A difficult man

 

DUSTIN Hoffman, one of the most notable and longest lasting US screen actors, is nothing if not frank when it comes to talking to his public. He knows that we know he has a reputation for being a difficult man to handle on set and, for that matter, in his more private life. He also knows that to be moderately frank about it is one way of defusing the issue.

As far as sets are concerned, the stories are legion. Nearly every director he has dealt with says "never again" at one point, though generally when the film comes out there are the usual heavily weighted tributes from director to star.

And he undoubtedly is a star who is usually worth the trouble - even in his 60th year, since a good Dustin Hoffman performance is worth a mint, at any rate with the critics, and his mere presence in a cast list is likely to get the movie made and then seen by as many people as possible.

He says, again with a kind of endearing honesty, that he may be difficult at times but it's only because he's trying to do what he does in a hopefully fresh way. "If I beg for another take, and then another, it's usually because I think I can do it better. And, yes, I insist."

Besides that, he demands his contracts contain things most actors would never dream of asking for if only because it would cause them too much trouble.

"If you don't insist on certain controls up front," he says, "you're in real trouble as an artist. If I'm going to spend two and a half years of my life on a project, I've got to be more than a puppet actor. I need, I really need, to be part of the creative process. There's not a whole lot of film makers who really care what's best for the actors. Most of them are just interested in what's the easiest shot to get, or the most convenient for the technicians or certainly what's least expensive."

The trouble is that the resultant arguments and delays cost money and often it is not easy to see why things weren't quite right with take number 23. Besides, no director worth his salt is going to want his star so hooked on "the creative process" that it is almost impossible to make a coherent decision without half killing everybody. Especially when you have to deal with the suits back in the studio.

Like many Hollywood stars, he has a hot temper when not smiling sweetly for the public. It has led to some notable bust ups, including Laurence Olivier's legendary putdown on Schlesinger's Marathon Man, when Hoffman couldn't seem to get the famous dentist scene - with Olivier about to cause him considerable pain - quite right. Inquiring what on earth he should do, Olivier replied: "Why don't you just bloody well act?"

The story may be apocryphal, but people swear it is true, since Olivier had previously been put through, at Hoffman's request, a series of improvisatory exercises before the sequence.

The two most memorably awful productions, as far as making them went, were Agatha and Tootsie. In Agatha - about the disappearance of Agatha Christie in 1926, Hoffman brought in his own writer, with the excuse that his cameo role had to be beefed up since his contract didn't permit him to play anything but a leading role.

This so incensed David Puttnam, the producer, that he left Michael Apted's film to its own devices, complaining about "this worrisome American pest", and Vanessa Redgrave, who played Christie, was faced with a star who wouldn't talk to her. After that, the fact that he refused to post dub and sought to control the final cut, (which delayed the release of a picture that turned out to be hardly worth fighting over), was just a further tribulation.

Sydney Pollack's Tootsie, a smash hit which brought the actor some £20 million in 1982 because of his percentage of the profits, was also, in Bill Murray's view, "a hell ride".

"I came to the set the first day and there were Pollack and Dustin arguing over everything and the whole crew was like in the other room. People get pretty tired making a movie, but Dustin's always got the juice ... He does every single take differently. I don't know how the hell they cut the movie. He virtually made seven films. He's always looking for material to push him to the limits. He's famous in New York for having 25 scriptwriters. You go to a dinner party and everyone's writing for Dustin."

Not surprisingly, Pollack said afterwards he would only work with Hoffman again "after a long rest". Larry Gelbart, one of the writers, added feelingly that that would be too soon.

Off the set, however, he gives press conferences and interviews with more intelligence and perception than most. But the oddness still breaks out now and then.

At the time of Kramer V Kramer, for instance, I interviewed him in the foyer of a London hotel, mentioning first of all that I'd just met Robert Benton, the film's director. "What did he say about me?" was Hoffman's.

immediate question.

Actually, he said nothing at all that was in any way undiplomatic, being a gentle cautious man. But Hoffman wouldn't accept that and kept on asking.

Later, during the course of an otherwise perfectly good interview, a young and rather pretty waitress came along with some tea. Hoffman looked at her and, to my surprise, asked her whether she knew who he was.

"No, sir," said the waitress, "I'm afraid I don't."

"Oh, come on," said Hoffman, "don't you go to the cinema?"

"Yes," she said.

"Then you must have seen some of my films. Come on, have a guess.

The waitress thought for a moment, clearly a bit embarrassed, and then once again said she didn't know who he was.

Finally, with further prompting, she blurted out: "Oh, I know, sir - you're Al Pacino."

This was in no way a rude exchange. In fact, Hoffman was smiling throughout and didn't take the wrong guess badly. But the fact that he had to do it at all seemed pretty strange. Some Hollywood stars, after all, take infinite pains to remain anonymous, especially to members of the general public. They actually ear their fans.

