The Actor's Director as Actor

Sydney Pollack's key role in a Stanley Kubrick masterpiece
by David Schwartz  posted June 12, 2008
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Sydney Pollack (1934-2008) was an affable authority figure in Hollywood, a former acting teacher who directed 21 features and many more television episodes, and produced 47 movies during his half-century career. But his best work may well have been a supporting performance in another director's film, his 20 minutes of screen time as Victor Ziegler in Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut (1999).

Several times during his career Pollack was cast as a very particular type: the charming, unscrupulous—and distinctly Jewish—New York professional. In Tootsie, Husbands and Wives, Michael Clayton, and Eyes Wide Shut, he played men whose authority came directly from their knowledge and mastery of enclosed high-power worlds. He also had a gift for playing a great bullshit artist, a sweet-talker who could make the listener feel they were part of a conspiracy, even though he was in total control.

Not coincidentally, all these traits come in handy for a film director, and in real life, Pollack knew how to manage people with large talents—and egos—including Dustin Hoffman, Barbra Streisand, Robert Redford, and the stars of Eyes Wide Shut, Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise.

There was no equivalent to the character of Victor Ziegler in Kubrick's source material, the Arthur Schnitzler novella Dream Story, an erotic thriller that focuses on a young couple's sexual fantasies, dreams, desires, and their difficulties with honest communication. The plot centers on a husband's desperate wanderings after his wife confesses to her taboo carnal desires.

In the film, which transposes Schnitzler's story from fin-de-siècle Vienna to end-of-millennium New York City, the husband's sexual odyssey is triggered by a holiday party at Ziegler's house. Bill Harford, the naïve young doctor played by Tom Cruise, is haunted not only by the sexual candor of his wife (played by his soon-to-be-real-life-ex-wife Nicole Kidman), but also by the near death of a gorgeous young nude woman whom he rescues from an overdose in Ziegler's den-sized bathroom. Bill goes on a nighttime journey that takes him into a mysterious Long Island mansion where wealthy, masked men engage in ritualistic orgies and sex ceremonies that seemingly involve human sacrifice. Bill starts the night seeking sexual adventure to sooth his jealousy, but he is soon out of his depth. Every event during his odyssey is a dreamlike—or nightmarish—echo of a "real-life" event, and the story's action unfolds with both inexorable and irrational logic.

Bill's surreal wanderings lead to the remarkable 13-minute "explanatory" scene in Ziegler's billiard room. Before Bill returns home to his wife, Alice (what other name would fit in this wonderland?), he goes to Ziegler for an explanation of the death of a young woman-apparently the beauty from the night before. Ziegler greets Bill warmly, offers him a "25-year old" (bottle of scotch, that is), and tries to warn him that he should mind his own business. Ziegler attempts to simultaneously explain the events of the previous night and make it clear to Bill that too much knowledge can be dangerous. "Who do you think those people were? Those were not just ordinary people," he says. "If I told you their names...I'm not going to tell you their names...But if I did, I don't think you'd sleep so well."

The importance of the scene is indicated by its extraordinary length (it is the single longest dialogue scene in Kubrick's entire body of work) and by its climactic place in the narrative. There are just nine minutes of action after this, the teary confession and resolution between husband and wife.

The scene is highly theatrical in many ways; the green lamps create spotlights over the bright red pool table, spectral blue light coming in from the window, and the oversized den is filled with the trappings of masculinity, power, and tradition: wall-to-ceiling bookshelves; a lavishly well-stocked liquor table; paintings of Napoleon and other royalty; a large model of a boat.

Within this hypermasculine space, Ziegler commands the stage, exuding confidence and control as he greets Bill. He exchanges pleasantries before shifting the tone and saying, "Bill, I need to talk to you about's a little bit awkward, and I have to be completely frank."

Ziegler then goes through a series of insinuations, explanations, confessions, and threats, always claiming to be honest: "Let's cut the bullshit." "Let's not play games." Ziegler is all bluster, all show. His "candor" is a theatrical gesture, and this is the key to the scene. This scene-and the film-are all about acting. If Kubrick's career can be reduced to one preoccupation, it is the conflict between man's base, primal desires and the game- and role-playing that define social behavior: civilization and its discontents. Life, to Kubrick, was a chess game, a power play. (In Eyes Wide Shut, the social battlefield is reduced to its smallest unit: the married couple.) The careful choreography between Victor and Bill evokes the showdowns between generals and captains in the lavishly appointed mansion in Paths of Glory (1957).

Despite the film's abundant display of nude female flesh and its central concern with marriage, the billiard scene reminds us that Kubrick was never really all that interested in women. His lifelong fascination was with the struggles between men. He even shifted the focus of Lolita, turning Nabokov's novel about lust and love into a showdown between its male protagonists, Humbert Humbert and Clare Quilty. Kubrick's films are filled with rebellious sons struggling against authoritarian fathers and father figures (think Barry Lyndon literally dueling with his stepson; Private "Gomer Pyle" shooting the abusive Gunnery Sgt Hartman in Full Metal Jacket; and young Danny running from his axe-wielding father in The Shining).

The power of Kubrick's direction—and Pollack's performance—in the billiard scene comes from the contrast between Cruise's understated (and underrated) performance as Bill, and Pollack's blustery, mannered style. Cruise, the biggest box office star of his time, is brilliant in an uncharacteristic role; his character is passive, naïve, insecure, introverted, and unhinged. Ziegler is the opposite. Everything with him is show and surface; his power is derived from his understanding and command of how the world works. This is a man with no need for introspection.

Yet if we were to come away believing that Ziegler has all the answers, the scene—and the film—would lose its remarkable ambiguity. For the scene to work—as it does—it must pretend to be explanatory while raising more questions than it answers. What Pollack does so commandingly is create the impression that every hesitation, every smile, every gesture by Ziegler is calculated and artificial, while at the same time making him so charming and convincing that everything also feels genuine. Ziegler seems to be lying and telling the truth at the same time, and Kubrick has no interest in resolving this tension. The first shot after the billiard scene is a shot in the couple's bedroom, with a mask lying next to Nicole Kidman. We already saw Bill return this mask to a costume shop, and the film offers no rational explanation for it being there on the bed.

But of course a film with the contradictory title Eyes Wide Shut is precisely interested in questioning the boundary between the rational and the irrational. A film director creates dreams, but with an art that is rooted in technology, craft, and precision. It is fitting then that Kubrick hired a film director to play Ziegler (Pollack famously replaced Harvey Keitel in this role), and that the two directors collaborated on creating such a fascinating scene whose primary function is to undermine its own rationality. The point is that the scene can't be taken at face value. But of course, in this mask-filled film, nothing can.

The scene does end, however, with one inarguable statement by Ziegler/Pollack: "Life goes on. It always does, until it doesn't...but you know that, don't you?" Kubrick's death just before the film's release gave this moment unexpected significance. And now, alas, it takes on even more poignance. 


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Courtesy Warner Bros.
Sydney Pollack and Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut


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David Schwartz is the Chief Curator at the Museum of the Moving Image. He is also a Visiting Assistant Professor in Cinema Studies at Purchase College.

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