Above the law
Take the best-selling novel of recent years, add Tom Cruise and a host of great actors, and you’ve got one of 1993’s biggest box ofﬁce hits. Alan Morrison met director and producer Sydney Pollack to talk about The Firm.
It weighs down bookshop shelves wherever you look; no airport is complete without revolving racks bearing dozens of copies; over seven million readers have devoured it in 29 languages since its publication in 1990. John Grisham’s legal thriller The Firm is nothing short ofa phenomenon. So when Hollywood gets its grubby little hands on the rights, brings in the top box ofﬁce draw actor and deems it necessary to make some pretty radical changes to the plot, you can be sure that all eyes will be on the ﬁnal result.
‘lf people like a book. they get really mean about it, and think that you started a world war ifyou change something.’ says producer/director Sydney Pollack. ‘But there is a completely different logic when you see something than when you read something. You make it comfortable for yourself when you read it: when you read a love scene, you make it work for yourself. you make the person look the way you want them to look. I couldn't ﬁgure out how to get this book on ﬁlm. I could get the spirit of it and the sense of it and the whole situation that was set up, but there was too much story and too many complications.’
‘Crulse has an energy and enthuslasm that makes hlm very rlght tor The Flrm; he has a kind at physical look and charm that I think they would try to recrult to be a lawyer.’
The Firm is a tangled tale of corruption and conspiracy eminating from a Memphis law ﬁrm which is little more than a front for organised crime. Into an oven-ready American Dream comes Harvard law graduate Mitch McDeere (Tom Cruise), seduced by ﬂash cars. beautiful houses and a weighty bank balance. The hook is baited, but when the ﬁsh refuses to bite, Bendini. Lambert & Locke becomes a deadly corporate Mephistopheles which will st0p at nothing to buy the soul of this innocent idealist. At just over two and a half hours, Pollack's ﬁlm is long for a thriller, particularly as it saves its best action twists for the ﬁnal twenty minutes. Nevertheless, lawyers proved almost as popular as dinosaurs at the US summer box ofﬁce, as The F irm’s take soared beyond the $100 million mark. Could this need for ﬁnancial security be the reason for casting Cruise in
t the lead role?
‘ ‘I think you make too much ofthat,’ argues the 59- year-old Pollack. ‘lfl do something like Out Of Africa, do you think that I really believe there’s a better actress than Meryl Streep for it? Do you think that I really believe there’s someone better than Robert Redford or Barbra Streisand for The Way We Were? Do you think the only reason they’re playing that is because they’re big stars? It’s because I can’t think of anybody better. If I thought someone would move you more and make a more effective movie than Tom Cruise, I would have tried to use them. There is no such thing as an infallible director, actor, writer, whatever. It's the combination of the right person and the right material that makes it work.’
With over 30 years in the business, Pollack certainly has all the choice ingredients at his ﬁngertips. After a short period as an actor, he began directing in 605 television, before graduating to features where he gained a reputation as an ‘actor’s director‘. An Oscar nomination in 1969 as director of They Shoot Horses. Don ’t They? boosted him into the big league, where he has remained ever since, balancing work as a director with stints as a producer (The Fabulous Baker Boys, Presumed Innocent and the forthcoming Searching For Bobby Fischer, to name a few). Although he describes himself as ‘not an actor — I’m a director who is occasionally called upon to act’, he still enjoys forays in front of the camera, and last year appeared in a trio of ﬁlms — Husbands And Wives, Death Becomes Her and The Player. All this has seen him collaborate on numerous occasions with Robert Redford, and one wonders if he sees Cruise as the 905 equivalent, the epitome of all-American looks and appeal.
‘Cruise is a very different guy than Redford was at 30-years-old,‘ he points out, ‘but they will probably have similar careers in the sense that they’re romantic leading men who also occasionally do character work, like Cruise did in Born On The Fourth Of July. He has an energy and enthusiasm that makes him very right for The Firm; he has a kind
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of physical look and charm that I think they would try to recruit to be a lawyer. Legally, he had script approval. but he never saw a draft until about three weeks before we started shooting. I think he was concerned initially that there wasn’t enough action in it, but he wasn’t concerned out of vanity. Despite the fact that he sometimes plays those cocky, arrogant characters, he has personally the least amount of vanity among the actors I have worked with.’ Which, of course. begs the question about who has the most. But Pollack didn’t get to the top of the Hollywood tree with such indiscretions. Too many writs ready to ﬂy and way too many lawyers about.
The Firm opens in Scotland on Friday 10 September. A South Bank Show proﬁle of Sydney Pollack will be broadcast on Scottish Television on Sunday 12 September at IO. 30pm.
The List 10—23 September 1993 15