Dustin Hoffman finally graduates to director's chair
05:00 AM, Dec 26, 2012
NEW YORK Dustin Hoffman blames Maggie Smith for putting a damper on his love life.
It seems that Downton Abbey, the British TV upstairs-downstairs sensation presided over by Smith’s imperious Dowager Countess, is keeping the actor’s wife of 32 years otherwise engaged at night.
“It has cost me a more fruitful sex life,” says Hoffman, 75, of the addictive PBS series that returns for a third season Jan. 6. “Lisa has it on her computer. We get to bed, I give her an amorous look, she kisses me on the cheek, turns over and watches Downton Abbey.”
Hoffman can take some solace from the fact that Smith never hotter as she is about to turn 78 on Friday, given her recent Emmy wins and Golden Globe nominations is gracing Quartet, his big-screen directorial debut. The bittersweet comedy about retired opera singers at a senior facility for musicians shows off Dame Maggie to her full advantage as a delightfully disagreeable diva. It opens Jan. 11, perfectly timed to take advantage of Downton fever.
Not that he holds any grudges. Quite the contrary. Ever since the film premiered to standing ovations at the Toronto Film Festival in the fall, he and the famously press-shy Smith have been quite the cozy couple in the name of publicity. In photo after photo, there is Hoffman holding her hand, supporting her back, rubbing her regal shoulders. And there is Smith, smiling and laughing like one of her winsome schoolgirl charges in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
“Maggie is one of the loveliest women you could ever hope to be friends with,” he says. “She never complains, and she has had some real physical problems. She had two eye surgeries after we were done filming. She keeps it very quiet. She is a trouper, God bless her.”
Hoffman has been pretty blessed himself of late. The Oscar winner for Kramer vs. Kramer and Rain Man, who broke the handsome leading-man mold in the ’60s and ’70s with his average-Joe demeanor, is on a roll. He recently spent the weekend in Washington, D.C., as one of the recipients at this year’s Kennedy Center Honors, which airs Wednesday night (9 ET/PT, CBS), hobnobbing with the Obamas and hearing the likes of Robert De Niro sing his praises.
“I just spoke to him this morning to thank him,” he says of De Niro, his fellow survivor of two Fockers comedies. “I’ve known him for years. He’s one of my best friends.”
Hoffman was a little overwhelmed by all the ceremonial fuss, but he was glad to share the spotlight with such fellow honorees as the members of Led Zeppelin and David Letterman. “It was bigger than I thought it would be. But it’s wonderful because you don’t have the burden of being the only one.”
If ever there were a Hollywood star who did not lord his achievements over others, it’s the slightly over 5-foot-5 living legend with the blue-collar looks and outsized talent whose human version of urban vermin, Midnight Cowboy’s Ratso Rizzo, contributed that rallying cry of the masses, “I’m walkin’ here!” to the cultural lexicon in 1969. As someone who lived below the poverty line until he broke out at age 30 in The Graduate, Hoffman does not take much for granted.
Some directors have deplored his notorious perfectionist streak which is why De Niro referred to his buddy in his Kennedy Center speech as “a world-class, spectacular, colossal pain in the ass.”
But civilians, especially New Yorkers, consider L.A.-born Hoffman one of them. So much so that he sometimes has to resort to wearing earbuds on the street so fans don’t approach him.
He is also a world-class schmoozer who specializes in changing the subject. The theme at hand is supposed to be why he waited so long to direct a movie. But Hoffman keeps bringing up random topics. Mel Brooks’ 2,000 Year Old Man routine. The musical number called Shoot the Breeze he co-wrote and performed with Bette Midler for a 1977 TV special. How his All the President’s Men in 1976 caused enrollment to soar in journalism schools and created the glut of Baby Boomers now forced to cope with a newspaper industry in decline.
“I don’t like being interviewed,” he says. “I like a conversation.” Those who demand a direct answer immediately will simply have to employ some patience.
Eventually, however, Hoffman explains that early on in drama school and as a stage actor in New York, he did try to direct. In 1974, “I directed All Over Town on Broadway. When I started out as a student, I directed other actors.”
But film was a medium where he felt less confident. “I was planning to direct Straight Time,” he says of the 1978 drama he starred in as an incorrigible ex-con on parole (Ulu Grosbard was credited as director). “I cast the crew, I cast the actors, I worked with writers.” But with no video playback available, he felt he couldn’t judge his own work.
“I fired myself based on that, and I think I made a mistake. And I haven’t directed again until now. If I knew the answer, I wouldn’t have had to spend so many years on the couch.”
Hoffman did have a witty response at the ready when asked at Quartet’s London premiere how it felt to finally step behind the camera: “It’s kind of like sex. The hornier you get, the better it is when it happens.”
Where did that come from? “I don’t remember saying it. It was on the red carpet. I never do the red carpet without a drink. And neither would anybody else if they had ever done it before.”
If Smith as well as her esteemed Quartet cohorts Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly and Pauline Collins had a say in the matter, Hoffman would have called the shots on set years ago.
“For all of us actors, it was like being given the most wonderful gift,” says Smith, who has two Oscars of her own. “Usually the person on that side of the camera has no idea of how an actor feels. Or how hard it is to wait hours and then someone says, ‘OK, shoot.’ Dustin knew exactly what we were going through. He relaxed you. I had never been able to do that before.”
In fact, Hoffman was smart enough to ask for and take Smith’s suggestion to hire Collins, best known for her Oscar-nominated role in 1989’sShirley Valentine, as the endearingly sweet if infuriatingly forgetful Cissy. “Other directors wouldn’t do that,” Hoffman concedes.
Among those eager to join Team Dustin was Harvey Weinstein, who got the jump on other potential U.S. distribution-rights suitors by flying to London when he heard about a screening of an unfinished print.
“I read the script and loved it,” says Weinstein, who worked with Hoffman on 2004’sFinding Neverland. “I heard amazing things about Dustin as a director. I never doubted him because he has great instincts as an actor, and I love his taste.”
Also on the Hoffman bandwagon is Ronald Harwood, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of 2002’sThe Pianist who entrusted his adaption of his stage play to the novice director.
“He talked movingly and with penetrating insights about the characters in Quartet, about their disappointments, their aspirations and, above all, their refusal to give in,” Harwood says. “He seemed to understand, I think intuitively at that point, that the film was about the celebration of life and not old age.”
Hoffman, who says he cried when he first read the script on a plane, made one stipulation to his producer of how the home for aged musicians would be portrayed: “I don’t want to smell the urine.” While not ignoring the hardships and illnesses that accompany aging, “I wanted the place to look like and them to look like the way they feel inside.”
Which translates into a warmly picturesque if somewhat chaotic theatrical retreat where the residents dress up each morning as if donning a costume for a performance. “This movie is about a retirement home where people refuse to retire,” he says.
Retirement is not in the offing for Hoffman anytime soon, even if he is more eager to direct again than act at this point. “I don’t understand the word,” he says. “I have this little thing I have been doing for many years. What do I want on my tombstone? A line hits me weekly. The first one I came up with is probably the best: ‘I knew this was going to happen.’ “
The one that occurred to him this morning, inspired by his pending interview: “Off the record, I’m retired.”
Sometimes, however, other people inadvertently provide the perfect epitaph, too.
Says Hoffman: “I had one of the best compliments I’ve ever had coming around the corner before I came in here. Some guy is working on a building and recognized me and said, ‘Hey, your movies never get old.’ That was one of the best things I ever heard.”
It also means that, for Hoffman, cinematic immortality at least appears to be in the cards.