarchy if they think there's nobody running the show. And I've seen people kill themselves by pretending to be leaders. You can't do it. It's not something you can pretend to have. . . . They're going to see you either are a leader or you aren't. That's all.
''When you walk on the set they're either going to be quiet and do what you tell them, or they're going to do what you tell them because they're paid for it. But they're going to grumble and moan and talk about you behind your back, create bad morale and slow down, and you're going to have trouble. And part of it is whether or not they think you're lying. I really think that people never go wrong by telling the truth.''
He has directed some of the dazzling stars of our time: Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford in ''The Way We Were''; Jane Fonda in ''They Shoot Horses, Don't They?'' which won him Academy Award and Directors Guild nominations; Burt Lancaster in ''Castle Keep''; Sidney Poitier and Ann Bancroft in ''The Slender Thread''; and, of late, Newman and Field in ''Absence of Malice.''
He must be doing something right, and that something is, he says, ''telling the truth.'' No flimflam. No hype. No pretense. ''I'm not going to pretend to know one more thing than I know. People sense when you're pretending, when you're worried about your own ego. . . . People ask me over and over how is it that I work with stars. How do you work with Barbra Streisand, with Paul Newman , with Al Pacino, with Sally Field, Jane Fonda, you work with all these people. Isn't this a problem?
''And it isn't a problem at all. It's terrific. It's great fun. And I don't know what the answer is. But the closest I can come to it is not lying. Not going in and making it a contest and saying, 'I am now going to be the authority over Barbra Streisand.' Barbra Streisand's way too smart for that. She didn't get where she is by being dumb. And she knows perfectly well when someone is trying to bluff her. She also knows whether someone has a better idea than she has. And it just comes down to that. Either your idea is better or it isn't. If it isn't, then shut up and do it their way. And don't have any compunction about saying, 'You're right and I'm wrong. Let's do it your way. I never thought of that. That's a terrific idea.' And that happens. And you have to be able to say that when it happens. And not say, 'Oh . . . I can't let her win this argument, otherwise my whole authority facade will crumble. I mean that way lies death.''
The director who brushes the stardust casually off his shoulders used to go to sleep as a boy dreaming of the movies he'd just seen. Born in Lafayette, Ind. , he grew up in unpretentious South Bend. It was an unsophisticated town, he remembers, mostly workers in the local Studebaker factory, lots of immigrants, Italians, blacks. Pollack's was one of the few Jewish families in town.
The fact that he grew up in South Bend, Ind., he says, ''in a way, I think, is the basis for all the filmmaking I do. I'm a curious kind of filmmaker in a sense that I tend to be looked at askance by, let's say, purists or film buffs, because I make what might pejoratively be called Hollywood-studio-films-with-movie-stars. And that's a lot of dirty words strung together for the film student. I'm aware of that and don't think I have much choice of that. It's just what happened largely because of my Midwestern background.
''I was introduced to movies long before movies were considered an art form. For me they weren't films, that's too grand a word. They were movies. It wasn't cinema (he bites the word, mimicking a British crispness). They were just movies I went to on Fridays and Saturdays and I loved them. I suppose I'm a sentimentalist or a romanticist or whatever you want to call it. I remember going to see movies and the movies I liked were the movies that had such a lingering aftereffect I used to go to school the next day and still be lost in the movie and rethink it over and over again. Or sometimes fall asleep daydreaming about that particular movie. It came as a shock to me that it (moviemaking) ultimately got considered a very serious art form. So when I got into film, I instinctively gravitated toward movie stars. I associated movie stars with movies. It's something I've been criticized for quite often.'' David Thomson in his ''Biographical Dictionary of Film'' snipes that ''Pollack has shown an interest in enterprising material, persistently let down by his middlebrow approach.''
Pollack never darkened the door of a film school. Right after high school he lit out of South Bend for Broadway, to become an actor. It was at Sanford Meisner's Neighborhood Playhouse that he learned that craft so well that he eventually taught there, which became a steppingstone to directing. During the 10 years that he was Meisner's assistant at that celebrated studio, he began coaching former students who asked for help with roles they'd landed in new plays. ''And that (coaching) was a sort of kindergarten form of directing in a way. I just sort of gravitated into it through that. I never made a conscious decision that I really wanted to be a director. I moved closer and closer to it and all of a sudden the opportunity presented itself to direct a TV show . . . 'Shotgun Slade.' '' The title still amuses him.
''It was a half hour show for Universal Pictures. The show had been canceled and they had four episodes left to make, so they had nothing to lose by letting me try one. That was 1960.'' Over the next five years he directed more than 80 TV shows -- from episodes of ''The Defenders'' to ''Ben Casey'' and ''Chrysler Theater.'' In 1965 he won an Emmy award for ''The Game.'' He says television is ''where I really cut my teeth as a director, at least in terms of the technical aspects, because what I brought to directing was only a certain amount of knowledge of acting and coaching actors. And oddly enough it was very important for me . . . it formed the basis of every technique I've ever learned. It was the basis of how I've worked with a writer, how I've arrived at a visual concept for the film. Because it's the same questions that I used to ask an actor to ask about a scene in a play:
'' 'What is this scene about? How does it relate to what the play is about? What do you want as a character? Who are you? What's your specific relationship to other persons in the room? What do you want? What does it mean to you?' When you start to answer those questions they'll lead you to anything.'' He explains how it can lead to the construction of a scene with a writer, how it motivates an actor, and more elusively, how it can lead to a visual concept: ''Pretty soon you get to a visual style, you say I see this scene should be very lyrical, it should be one moving camera that never stops. It should be real staccato, or this should be jagged in terms of alternating between very slow static pieces and very fast pieces or whatever.''