But not Hoffman, however ambivalent his attitude. He not only wants to be liked, he requires it. He doesn't appear to think that he will ever be loved.

Someone who knows him quite well told me this was because he is short, has a long nose and couldn't seriously be thought incredibly attractive, at least in any conventional Hollywood way.

HE seems very conscious of this, even now when he's admired throughout the world for his performances in films from Mike Nichols's The Graduate, to Barry Levinson's Rain Man, and the cinema adaptation of Mamet's American Buffalo (now showing at the IFC, Dublin), in which he plays the leading role.

Then he says something very revealing: "When you meet people who don't know who you are, you think immediately that they don't like you. That's the insecurity of the actor. You know what I do first thing in the morning? I stand in front of the mirror and I ask myself whether I ate too much last night and whether, if I did, it shows in my face and body. I'm just one step away from a lonely unsuccessful man.

He adds that when he was making Tootsie he asked the make up people to make him as attractive as possible, as a woman. Then he looked into a mirror and realised that if he went to a party he would never be picked up by anyone with taste.

He is, however, a consistent flirt and quite likely not to be politically correct about it either. For instance, when waving goodbye to a group of gawpers at the recent Venice Film Festival, he added a cod provocative wiggle of his fortunately fully clothed bottom as a kind of sexy makeweight. He seems to need a stage wherever he is, like some but not all actors.

He is twice married, with a bevy of children, and clearly his family means everything to him, so he often sounds off about what's happening to young kids in the US today.

He appears, then, like your average American, middle class worrier and not like anyone who has thought it through deeply. "I'm naturally concerned about the violence in films," he says. "It worries me a lot because it's so often just there for the sake of itself. There's no moral point being made. No point at all. It's all lies. But when it's necessary, like in Barry Levinson's Sleepers, then you shouldn't try to avoid it." (The film, about young boys corrupted by sadistic perverts in prison, is now showing in Ireland).

Hoffman waxes hot and strong about the American penal system the film attempts to illustrate.

"If people aren't filled with violence when they go in, they are when they come out. And we perpetuate it by turning our backs. It has nothing to do with rehabilitation. It's a snakepit, it's a shithole, it's pure hell. And that's how society chooses to spend its taxes."

He appears opposite Robert De Niro in Sleepers as a drunken lawyer and describes him as someone you'd hardly notice at all until he starts to act, when suddenly he uncoils and springs to life - "the main thing is that you have no indication as to where the talent is until it hits you". Perhaps he's anxious that it won't happen that way to him because when the two are on stage together, it's Dustin who puts on the charm, does the talking and milks the applause.

He's jealous of those who have all the natural advantages because he never had them and, early in his career, that proved difficult to handle. It's part of the key to him as a man.

HE could certainly be said to have been fortunate in 1967 with Mike Nichols's The Graduate, the success of which put him on the cover of Time magazine as the representative not only of a new school of actors but of a whole generation of young people being pitched for the first time into a sexually threatening adult world.

Born the son of a Jewish small businessman who went bankrupt but somehow kept going, he had previously been through countless odd jobs while waiting to be discovered in sporadic TV shows and stage productions. Nichols found him in an off Broadway production of the British Eh? directed by Alan Arkin. He got $17,000 for The Graduate, but $250,000 to make his next movie - John Schlesinger's Midnight Cowboy, in which he played a cripple befriended by Jon Voight's cowboy hustler.

He found the part "easy, because Ratso was so sad, so grotesque and so loathsome that you can do almost anything with it". He adds that he has always had the suspicion that if he plays himself: "I'm going to be bloody boring. Brando can be Brando, but I can't do that."

Perhaps as a consequence he has so often played oddities, like the 121 year old Jack Crabb, the only survivor of the Battle Of Little Big Horn in Arthur Penn's Little Big Man; the weak husband in Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs, who watches his wife being raped; the secretive long term prisoner in Franklin Schaffner's Papillon; the neurotic Lenny Bruce in Bob Fosse's Lenny; the failed ex con in Straight Time (which he gave up directing when he realised he needed someone to argue with), and the autistic savant in Barry Levinson's Rain Man.

Asked about this he says that Lee Strasberg, with whom he studied, said there was no such thing as a leading man.

There's always a human being behind him who is flawed, absurd and weak. "I never play heroes because I've never met one in my life just people in heroic moments."

"Give him a limp or a tick or some sort of mental incapacity and he's away," a less than admiring director once said of him. That, however, is only half the truth. He's not much good at comedy, as the awful Elaine May directed Ishtar evinced. But, though his performances can look a little manufactured, he's got a surprisingly wide range.

He says he knows he's a "one off strange kind of actor" who likes the power his fame has given him but finds the fame itself rather comic. All he wants to do is use it to do good work "and that's not so bad, is it?"