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Published: Sunday, 10/6/2002

Dustin Hoffman on acting, directing, and his (undeserved) reputation as a royal pain

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

TORONTO - Oh, the stories about Dustin Hoffman. You hear he's a monster and you hear he's the most thoughtful man alive. You hear that he's funny but difficult, a perfectionist but a royal pain, with a string of bruised relationships to prove it. Everyone in his orbit, everyone in his business, knows the tales of Hoffman bringing his own rewrite man to shoots, of Hoffman insisting on take after take until directors mutter “Never again.” These are open secrets. Filmmakers know what they're getting. He knows they know. He knows you know.

Little Big Ego, so to speak.

Susan Sarandon has heard it all. Before she arrived on the set of their new movie, Moonlight Mile, which opened Friday, she “heard tales,” she said. Some are true: “He does 35 or 40 takes. I'm best on my few first few.” Some aren't true, or at least, they aren't anymore:

“I was surprised how sweet he is. There was no vying for position, and that is not necessarily typical. He was the antithesis of the alpha male. I didn't ever get Dustin spraying his ground. Despite all the sexual innuendo he's always throwing around, he is very respectful. After all these years, he still loves the process.”

You hear so many stories you can forget the moral is inevitably the same: Whatever his methods, Dustin Hoffman cares deeply about acting. The man never phones anything in.

You hear the funny ones first: about how he slept, in the 1950s, on the floor of Gene Hackman's New York City apartment, when they were both acting refugees from Pasadena. You hear about how,dressed in drag for Tootsie, Hoffman decided to ride a Manhattan office building elevator. Strangely enough, Jose Ferrer stepped in a couple of floors later, and recognizing an opportunity to test his character, Hoffman propositioned him.

You hear the one about his being cast in The Graduate. (You hear this a few times.) Director Mike Nichols wanted Benjamin, the film's confused post graduate, to be a Jew from Beverly Hills - not the New England WASP described in the novel. Short, hardly the archetype of the tall blonde leading man, Hoffman would eventually transform how audiences saw movie stars, but at the time, Hollywood wasn't used to placing movie star and ethnicity in the same thought.

As the story goes, Hoffman had just been cast. He went to visit producer Joe Levine, who had never met him. Hoffman knocked on the door. Levine assumed he was the window washer and gestured to the windows. Without hesitation, Hoffman went over and cleaned.

Then you hear the juicy stuff. In fact, you hear some of it from Hoffman himself, who knows some tricks about disarming

people. This is last month, during the Toronto International Film Festival. You wait for him and wait for him, and finally He shuffles into the hotel lobby in his tiny, baby steps, wearing a crisp buttoned-up oxford and tan khakis, looking very much what he is: a successful, slightly shy, father of six.

The room, filled with chatter and clanking forks, instantly hushes, comically, when he walks in, and Hoffman looks forward, not at all startled. You're told you have only a short time to talk, and Hoffman is told you have only a short time. He sits down at the table and leans over, his face scarily familiar, eyes dancing, and whispers, “I have never been to a house of prostitution but I understand you're given more than seven minutes.”

Um, meet Dustin Hoffman.

DOT

He and director Brad Silberling had this code word on the set of Moonlight Mile. The word was “Olivier” - as in Lawrence. “The code goes back to Marathon Man. Dustin was embarrassed that he tried to suggest to Olivier that maybe he had gone overboard in a scene. Olivier said, `Oh dear, thank you.' So one of the first days on the set, Dustin was going overboard. He looked at me and said `Olivier?' I said, `Olivier.' “

That this story itself is the result of a youthful transgression is quite telling. During this period from the late 1960s to the mid 1970s, when Jack Nicholson became Hollywood's wild man and Warren Beatty became Hollywood's playboy, Hoffman became the temperamental actor, with a reputation for obsessing over roles, for being difficult to work with. Indeed, a more biting story from Marathon Man has Hoffman asking for endless takes until Olivier blurts, “Dear boy, why don't you just act?”

Once you talk to Hoffman himself about his career, though, the stories start to seem less gossipy. He is very convincing. “`Difficult'?” he asks. “Or `meticulous'? Maybe they are one in the same.” He sits at the end of his chair, ready to dish.

“`Difficult' never came from a cast member. It came from a few directors and producers. I think the most insulting thing - depending on the personality - the most insulting thing you can do to a director is challenge them when they are satisfied with your interpretation, or a take, and you say `No, it's not right yet.' That's their job.”

His most famous skirmish was on the set of Tootsie with director Sydney Pollock. He brings it up before you do. “I was the creator of the project. I lived with it for 31/2 years, employing a couple of other writers. A director by the name of Hal Ashby was going to direct and he was let go from the studio two months before we started shooting because he completed a film with Jon Voight and the company that made it said we will enjoin your next film, which was Tootsie.

“Columbia (which made Tootsie) said we're not going to take a chance. Sydney comes in, and because he's that kind of director, said `I will direct this but I have creative control.' I needed him desperately and I acquiesced to something I shouldn't have. I was the author of this piece and I was satirizing a side of myself, and that was the authorship of it. You can see both sides. But once we got by those early morning fights in the camper - you give me this, I'll give that - we had a good time, and that's truth.”

Talk long enough with Hoffman - and this conversation lasted nearly an hour, with Hoffman shooing away assistants repeatedly - you hear the idea of authorship a few times, enough to realize he's a director in an actor's body. Indeed, Hoffman will direct his first film soon, an adaptation of Scott Turrow's Personal Injuries.

