Published at: Feb. 19, 2009, 5:49 p.m. CST by mrbeaks
The frustrating thing about interviewing a living legend like Dustin Hoffman is that you know all the angles have been covered. And if there are stories yet untold, it's unlikely you're going to tease them out within fifteen minutes of making the man's acquaintance. "Why no one ever brings up TOOTSIE, Jeremy! I'm so impressed! Let me tell you about the time I exploded a jar of nickels over Larry Gelbart's head!"
So I wasn't swinging for the fences when I walked in to Mr. Hoffman's temporary quarters at the Four Seasons to discuss his latest work, LAST CHANCE HARVEY. I was just looking for a lively conversation, an amusing anecdote or two, and, if the mood was right, the opportunity to tell him how much I honestly, unabashedly love ISHTAR.
Turns out the mood was very right.
More on that in a bit. For now, let's concentrate on Joel Hopkins's LAST CHANCE HARVEY, a romantic dramedy which stars Hoffman as a man who risks losing his job as a jingles writer by flying off to London to attend his daughter's wedding. This seems like a tremendously honorable gesture until Harvey arrives for the rehearsal dinner, and we slowly realize that he hasn't been much of a father up until this moment. He hasn't been a monster exactly, but the consensus seems to be that an overcommitment to work broke up his marriage. So the fact that he's sacrificing his job by showing up for the wedding isn't about to impress anyone. The fact that he's planning to skip out on the reception to race back to New York? That's just like Harvey.
As Harvey attempts to atone for a lifetime of disappointment, he's subjected to a stream of indignities which leads him to a chance encounter with Kate (Emma Thompson), a single woman desperate for companionship. Though brusque with her at first, Harvey gradually gets Kate to warm to him, and an unlikely friendship begins to develop between these two misfits. This is, ultimately, the movie: Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson walking and talking throughout London. Hopkins's picture isn't a marvel of design or incident, but it doesn't have to be; he just keeps the cameras rolling and lets two of our greatest living actors bat the ball back and forth. There are worse ways to spend a couple of hours.
Though bereft of the histrionics that please the Academy so, Hoffman's performance in LAST CHANCE HARVEY is one of his most emotionally complex turns in years. There are no character tics to hide behind, no makeup to conceal the worries and disappointments of a seventy-one-year-old man. It's a fearless thing. So it was hardly surprising to find Hoffman in a reflective mood when we began our interview. Reflective enough to talk ISHTAR? Read on.
Mr. Beaks: What really struck me early about Harvey is that we're catching him after his "asshole" period. He's very much a reformed asshole. So we're rooting for him even though everyone else in the movie is viewing him through this filter of what he used to be. How do you play something like that?
Dustin Hoffman: You go from your own asshole. (Laughs)
Hoffman: Yes! We're all assholes! I mean, I have yet to meet someone who's never been called an asshole at a certain point in their life. You expand on the parts of yourself that have been disconnected - because it's usually when you're disconnected that people think you're an asshole. There's no contact with yourself, and, therefore, there's none with other people. [Harvey] was not there for himself, so he certainly wouldn't be there for his ex-wife or his kid. He's a man who didn't have the courage to stay with that which he loved the most, and doesn't have the courage to leave something that he finds so demeaning, which is writing jingles. And the profession is no longer known as jingle writing. I did not know that until I did a little research on it. There used to be a time when you could sing commercials. You used to sing them. But there isn't any now. They don't exist.
Beaks: That's interesting because there's this looming irrelevance that he's having to deal with later in life, as I guess many people do. But this is combined with the fact that there is no one else in his life. He's alone. So there's this kind of quiet panic, and it's mostly conveyed through your eyes. Otherwise, even though he's absorbing a torrent of humiliation, he maintains a very placid exterior. Did you find yourself building from the interior out?
Hoffman: Always. But, you know, you're the audience. And in an interview, Jean Renoir, the son of the painter who was a terrific filmmaker, once said that when you get out to direct - and I think this applies to acting and writing as well - you never have enough time before you have to start shooting. There's always a deadline. So by the time you have to write up your piece, or start a movie, you usually don't know as much as you'd like to know. You always wish you'd had more time. So Renoir said the best thing is to just get out there and just put out what you know, even if you think there's a chunk missing. Because by being true to what you do know, the audience is inevitably your collaborator. They are co-writing it. And they will then fill in what you didn't know; they will know what you don't know.