There is a quality about Sydney Pollack that is not evident at first because his surface is so authoritative, so sure. But like a camera sensitive to light, he is sensitive to nuances of movement. He detects a scintilla of difference in a performance. But he is also a director who wants it all in deep focus: the windows at the far side of the room with drapes in a red rose crewel pattern, the off-white walls with timbered beams, the horse-and-carriage prints, the walnut breakfront filled with pewter dishes. And the interviewer, too, in deep focus. Sitting across from him with the tape recorder turning as he talks about what a director's job is:
''There are lots of jobs the director has. But the primary job is . . . the director is the only one whose responsibility essentially is to imagine the complete film, and make judgments based on what he imagines to be the complete film. It's what, in a more pretentious way, people call vision. They say the director has a vision. Well, that's a very high-fallutin way of putting it,'' he says in his deep, tough voice that has mixed Midwestern openness, New York street smarts, and L.A. mellow in its accent.
''You have a fantasy of a film in your head, and you imagine how it would look completed. You try now to get all the clay you need to sculpt that into this imaginary picture you have in your head. Sometimes that's a question of what point of view are you seeing it from which dictates a camera setup, a lens choice, or a way in which it's lit. Sometimes it's the degree of anger necessary for a character to have at a certain moment. And that becomes, then, working with the actor. Sometimes it's hearing it happen to music and that is work with a composer. Sometimes it's visualizing a gray day with a gray sky and having to take a blue, sunny day and turn it into a gray one . . . with some sort of technical expertise. It's such a mosaic kind of work, very much like impressionist painting in a way. You do something that upon close scrutiny doesn't seem to have any relationship to a finished product. You paint this little dot in, you know, then pretty soon you combine all these hundreds and hundreds of little dots. And if it works well, there's a 'vision' that happens. ''It's a difficult job to define precisely. . . .''
What a director is may be as difficult to explain as the theory of relativity , but Pollack surely knows how to do it.
He not only directs some of the biggest stars in the business, he also puts his stamp on his films. He makes films that hold a steady mirror up to society, that say: Look, this is how it was or is; in the depths of the depression, with marathon dancing as a metaphor (''They Shoot Horses''); before and after the McCarthy era (''The Way We Were''); in the real, true Wild West (''Jeremiah Johnson''); out in the cold with the CIA (''Three Days of The Condor''); in the land of media hype (''Electric Cowboy''); and now, with some of the abuses in investigative reporting (''Absence of Malice'').
Pollack describes himself as ordinary, and curious, with ''the ability to see more than one side of the question . . . to find myself within each of the characters on opposite sides of the argument.'' He says: ''It's a liability in my life but a plus in the work I do. I've been so offended so much of my life but by absolutely certain people. . . . I guess Yeats said, 'The best do lack conviction, the worst are full of passionate intensity.' ''
It is not the passionate intensity he wants to focus on: ''The most interesting thing for me in the films that I do is to pit two people against each other, try to shore up both arguments as much as I can, and let it rip. . . . I'm interested in letting them argue this out as positively as we can.''
Pollack talks modestly about his pictures and even at one point suggests that he is dismissed by the critics who champion the auteur theory that the director is the author of his films -- of a body of work. ''I don't know why I haven't gone off and done an auteur film -- I probably wouldn't be very good at it,'' he sighs. But Pollack, who is held in deep esteem as a director in Europe, deserves auteurm credit here, And he is beginning to get it. Writing of ''Absence of Malice,'' New York Times film critic Janet Maslin notes that his films are ''soulful and serious, qualities that seem all too rare just now. . . . This is a Sydney Pollack film before it's anything else, and it has the pensiveness to prove it.''
You might suspect that sort of pensiveness in the director who has read and reread his books of T. S. Eliot's poetry until they fall apart. But unlike Eliot's J. Alfred Prufrock, Pollack dares to eat the peach of life.
His wedding present from his wife, Claire, 23 years ago was the collected works of Eliot. They met when he was teaching and she was studying at the neighborhood playhouse. Tall, slender, blond, with a well-bred loveliness, she has a Mona Lisa smile with a trace of wryness about it. When their two sons and a daughter, (ranging in age from 17 to 22), began growing up she went back to college and finished work on an architecture degree. Pollack beams about the fact that her design for a solar house was published last year in Ms. magazine.
The interview is almost up and suitcases and limos for the ''Malice'' crew wait downstairs. I ask the director of ''Absence of Malice'' the final question: whether the press has been fair to him. ''Yes,'' he answers, then pauses a beat and smiles. ''I wish I could say they hadn't, but frankly they have.'' Will his film result in a massive reevaluation of journalism's role? ''I don't think this picture will. I think what's happening, and this the press deserves credit for, is that the press itself is finally becoming more honest about looking at itself and its own faults. And that's the single healthiest thing that's happening. That's going to result in the reevaluation . . . . In fact they're quite capable of being really responsible about looking at themselves. They just don't want anyone else to do it. . . . That movement has been generated by the press and is the most laudable thing I can possibly think of, and it's why the press is going to survive any ills it has.'' Pollack has made his film, but the controversy lingers on, as think pieces in the New York Times and The Columbia Journalism Review prove.
Now he's ready for something else. ''I'm going to start a new film in February with Dustin Hoffman called ''Tootsie,'' a comedy, I hope. Take me away from issues for a while.''