Some like it Hoff

Fri, Dec 28, 2012, 00:00

Forty-five years after his big acting break, Dustin Hoffman has finally made the move into the director’s chair. “It’s the hardest thing I have ever done and I would be loath to do it again,” he tells DONALD CLARKE

WE ALL think we know Dustin Hoffman. It’s not just that the great actor has been on our cinema screens for more than four decades. In 1982, he made the mistake (possibly) of appearing in a film that seemed to offer us a portrait of the artist as he then behaved. Michael Dorsey, protagonist of Sidney Pollack’s imperishable Tootsie, is charming, irritating, fidgety and – most significantly – fanatical about his work. He won’t sit down when playing a tomato in a commercial because it’s not realistic.

By this stage in his career, Hoffman had established just that reputation. He was rumoured to argue incessantly with directors. No take was ever good enough. Tootsie seemed to confirm the impression.

“Tootsie was all my idea,” he chortles. “And my friend Murray Schisgal. We wrote the first draft. It was meant to be a satire on myself. Actors who saw the movie saw it on a different level. We studied with acting teachers like Stella Adler or Lee Strasberg and we saw acting as a craft like writing. You had to know what kind of tomato you were. A writer would know that.”

Did he really cause as much trouble for his associates as Dorsey did for his own colleagues? A key scene finds Michael’s agent, played by Pollack, solidly intoning the words “nobody will hire you”.

“Hey, I had to convince Sidney to play the part,” he says. “I said: ‘We are having these arguments every day. Let’s put them on film’.”

Hoffman looks impressively unchanged. The hair is grey. The face is creased. But he still comes across as an only slightly less hyper-charged version of the young man who energised American cinema in such movies as The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy and All the President’s Men.

More encouraging still, not a scent of the rumoured stroppiness comes through. Now 75, Hoffman could hardly be warmer or more helpful. Talking at Gatling-gun pace, he powers his way through the entire career without pausing for breath. He laughs at his own mistakes. He drags up embarrassing moments. He’s either an extremely nice fellow, a very good actor or . . . Well, he’s obviously both of those things.

We’ve been brought together to consider his delayed debut as feature director. The amiable Quartet stars Maggie Smith, Billy Connolly, Tom Courtenay and Pauline Collins as squabbling residents of a retirement home for classical musicians. I had heard that he had held off directing for so long out of a strange loyalty to his late father. The old man had always wanted to be a film director, but never quite managed it.

“Yes. I would say that’s right. But it was never conscious on my part. I didn’t want to invade his territory. After years of therapy, that did finally come to me. It might have hurt his feelings if I’d done I when he was still alive.”

Hoffman goes on to explain that his dad travelled to Los Angeles from Chicago during the Great Depression. He dug ditches and then somehow got a job in the props department at Columbia Pictures. An aspiration to direct never flourished and he ended up selling furniture.

Hoffman had no great ambitions to act as a child. Later, while at college, he stumbled into the business largely by accident.

“People often ask: do you come from a dysfunctional family?’ I say: I have never met a family thats functional. I had some notion of being a doctor. Then, in junior college, somebody recommended that I take some acting classes. ‘It’s like gym,’ they said. ‘You get three credits and nobody fails.’ I didn’t think I was any good. But it was the first thing I’d studied where the time passed. It flew by.”

He spent some time at the Pasadena Playhouse and eventually met a teacher whom “everybody thought was a communist because he taught Stanislavski”. Unsurprisingly, the rebellious young man was impressed and took his mentor’s advice to move to New York, where he ended up rooming with lifetime pals Robert Duvall and Gene Hackman.

“We were very haughty in the early days,” he says. “I hung out with Bob and Gene and we were very serious about what we did. We looked at British actors and we thought they were very technical, but they had no emotion. That came from our training.”

Dustin had to drive cabs and toil in bars for 10 years before he got his big break. Ever the purist, he tried to talk Mike Nichols out of casting him in The Graduate in 1967. Now nearly 30, he was, surely, too old to play a recent graduate. He was too Jewish to convince as a preppy Wasp. Happily, Nichols rejected his advice and the movie became a smash.

Did it all go to his head?

