Dustin Hoffman just wants to tell one more story.
His day of interviews in Toronto is running terribly behind schedule, and a small flock of PR flacks are now smiling tensely as they work to extract a journalist out of Hoffman’s hotel suite so that he might move on to his next brief encounter. But the star has never been one to take direction; and besides, he hates to stop the show.
And so, even as one reporter is being ushered out and another brought in, Hoffman continues to hold court for whoever might still be listening: He spools out a vulgar joke that begins with a mention of wild sex and ends with a punch line about the excretory challenges of aged men. Boom.
He laughs, as much at the joke itself as at the way he’s managed to craft an impish, isn’t-he-naughty moment. At 75 (yes, Benjamin Braddock is 75) , Hoffman is still trying to avoid the transition from middle-aged scamp to demure senior citizen. But then, the tension between those phases of life is part of the reason he’s here, at the most recent edition of the Toronto International Film Festival: to promote a film about aging performers who have plenty of ribald life left in them yet.
It is fitting, then, that Quartet, which opens Friday, should be his feature film directorial debut. A gentle-hearted adaptation of a stage play by Ronald Harwood (The Pianist), the film brings together Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, and Pauline Collins as retired opera singers who stage an annual charity concert to benefit their underfunded residence. Much of the drama revolves around whether Smith’s character, an ex-diva newly arrived at the home, will be able to overcome her shame at no longer being in her prime, and step back on stage.
“Is that a reason to stop?” asks Hoffman rhetorically after everyone else has left the room. “This is what the film is to me, it’s the spine of the film. Who gives a rat’s ass if you can’t hit the top notes? Look at Tony Bennett – he don’t hit ’em no more. And he’s touring in his 80s, you can hear, and they bring [the key] down.”
This is how Hoffman speaks, in a familiar gravelly sing-song that toggles between a stuttering start-stop of words and an impressionistic flood of thoughts and images and notions that don’t always present themselves in perfectly turned sentences.
“There is a shift, I think, a seismic shift, I’m not alone,” he says, meaning as a film director working in his twilight years. “I mean, there’s Manoel de Oliveira, directing in Portugal, he’s (104) now. I read in the paper, this guy ran a triathalon, he’s 93, and he’s like, ‘I’m gonna’ keep doing it until I get too old.’ Is it fair to say you can live a parallel life to your real life, so you’re living behind your [chronological] age? It’s a shock to me – the reality of it, the cold stark reality shocks me when I see it in print: ‘75.’ What?! If I see that about anyone else, I say, ‘Oh, he’s old.’ You know – the number. To myself, it doesn’t – because in my mind’s eye, it doesn’t feel like it.”
According to his cast, Hoffman had the energy of a much younger man on the set, though that may be in part because he’d been eyeing a way back into the director’s chair for decades. He’d been in it once before, when he began production on the 1978 prison drama Straight Time, in which he was starring. But he was in over his head – directing himself was tough without the modern tool of instant playback – and he brought in Ulu Grosbard to finish the picture.
He has developed other scripts since then, but nothing had come to fruition until a colleague passed along Harwood’s play. “I just jumped on it, because I know what it is to be a performer,” he explains.
For such a notoriously showy actor, Hoffman has directed Quartet with a surprisingly light touch. When I mention this contrast with much of his acting work, and the way he conducts himself as a public figure, Hoffman says, “I like to get away with what I can get away with.” Then he tees up a story.
“Georgia O’Keeffe was asked, ‘Why do you make those paintings so big?’ She says, ‘Because when you go into a gallery there’s a lot of other people’s works. I want you to look at mine first.’ You know. So I’m sure that’s in me.
“Olivier said it better than anybody I’ve ever heard say it. When we had dinner after Marathon Man, and I said to him what you’re saying – we’re eating dinner, ’cause he had every malady that you can have – gout, and cancer, my God, he was like a soldier on the battlefield, and I said, ‘Why do we do what we do? Why do we do it?’ Forget about ‘Oh, I got a message to give,’ – he says, Oh, bollocks [to that]. ‘It’s in me.’ – ‘Oh, bollocks.’ I said, ‘Why?’ And he was sitting this close to me – I’ll do to you what he did to me.” Hoffman pulls his seat close, puts his face about three inches from mine, and stares hard into my eyes. “And he says, ‘Why do we do it? Look-at-me look-at-me look-at-me look-at-me look-at-me look-at-me look-at-me!’ And no one’s ever said it better. That’s the actor!”
A publicist comes in to give a two-minute warning, and I tell Hoffman I’m about to get yanked from the room.
“Don’t let them!” he yelps. “What happens if you disagree, and you just stay?”
I respond that they may never let me talk to him again.
“But I don’t work that much!” he says, chuckling.
Ten minutes later, Hoffman finally stops waving away the publicist, and gets up to walk me to the door, muttering as he does so about the frustrations of promoting a movie in this manner. But he’s not done; now he wants to ask me some questions – about my work, my writing.
He listens for a minute. Something I say reminds him of a writer he hired to work on a script he wanted to direct. He asks with a smile, “Shall I tell you a quick story?”
And so he does.