That's kind of a long way to say I didn't think of him in the terms you're describing. But it makes sense what you're saying. To me, he was just me if certain things had happened in my life. In that sense, that's the interior: the interior life is that I had a divorce, and it was awful - especially in terms of the impact that it had on the children. So that's real. I did want to be a jazz pianist, and still do a few woe-is-me's a day because it really was, and is still, my chosen art form. I wish I did do it. I keep saying I'm going to stop acting and study jazz piano. And if I had not met the person I've been with for about thirty-five years, the best that could've come out of me is that I would've wound up stuck like this character. He's not totally un-redeemable. He's just stuck. And he meets someone else who's stuck. People don't always know they're stuck. And if they do know it, it's an intellectual awareness and not a visceral one. And until it's visceral, they're not going to change anything. Until they wake up sweating and say, "What the fuck am I doing with my life?"
So I was never thinking of a winner or a loser or a good guy or a bad guy or an asshole; I was just drawing from parts of myself. And I do think I work better when I don't decide the character, and the audience ultimately does. You really look in wonder when people say, as you're saying, "We catch him after he's finished being an asshole." Because I'm thinking, "I never thought of him that way!" And yet what you're saying makes complete sense. But no one else has said it. Other people have said he's a loser, but I didn't think of him as a loser either. If I came to any definition, it was that he was stuck and avoiding life. And if he hadn't met [Kate], I do really believe he'd be the same person he was when we met him. When she says, "You've got to go to the wedding," that becomes the deciding factor in his entire life. And if she had left at the wedding and I never saw her again, it would have been worth it for her to come into my life. She tilted the axis of my life. That was true for me and my wife. If I hadn't met her, at best I'd be dead. (Laughs) Certainly spiritually. I was not in a good place. I was in a Harvey place.
Beaks: But you had the armor of success.
Hoffman: The trappings.
Beaks: Whereas Harvey never amounted to much, and is now flailing professionally. He must be seeing his career in terms of "I don't fit in here anymore, it's not going to get any better, I'm not going to get any more relevant as time goes on..."
Hoffman: But still feeling that he's right and they're wrong. Because you do get an inner life going when you study something - with what little time you do have before you start a film. When I went to these jingle houses and met some of these guys, I did get a feeling of my placement, of where I would be if I was one of these guys and what I would feel emotionally. And it's not that different from what I feel as an actor; I always feel you kind of try to tie in the fictional reality with the real reality.
(Pauses) I'm not sure that acting is the same as it was. Meaning I don't know where those acting icons are, those acting teacher icons of my early studying days: the Strasbergs, the Meisners, Bobby Lewis, Stella Adler... those giants! I don't know who they've been replaced by. Many times, I feel they've been replaced by "in the school of" or "in the likeness of". But none of these giants. And I don't know who the playwrights are. I don't know what playwrights have replaced Tennessee Williams and Inge and Miller and Albee. I did come from this generation, and I didn't realize how blessed we were. I don't know where those armies of directors are, the Truffauts, the Fellinis, the Bergmans, the Antonionis. So you don't know whether you're just getting old, where you're saying like every other person "It ain't what it used to be". I mean, there is talent.
But certainly I know what doesn't exist now in the culture which did exist then - and it's not just my profession, it's everything. It's that the money did not dominate. It was not the definition as it is now. To do good work: that was the emphasis. We didn't have the top five movies and what they grossed. The public didn't know, or, when they did, they didn't care. The studios weren't trying to make home runs every time because they didn't have to. They were willing to get their money back or maybe make a few dollars, but they mostly just wanted to make that movie. People have said [LAST CHANCE HARVEY] reminds them of that kind of movie. They call it "old-fashioned". That's a bizarre term for me to hear. What's "old fashioned"?
Beaks: Well, this is the kind of thing we'd expect to see on HBO or another cable network. They don't try to put these films in theaters anymore because they're too small; they figure the audience would just as soon wait to watch it at home. I think that discounts the boomers, who represent a huge chunk of potential moviegoers, and who grew up going to films as a kind of ritual. That's an audience that is not being respected.
Hoffman: Someone told me that only ten percent go.
Beaks: Ten percent of the public?
Beaks: Even then, I'd wager that boomers represent a sizable portion of that ten percent. I don't know if it's a bigger portion than teens-to-twentysomethings.
Hoffman: Over-forty may outnumber them. I've heard that. But I've always felt that it doesn't matter. I've always had little patience for people who say, "There's nothing to see! There's nothing to read!" I say, "Fine! Do you know how many great films have been made in the last hundred years? Go get them! There are so many masterpieces, you won't be able to watch all of them!" And there are so many good books. Listen, we could stop art right now, and you wouldn't be able to read enough or see enough of the great stuff.