“The truth is really the opposite,” he says. “I really should have revelled in it a bit more. But I denied it to myself. I felt badly that I didn’t deserve it. That’s why I didn’t do another movie for a year. I didn’t like movies. You don’t get to rehearse as you do in the theatre. After The Graduate, I was sent all this stuff in my age range and it wasn’t very good. So, I just focused on theatre until Midnight Cowboy came along. I’d be a bit better about that now.”

Hoffman now seems to look back on his early abrasiveness with a mixture of regret and amusement. Long in therapy, he doesn’t exactly endorse the young Hoffman’s attitudes, but he doesn’t quite reject them either. So, what about those fights with directors? It can’t have been much fun wielding a megaphone at the young Hoffman.

“It was annoying because, if I look back now, I was trying engage my skills into film-making. It’s like trying to paint a canvas on a train track. You are trying to get the painting done and the train is coming closer. You eventually have to pull the painting away before the train hits. That’s what making a movie is like. They can’t wait for you to get it right. It’s all about money.”

At any rate, Hoffman prospered in the fecund hothouse that was 1970s Hollywood. He excelled as Lenny Bruce in Lenny and as Carl Bernstein in All the President’s Men. This was a time when slightly difficult actors such as Hoffman or Hackman – men who did not look like matinee idols – could headline mainstream movies. In 1979, Kramer vs Kramer managed the unusual feat – now only accomplished by huge event pictures such as The Lord of the Rings – of winning the Best-Picture Oscar and becoming the most financially lucrative film of the year. Accepting his first Oscar for best actor, Dustin whinged about the competitive nature of the event.

“I have been critical of the Academy and with reason,” he said. “I refuse to believe that I beat Jack Lemmon, that I beat Al Pacino that I beat Peter Sellers.”

Has he softened or does he stand by those views?

“Both. I don’t think art is competitive,” he says. “That doesn’t mean we’re not competitive as people. There’s nothing wrong with that. I want to be better than the next person. In sports, somebody come in first. That shouldn’t be true in the arts. I don’t thing there’s an absolute ‘best’ in that world.”

We all assume that, during these years, the average Hollywood star had to wade through cocaine and vodka to make his or her way to the set. Somehow, I can’t really imagine Hoffman partying with the beautiful people at Studio 54. He seems just a little too committed. He’s certainly good fun, but he doesnt look like the sort of guy who could ever have been a drug bore.

“No, no no. I wasn’t that,” he laughs. “But I got caught up in a little of that stuff. I was getting separated from my first wife and, yes, I became a devotee of Studio 54. I smoked some weed. But I was never exactly a hardcore drug person. You know the phrase: If you can remember the 1970s, you weren’t there.”

It must be tricky answering these sorts of questions when you have children. Married to attorney Lisa Gottsegen since 1980, Dustin now has four adult offspring. Growing up, the young Hoffmans must have occasionally encountered interviews during which – being an impressively frank fellow – their dad discussed his mildly wild years. I suppose one has to fall back on the classic hypocritical formulation: do as I say, not as I did.

“Well, we’re lucky,” he says with a proud swell. “There are certain things we feel strongly about. None of our kids smoke. You quickly learn that if you say ‘don’t’, then they do it behind your back. I don’t say ‘don’t smoke marijuana’. You show them a bong and point out the yellow residue and say: ‘Do you want that in your lungs? Make up your own mind’.”

Hoffman has aged well. It’s been a while since he dominated a movie. But he was excellent in the recent TV series Luck and offered a nice supporting role in Richard J Lewis°’s Barney’s Version. Then there is his new career as a director. It’s taken seven and half decades, but he’s finally wrestled complete control of the movie. To return to that analogy, nobody can force him to abandon the canvas before the train hits.

“I have never done anything like this before and it’s the hardest thing I have ever done and I would be loath to do it again,” he laughs. “When you make a movie, you get up at 6.30am, you shoot maybe 15 or 30 minutes and the rest of the day you’re resting. Promoting a movie is like doing three matinees a day.”

But he still looks so lively. One can’t help but think of Dustin in Little Big Man. For that 1970 Arthur Penn film, he allowed himself to be layered with inches of heavy makeup when playing the character as an old man. As it happens, a few sprinkles of grey and a wisp of the China pencil would have created the 75-year-old Hoffman quite effectively.

“Everyone says I’ve had work done. I really haven’t. There are relatives of my wife who say: ‘you’ve had it done’. No, sorry. Ha ha!”

I’ve seen him up close. He’s telling the truth.

* Quartet opens nationwide on January 1st

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