Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Tales of (Dustin) Hoffman: Graduating into the Director’s Chair

During this holiday week, we can all enjoy a special gift: the airing of the Kennedy Center Honors gala on December 26. Among this year’s honorees -- along with ballerina Natalia Makarova, jazz great Buddy Guy, comic David Letterman, and three members of Led Zeppelin -- is an actor who catapulted to fame in 1967 with the release of a little comedy called The Graduate. In 1967 Dustin Hoffman was a prickly young man who insisted he had been miscast as Benjamin Braddock. He also made clear to anyone who would listen that he had absolutely no interest in a Hollywood career.

In 1967 Dustin Hoffman was a thirty-year-old stage actor bent on avoiding at all costs being typecast on the big screen as a befuddled post-adolescent. It’s a mark of his determination as well as his talent that he has since played a wide range of challenging roles, in films as distinctive as Midnight Cowboy, Little Big Man, Straw Dogs, Lenny, Kramer vs. Kramer, and Rain Man. Though he remains a perfectionist (see Tootsie for a glimpse of the intensity with which this actor prepares), he has learned over the years to enjoy his status as one of America’s screen legends. Hoffman today has embraced civic involvement: he worked hard to help establish the Broad Stage, an exquisite Santa Monica performance space for music and live theatre. And, even in silly films like Meet the Fockers, he truly seems to be having fun. You might say, he’s become a mensch.

His newest challenge is directing, and to my surprise he has chosen as his debut vehicle a sweet, graceful, and very English comedy set in a home for retired musicians. I saw Quartet at a screening hosted by Stephen Farber, whose Reel Talk series brings films and filmmakers to SoCal audiences. Steve interviewed Hoffman afterwards, and I’m happy to pass along some nuggets from that conversation.

Hoffman became interested in directing back in his Santa Monica College days, at a time when he had no clear career goal in mind. He had enrolled in drama classes for one simple reason: he was not doing well in his other course work, and “Nobody flunks acting – it’s like gym.” He took to it, of course, and ended up a serious student of the craft. After he’d made a splash as a film actor, he set about trying to direct himself in a prison drama, Straight Time, but gave up in disgust. Quartet came about when a cinematographer-friend recommended him for a greenlit-project that had lost its director. He responded to the material because “rather than a film about aging, it was a film about people who refused to retire -- who refused to give in to the aging process.”

Perhaps Hoffman’s greatest directorial contribute was to insist that everyone in the geriatric cast (outside of the central quartet of Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, and Pauline Collins) be actual retired performers who could contribute their musical skills on camera. He talks about these gifted singers and musicians with great warmth, saying, “I have new icons, now that I’m 75.” Maggie Smith is one of those icons, along with Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira, who is still shooting movies at age 104.

Clearly, making Quartetwas a happy experience for Hoffman. His greatest on-set pleasure lay in encouraging his actors to surprise him with their artistic choices. Now he delights in sitting in the rear of an auditorium, watching the audience watch his film. This he calls “my biggest joy, outside of going to the bathroom, eating, and sex.” Too much information, perhaps?


  1. I noticed his freedom with such information during an interview he did on the British Graham Norton Show - but all in good fun. The movie sounds terrific - and kudos to all of the wonderful performers who continue working instead of resting on their laurels. My wife and I just watched The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel - and while the film itself was a little slight - the incredible cast - including Maggie Smith - riveted us to the screen until the last credit had disappeared. Wonderful post, Ms. Gray - Marry Christmas!

  2. I have always had mixed feelings about "oldster movies." Sometimes they seem determined to make Senior Citizens appear merely "cute." Quartet, like Marigold Hotel, is definitely slight, and it lacks much in the way of drama. But I was truly delighted to learn that all those beautiful arias and instrumental solos were performed on-camera by musicians who'd had important careers in the arts and could still pull their weight.