Dustin Hoffman is sitting alone in the sunny corner of a restaurant in Brentwood, looking as though he’s deep in prayer. Soon after his lunch companion arrives, the object of his worship rings with the lilting notes “Are You Havin’ Any Fun?,” a jazz standard that figures prominently in his new movie, “Quartet.”
Hoffman apologizes, then takes the call. It turns out that “Quartet,” which marks the actor’s directorial debut, has been the subject of a ratings kerfuffle at the Motion Picture Association of America. The film takes a playful, poignant look at aging through the stories of four characters living in a home for retired musicians in England. “Quartet,” which stars Maggie Smith, Pauline Collins, Billy Connolly and Tom Courtenay, possesses sweetness, pluck and charm — but also a few cheerfully delivered four-letter words.
“For a PG release, they give you two,” Hoffman explains in his hoarse, slightly melancholy drawl, the same cadence that makes everyone think he’s from New York (he’s a California native). He is dressed comfortably in gray corduroys and a blue sports shirt, his hair a thick salt-and-pepper mane, his face often seeming to split in two by a ready V-shaped grin. “And if there’s more than that, they give you an R. And there are three that I wanted.” The call on his iPhone was to inform him that his solution — to have a sound effect strategically inserted to muffle an offending expletive — has been accepted by the arbiters of all that is decent and good in American cinema. “The compromise worked.”
“Compromise” isn’t a word that has often been associated with Hoffman over the course of his 45-year career, to which he will add another accolade with Sunday’s Kennedy Center Honors. During his early days as a stage actor in New York — where he moved from California in the 1950s, rooming with young guns named Gene Hackman and Robert Duvall — he was known for walking off plays, refusing to conform to conventional notions of careerism and fame. When director Mike Nichols offered him the role of Benjamin Braddock in the 1967 film “The Graduate,” he initially turned it down, convinced that he was all wrong for a role that called for a tall, blond, WASP-y jock. “The name of the game is compromise, once you’re successful,” Hoffman recalls. He’s ordered a bowl of lentil soup and a salad, and insists on splitting a mozzarella sandwich spiked with Swiss chard and fennel. “And compromise is not only compromising with someone else, there’s a compromising with yourself, because you cannot stay inviolate. Somehow, as hard as you can, you’re resisting giving the public what it wants.”
That helps explain why, once “The Graduate” had catapulted Hoffman to a stardom that he never expected, he chose “Midnight Cowboy” as his next film, a scruffy New York buddy flick in which he played the sickly Times Square hustler Ratso Rizzo. For a young actor who had become the cultural representative of a baby-boom generation disaffected with suburban mores and middle-class hypocrisies, submerging his newly minted identity as a sex symbol into a seedy, physically diminished street person could be read as counterintuitive or, less generously, self-sabotaging. “When I did ‘Cowboy,’ Nichols called and said, ‘What are you doing?’ ” Hoffman recalls, noting that he was 29 when he got “The Graduate,” after spending 10 years as a mostly out-of-work actor confident that if he were going to fail, it would be on his terms.
“I got in right underneath the circus tent,” he says. “By the time I’m 30, I’m suddenly a movie star. It didn’t matter. Thirty felt horrendous to me. I was still so committed to being a failure that when it happened, I compartmentalized it.”
But “Midnight Cowboy” turned out to be another hit, earning Hoffman his second Oscar nomination and cementing his standing as a bona fide movie star, one who virtually single-handedly redefined what a leading man in the movies could look and sound like.
The film industry “wouldn’t have looked at someone like Dustin Hoffman before ‘The Graduate,’ and they would have come up with a dozen ways of saying he’s too Jewish without saying the word Jewish,” says Mark Harris, who chronicled the production of “The Graduate” in his book “Pictures at a Revolution.”
When Hoffman was coming up, Harris notes, it was “all-American”-type actors such as Robert Redford or George Peppard who were being groomed for stardom. “The revolutionary thing about Hoffman in that movie isn’t that a guy who didn’t look like a movie star could give that performance and the movie could be a hit, but the fact that everybody was wrong. He was sexy after all. He was hot in that movie.” When Hoffman became a star, Harris adds, the studios realized that actors heretofore relegated to character roles could be stars as well, making it possible for actors such as Al Pacino and Robert De Niro to have careers as leading men. “America was way ahead of Hollywood,” he says.
Hoffman stayed in step with that same America, choosing roles that have made him an avatar of the social and cultural changes that have defined the country’s changes. In “Midnight Cowboy” he played a homeless man before “homelessness” became a metonym for a failed social safety net; as Ted in “Kramer vs. Kramer,” he won an Academy Award for playing a divorced father drawn reluctantly into questioning traditional gender roles. In “Tootsie,” he pushed that consciousness one step higher by becoming a woman, as an actor playing an actress named Dorothy Michaels. As Raymond in “Rain Man,” he gave autism its most famous and most accessible face, winning his second Oscar in the process. It wouldn’t be an overtstatement to suggest that Hoffman didn’t just redefine male stardom, but manhood itself, making sensitivity and empathy safe for a generation of men raised on icons of macho swagger.
He has taken more conventional roles along the way — from Washington Post Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein in “All the President's Men” and Lenny Bruce in “Lenny” to his daffy hipster granddad in the “Meet the Fockers” franchise and turns in “I ♥ Huckabees,” “Last Chance Harvey” and HBO’s “Luck” that proved he has lost nothing by way of flawless timing, pathos and restraint over nearly half a decade.