“I'm going to fire myself the second day,” he jokes.

“I've learned since those early charges and experiences,” he says. “I learned lessons about avoiding the trappings. I don't have them anymore. I haven't for a few years. I establish my credentials early on now, rather than fall into what [the actor-director relationship] often becomes: You're the kid, they're the father. I've learned to thrash out stuff before you arrive on the set, not when there are 150 people standing there and it's costing 150 grand a day.”

It's funny to hear a two-time Academy Award winner for best actor (for Kramer vs. Kramer and Rain Man) speak as if he has something to prove, but there you go. “Look, the fact is it's a very tough job to be a director,” he says. “It's a terrible job. I think I have more understanding of that now. If they care about their work, they've taken an easel and put it up and picked out what they want to paint and put the canvas on the easel and then they paint.

“But suddenly they realize that easel is on a railroad track.” Hoffman tilts his head and pauses and smiles sadly. “They hear a rumbling and they start painting faster and faster and faster - faster than they want to do, faster than the art is dictating. But they can't stop because the train is coming, and they pull that canvas off the easel just before the train hits.

“And that's called a movie.”

DOT

Jake Gyllenhaal speaks of Hoffman with genuine admiration in his voice - the kind of awe that comes from a student who, when much older, remembers a teacher who made a difference. The 21-year old actor, who plays the fianc of Hoffman's murdered daughter in Moonlight Mile, said when he started acting, he used to think “spontaneity would lend itself to the acting process, that I wouldn't have to do much work.”

“Watching what Dustin does changed that. You're not watching his mind working at 800 mph. You come to realize the only way he can really tap into something emotionally is to stop his brain muscle from working. That way he doesn't overwork a moment until it dies. So there are just thousands of notes all over his [script] pages. Everything has been over-thought ahead of time and meticulously crafted, so when he gets to the scene he can just forget about it and do it.”

When the shoot was over Hoffman gave books to most of the cast and crew. (“He was so discerning,” said Cate Olson, the co-owner of Much Ado Books in Marblehead, Mass., where Hoffman bought the presents.) He gave Gyllenhaal a copy of Stanislavsky's On Acting, and wrote in it: “You're good. You've got to get better.”

You ask if anyone ever bought him a book on acting. Hoffman sits up and beams. “I had become very friendly with Olivier during Marathon Man. He was very ill. He was on medication and it was so strong he couldn't remember his lines, and this was a guy who held King Lear, Hamlet, and Macbeth in his head. Anyway, the movie is over and I'm sitting in a rented house and he's told me the day before, `I know you're finished but I'd like to drop something off for you.' The doorbell rings and he brings a carton in and it's filled with a Shakespeare collection.

“I said `Thank you,' and he said, `Oh, it's not leather bound.' He asks if he can come in for a few minutes and he sits down and puts his legs out on the top of the table and he stayed there for over three hours and oh, I wish to God I had taped it. He talked and talked, about Shakespeare, about the period, about why you need to be aware of the masters. I understood maybe 20 percent of it. I glanced to the back of the room and my secretary had tears streaming down her face. It was my favorite moment as an actor.”

When Hoffman talks, his voice is quiet and confiding, and completely sincere. But you get the sense he never stops acting, that every inflection and grimace - especially the twitch in the corners of his smiles, which flatten quick - is choreographed. We talk more about movies and you feel the conversation winding down.

He mentions that Mike Nichols came to him a few years ago with a follow-up to The Graduate. “It was a great idea. He said, `You're alive. Katharine Ross is still around. Anne Bancroft ... ' I said, `Uh, how do you see it, Mike?' I think the idea is Benjamin directs television commercials, and I know where Nichols is coming from.

“Remember the Chicago 7 trial? [Seven anti-Vietnam War protesters, including Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and future senator Tom Hayden, were tried for inciting a riot at the 1968 Democratic party convention in Chicago.] These guys wound up on Wall Street and such. They became the thing they mocked. That generation, that Benjamin generation, all soon enough became ... oh, what do you call them?”

Masters of the Universe?

“No. It's ... um -”

Yuppies?

“Close. No, it's ... Baby Boomers! Anyway, [the sequel] would be something like: Benjamin goes back to the very things that he was rejecting from his father's generation.” He tosses in an aside: “By the way, did you know Anne Bancroft was five years older than me when we made The Graduate? She was 35. I was 30.”

Now she's five years younger.

“Yes,” Hoffman says grinning his tight, wide grin again, eyes scrunched close to his nose, nodding rapidly because he likes the joke. (When Hoffman talks, he either nods or rocks slightly, not unlike Rain Man.) “Yes,” he says again. Then, deadpan, he follows up with, shall we say, a variation on the phrase “Stuff happens.”

Wait, how old are you now?

“Hmmm ... ”

You're about -

“You know, I always ask people how old they are, too.” (Indeed, he is 65, but looks two decades younger.) Hoffman sits up in his chair and, like a nightclub comic selecting an audience member to help set up a joke, he asks, “How old are you?”

Thirty-one.

“This doesn't work with you.”

Hoffman leans over to the next table and whispers to a man talking in a thick Irish brogue. “Excuse me,” Hoffman says, interrupting. The man turns to him with raised eyebrows and tilts a bit in his direction, as if expecting an exchange of state secrets.

“Yes?”

“May I ask how old you are?”

“I'm 45.”

“Sir,” Hoffman says, “I would take what you are backwards.”



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