Some like like it it Hoff Hoff

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

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - COVER STORY - 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 hy­per­charged 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 that's 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 doesn't look like the sortof guy who could ev­er­have been a drug­bore.

“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.

The many faces of Hoff­man: Ratso in Mid­night Cow­boy; Dorothy in Toot­sie. Be­low: On the red car­pet with Mag­gie Smith, star of Quar­tet

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