He has a self-deprecating laugh at the directors he turned down, from Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini to Samuel Beckett, whom he stood up at a Paris bistro while he walked around the block, ruminating. He has the singular distinction of saying no to Steven Spielberg for “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “Schindler’s List,” but saying yes to “Hook.”
Still, as often as not when Hoffman says yes, he’s returned to characters defined by vulnerability verging on invisibility. It seems appropriate that with “Quartet,” the 75-year-old actor is examining age through the prism of people who, like many of his most memorable characters, are objects, in this case performers who have outlived their usefulness.
His empathy with objectified people stems from his experience growing up in Los Angeles, the son of a salesman who once worked as a prop man for Columbia Pictures and nursed dreams of directing movies.
“I grew up as an object in my particular home life,” Hoffman says. “I was not individualized. I had a brother who had his own difficulties, but he was the A-student, a varsity football player. I was the so-called sickly child, and somehow made to feel — not worthless, worse than that. Not even there. . . . I was stunned one day in therapy that the first time I had a sense of myself was when I was playing someone else.”
Dustin Hoffman loves to talk. And he’s an avid, voraciously interested listener. His easy, confiding manner turns a one-hour lunch into a 21 / 2-hour gabfest between new best friends, with Hoffman casually picking at a companion’s salad, idly looking at two women dining farther down the banquette and wondering why men can’t achieve the same level of intimacy with one another. (“Elliptical is a nice way of putting it,” he says, describing his conversational style.) He professes not to have many close friends, but he’s devoted to his wife, Lisa, who shares his warm, cozily appointed office across the street, where she conducts business for Lisa Hoffman Beauty, a line of scent-diffusing jewelry. (Hoffman wears one of her black beaded bracelets, which emanates occasional whiffs of peppery Japanese agarwood.) Their four children, and two daughters from Hoffman’s previous marriage, are all satisfactorily launched. Although he has been on the festival circuit with “Quartet” over the past few months, he says, "I love being at home.”
It’s not uncommon for Hoffman to fight back tears when he talks. He almost weeps when he explains his creative process as an actor. “I know when I’ve done bad work, there are certain essential things I haven’t done,” he says. “The most essential thing is, I’m not behind it. If it’s not me behind it, then it’s s---. Then it’s just a character. The work that you’re doing, whether it’s the limp or the way you’re talking or whatever, you’re behind it.” He pauses, and his voice begins to tremble. “You’re not there to play the [jerk], you’re there to show the [jerk] that’s in you. Don't you dare say to an audience, ‘That’s not me, that’s just a character I’m playing.’ I resent it.”
Another thing Hoffman resents? Taking the work for granted. “What I don't understand are the actors who come to work not being prepared, not wanting to be prepared,” he says, declining to name names. “There’s an inner fury that’s going in me. I’m saying, ‘You’re so . . .lucky to be doing this. Ten percent of us aren’t working at any given time, what are you doing here if you don’t love it?’”
It’s the inner fury that garnered Hoffman a reputation for being hard to work with from his earliest days in the business. “I was the difficult one,” he says. “Parenthetically, the smart-ass Jew. [Jack] Nicholson was the dope addict. Warren Beatty was the womanizer. Redford was the pretty boy. And it was hard to get beyond that.” Still, Hoffman admits that at times he was tough on directors because “I was projecting something . . . that was coming from another source, and I wasn’t aware of it then. They were hitting that nerve where I felt objectified. Also, I had zero tolerance for certain kinds of behavior. What I call ‘pigeon-kicking,’ when someone yells and takes advantage of other people who can’t yell back. I find that intolerable.”
When he directed “Quartet,” he says, he realized “just how much acting directors do with their cast.” Actors, he explained, “have our part, have our scene, and that dominates us. What I was humbled by was how much goes wrong on a day-to-day basis. Maybe they lost their location or didn’t get an actor they wanted, the prop master made a mistake on a significant prop.” Realizing how many problems a director has to juggle in a day, “I thought, ‘So that’s what’s going on,’ ” he recalls. “All you think about [as an actor] is, ‘Boy, he’s in a bad mood.’ ”
When he was preparing “Quartet,” which is adapted from a play by Ronald Harwood, Hoffman says, he was inspired by an interview Maggie Smith once gave when a journalist noted that she had her whole life ahead of her and she replied, “Most of it’s been.” The film is suffused with a similar air of wistfulness, wherein the past seems continually to fuse with the present, especially when a long-dormant love affair between two characters reignites. When Hoffman presented the film in London recently, he was suddenly brought to tears recalling his divorce 30 years ago — while his wife looked on from the audience. “I said, ‘Lisa, I’m not still in love with my first wife’ ” he says now. “But what it did was reemphasize that the pain never goes away.”
If “Quartet” captures anything, it’s that sense of past-that’s-never-past that will no doubt strike a chord with the same segment that has identified so strongly with Hoffman’s characters for nearly 50 years. Whether he’s in front of the camera or behind it, he seems destined to be a cultural messenger, bringing crucial information about what it’s like to be alive right here, right now. “We’re all in the same generation here,” Hoffman told the assembled cast before production began. “We’re in our 70s, and if we can talk about what that really feels like, then we will have done the greatest service.”
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