Beaks: There's a lot of work of yours they could catch up on. STRAIGHT TIME just came out on DVD a year ago. That's a rich, fascinating movie.
Hoffman: I like that movie. It's a true movie. It's as close to the reality of criminals that I'm aware of. Ex-convicts have said that that movie really gets it. I don't think of an audience reaction when I'm making a film. People say, "You know when you stand up in the wedding scene [in LAST CHANCE HARVEY], I cringed." I swear I wasn't thinking that when I did it or when we were working on the speech. You don't think of the audience reaction. But having said that, I always have an audience that I'm pointing to when I'm making the film. Not the reaction, but I'm thinking [of STRAIGHT TIME], "I want convicts, I want ex-convicts to see this movie. I want them to say, 'That's it!'". Or I'm thinking, "I want parents of autistic children to say, 'That's the closest I've seen.'" I want people who've gone through the horror of divorce to say [KRAMER VS. KRAMER] is close to some of the feelings that exist in a real divorce.
With [LAST CHANCE HARVEY[, the awareness I think I was pointing to was that we are imprisoned. And we spend a lifetime trying to get free because we do arm ourselves with defenses to ward off the pain of that which has been inflicted on us since the day we were born. Unfortunately, it helps us to survive, but it doesn't stop us from repeating and setting up again the same flawed structures that we had growing up. We set them up and we repeat them not knowing it. And the reason we do it is because we know that we can survive disappointment. We can survive rejection. We can survive a lack of love. We can survive not being appreciated. That's what [Emma] says at the end, "I was hoping you wouldn't show up." She knows how to cope with that. Hopefully, for all of us, we do wake up one day and say, "I deserve a life. And that part of me which has been disabling myself, I will now take responsibility for. Perhaps I can survive happiness." That's a dilemma. That's what we want life to be. Somehow, we're conned into that, and it's anything but.
Beaks: Before I get out of here, I want to tell you that there is a small but dedicated cult building up around a film of yours that I love unapologetically. It's ISHTAR. (Hoffman laughs.} I know Quentin Tarantino is a fan. And, recently, the filmmaker Edgar Wright screened it at The New Beverly--
Hoffman: I wish I'd been invited!
Beaks: Paul Williams was there earlier in the evening.
Hoffman: I would've come in a minute!
Hoffman: I love the movie.
Beaks: I do, too. You and Warren are great together. The songs are wonderfully awful. Charles Grodin is a slow-burning genius.
Hoffman: He's brilliant. Brilliant. Um... (Smiling) that's a whole other subject. Jimmy Breslin was a friend of mine in those days, and... we made that movie and went through all kinds of horrible press for all different reasons during the making of it. So by the time it came out, it had been buried. We premiered it in Toronto, Canada, and, at that point, they were oblivious of the press about the making of it. And we got a standing ovation at the end of the movie. We then come back to this country, and we are destroyed. So I said to Jimmy Breslin later, "Okay, this isn't a great movie, but my god it didn't deserve the thrashing!" And I'll never forget what he said in that New York accent of his. He said (Doing Breslin), "Dustin, when the press has a contract out, they have a contract out." And they honored that contract. But the hit was out for different reasons.
But it's funny you bring up that movie, because that movie has something to do with this movie believe it or not. The thing I love about [ISHTAR] - and I love it with all of its flaws - is that it has a statement to make. And that is: It is far, far better to spend a life being second rate in something that you're passionate about, then to spend a life being first-rate at that which you are not passionate about. I thought that was worth making a movie about. These guys want to be Simon & Garfunkle, but they have no talent at all. They're middle-aged guys, and at the end of the movie they wind up singing "That's Amore" at a Holiday Inn in Morocco. It's fair. It's fair to make a movie about that.
Beaks: Well, if we ever do another screening.
Hoffman: Let's make a screening. The first half-hour is flawless.
With the publicist justifiably staring stilettos at me for getting Mr. Hoffman off on a tangent five minutes past the scheduled end of my interview, I turned off my recorder as a gesture of contrition. Big mistake. Hoffman proceeded to tell us about how musicians like Paul Simon and Sting love ISHTAR because it gets nails that struggling, open-mic subculture. We then ran through some of our favorite songs from the movie (Hoffman's faves: "Love in My Will" and "That a Lawnmower Can Do All That"), and even sang a few bars. I didn't want it to end, but I also didn't want his publicist to end me.
But we will make a screening. Soon. And there may be another wrongly maligned movie pulling double-header duty with it. Stay tuned.
LAST CHANCE HARVEY opens in limited release on Christmas Day. It will go nationwide on January 9th.