Dustin Hoffman has been in the pantheon of America’s greatest living actors for nearly half a century. But only now has he made his directing debut, with a lovely and funny film called Quartet, about renowned and distinguished octogenarian musicians, living out their final days at a rest home for retired stage folk called Beecham House.
On Wednesday, I spoke to Hoffman about Quartet at a reception following a screening of the film. At 75, with a mane of grey hair and a warm smile, he still looks great.
When I asked him the obvious question, why he waited so long to direct a film, he said he really didn’t know. His wife of more than three decades jumped in with the obvious response: he was too busy. He’s made more than 65 films since his breakout role in The Graduate in 1967.
Hoffman is charming, witty and warm, everything you’d expect. But it’s impossible to talk to him without seeing images of the vivid characters he’s created, like Ratso Rizzo, Ben Braddock and Capt. Hook, floating through your mind. He’s been nominated for seven Oscars and received the gold statuette twice, for Rain Man (1989) and Kramer vs. Kramer (1980).
He’s directed an impressive cast in Quartet, headed by Tom Courtenay, Pauline Collins, Billy Connolly, Maggie Smith and Michael Gambon. The film also features talented and formerly famous musicians, who are in the end credits of the film alongside photographs of them in their prime.
The dialogue by Ronald Harwood, who adapted the script from his 1999 play, is dry and witty, reminiscent of Gosford Park and the television series Downtown Abbey but much funnier. Think The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, but with beautiful classical music and an original score by Dario Marianelli.
Co-incidentally, Smith stars in all three productions I’ve mentioned. And that Marigold Hotel has raked in 134 million dollars at the box office proves there’s a market for movies besides those inhabited by hobbits and superheroes.
Quartet has two main storylines that take place at Beecham House, the exquisite estate turned retirement home. Jean (Smith), a formerly famous opera star as diva-like as Maria Callas, arrives at Beecham House, where her ex-husband Reginald (Courtenay), whom she cheated on a mere nine hours after they wed, is residing. He is still angry, and he is still carrying a torch.
The other story hinges on persuading Jean, who prefers that others remember her voice as it once was, to join a quartet in a performance of Verdi’s Rigoletto at the annual fundraising concert for Beecham. The movie sounds slight, but it’s not. It’s about things that matter, like talents and passions that may change but don’t evaporate with age.
Some of the funniest bits in the film feature Connolly, who is also a stand up comic, and was in Manhattan for a gig at the Beacon Theater on the Upper West Side. The 69 year-old Scottish actor, whose grey hair is shoulder length and which he lets grow “wild” between roles, said he hoped Quartet made people feel better about getting older.
“It’s a lovely piece,” Connolly said of the film, adding about Hoffman, “I think he was a great director.”
Connolly provides comic relief as a randy singer whose recent stroke may have eliminated some of his inhibitions, so he has a ready excuse for hitting on the residents and staff. As for whether the director wanted him to improvise, Connolly said, “I was wildly encouraged to.” He even made up some of the dialogue, including a notable scene where he eats a sandwich and says it “tastes like Christmas.”
Much of the pathos and emotion comes not from words but from the emotions that play across the faces of the distinguished stars of the film. Hoffman told me of acting, “It’s a hundred-year-old art form, and I think it’s taken a while to move away from the spoken word. Ironically, it started out silent, which is pure film. Buster Keaton once said, when I asked him to define movies, that ‘it’s one person looking at another person saying, ‘I love you,’ without the words,’ so in a sense, you try to find a visual and emotional life in the scene that doesn’t depend on the words.”
Retiring is not in the cards for Hoffman. I first met him seven years ago at a tribute in his honor at Lincoln Center. I Heart Huckabees had just come out. He told me during the reception the main thing he was thinking about was getting back to L.A. and on the set of his next film. I asked what enabled him to keep his career going for so long.
“Fear,” he said and smiled. “It’s like what Mel Brooks said 2000 years ago. Fear is what propels you. You see a lion, you go a mile in two minutes. Unemployment gets me.”
Click through to Showbiz411 for my exclusive interview with Hoffman on Quartet.
Photo Credits: Brad Balfour (do not use without permission)