|by Brian Mckay
Dustin Hoffman is an actor ranked among “The Greats” in most circles, and usually mentioned in the same breath as the likes of De Niro, Pacino, and Brando. Like his contemporaries, Hoffman has given us some fantastic performances and memorable characters over the years since his breakout role in 1967's THE GRADUATE, and it’s not surprising to see glimmers of those characters emerge in his real-life persona.
At The San Francisco International Film Festival’s tribute to Dustin Hoffman and screening of his early classic film Lenny, the man of the hour took the stage with such a quiet and mumbling delivery that people in the balcony had to shout for him to speak up. But if the awkward opening moments were reminiscent of Hoffman’s Rain Man character, he seemed to have harnessed the zeal of the late Lenny Bruce by the end of the night. Hoffman quickly warmed to the crowd, regaling the packed Castro Theater with plenty of stories, insights, and even a few jokes and impressions (the man does a mean Buddy Hackett). In short, he gave us the full spectrum of Dustin Hoffman.
Interviewing Hoffman was Marc Forster, director of Monster’s Ball and the upcoming J.M. Barrie’s Neverland (starring Hoffman and Johnny Depp). Well, Forster was supposed to be interviewing him, but he seemed to be trying to stay out of the way of Hoffman’s freight train, which was quickly building steam. Hoffman may not be the easiest guy to reign in, and his oft-rambling speeches and stories appear to be the by-product of brilliant but chaotic thought processes. However, the young director seems to have already learned that when Hoffman wants to talk, it’s best to just let go of the reigns and hang onto the mane
On being “In Character”: “I don’t really understand what it means to be 'on' or ‘in character’. Some actors can be “on” with their character and then just shut it off, but I’ve never been able to do that. But I think that when you’re doing a character, you have to establish what you think the boundaries of that character and – and then violate them. You violate those boundaries because that’s what life is.”
“There’s only one trick – you do what you do because you love it. Your art is just like your relationship, and if it breaks down, then you need to either fix it, or leave it.”
On what making a movie is really like: “It’s a sinking ship. Every day there’s all this pressure to stay on schedule and under budget. So everybody just dances around and does their thing, pretending that the Titanic isn’t really going down.”
On some of his co-stars:
“I hate [Robert] Redford’s guts.” (smiles) “He’s not supposed to be bright and handsome. He’s brilliant . . . but I still hate him.”
“Johnny Depp is one of the few guys in this business who works his ass off to not become a big star.”
"When I made The Graduate, I was thirty years old, and the lovely Anne Bancroft (who plays the seductive "older" woman) was only thirty-five. So you see, folks? It really is all smoke and mirrors."
“I was shooting Little Big Man, and they told me that Chief Dan George had arrived. So I went outside to meet him, and he looked just like the chief on the Indian head nickel. He looked majestic with this sharp nose and flowing white hair, so I humbly went up to shake his hand and introduce myself. As he shook my hand, the first words out of his mouth were “Where’s Faye Dunaway?”
[while filming Hook] “Bob Hoskins and I realized about three days into shooting that these guys (Hook and Smee) were gay. I mean, Smee was always making Hook tea and giving him foot rubs – he made for a pretty good broad. We ran the idea past Spielberg, and I think his hair literally stood on end. Still, once we accepted that the characters were gay, the scenes just flowed.”
On meeting “The Great One”: I was on a flight with Wayne Gretzky, and I’m talking to him the whole time and telling him all kinds of jokes, and the guy doesn’t so much as crack a smile the whole time. So I’m thinking, ‘This guy just fucking hates me.’ Then I find out afterward that the reason he hadn’t smiled the whole time was because he’d just had work done on his teeth and was embarrassed about it. I thought, ‘how absurd is it that a hockey player would be afraid to smile because he was missing some teeth?’”
Since the interview segment would be followed by a screening of Lenny, the biography of controversial 1960’s comedian Lenny Bruce, Hoffman spent a good portion of the evening elaborating on both the film and the man. Hoffman had spent months studying Bruce’s material and mannerisms, interviewing his mother and surviving friends. Whenever he spoke about Bruce, he did so with a fondness that was perhaps born of a certain kinship. He also touched upon some of the late Bob Fosse’s directorial choices.
“At the time that Fosse approached me to do Lenny, there was already a guy named Bob Gorman who was doing a Broadway show about Lenny Bruce, and he had the character nailed. I told Fosse, `Why are you talking to me? Haven't you seen Gorman?’ He told me, ‘Yeah, he was my first choice, but the studio wouldn’t give me any money to do the picture unless I had a name attached to it.”
“Oddly enough, Fosse didn’t think that Bruce was all that funny. He wasn’t interested in Bruce’s humor, but he’d heard about the threesome that Lenny and Honey Bruce had with another woman, and that’s what interested Fosse – and it’s probably what still interests him.”
“There was one incident I really wanted to be in the film, but we didn’t film it because of time constraints or whatever. The Judge had warned Bruce that if he uttered any obscenities on stage, he would be arrested again, and the cops were at his shows watching him. So one night he noticed a door next to the stage, and asked ‘where does that door go to?’ A club employee told him ‘That just goes out onto Hollywood Boulevard.’ So Bruce told him ‘I need a microphone with a fifty foot extension cable’. They got him the mike, and he opened the door and went outside with it. He started his show, and there was nobody on the stage. He said, “Ladies and Gentlemen, I’ve been told that if I utter any obscenities on the stage tonight, I’ll be arrested. So I’m standing outside on the corner of Hollywood and Vine. Cock Sucker, Motherfucker!”
“Lenny Bruce was never ‘on’. He wasn’t just up there doing a character or a bit. He was the only comic at the time who would do raw improv from beginning to end. He opened the door for Pryor, Carlin, and everyone else – but he was the sacrificial lamb.”
One of the final scenes in Lenny portrays the comedian’s tragic fall from grace with a ten minute scene of a disheveled Bruce strung out on heroin and desperately rambling, while wearing only a trench coat and one sock on stage.
“We got a bootleg tape from this guy who had seen Lenny that night he lost it. As far as we knew, it was the only tape in existence of it, and what you see in the movie is an exact recreation from what you hear on the tape of that moment where he just fell apart. We were so lucky to get that, it was a real gift. Plus it was a great excuse to get loaded before shooting the scene . . . it was the 70’s, you know.”
When Hoffman left the stage, he left the impression that he could have skipped the film and gone on talking through the rest of the evening. With few exceptions, the crowd would have stayed and listened.
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originally posted: 04/26/03 16:25:43
last updated: 12/30/03 15:53:50