Dustin Hoffman was giving a restrained and intriguing performance as “Ace” Bernstein, a high-end lawyer who’d taken a prison rap for someone else in HBO’s “Luck,” when the series was abruptly cancelled earlier this year. In a way, the cancellation was symbolic. The career of one of the most extraordinary actors in American cinema was not exactly in decline as much as it was in eclipse — by time, by change, by a film medium that is increasingly threatened by commercial expectations and creative stasis.
But the thing about luck is that you never know when it will turn. Hoffman is making his directorial debut with a Ron Harwood-written film called “Quartet,” and on the heels of the announcement that he’ll receive this year’s fifth annual Mill Valley Film Festival Award came the news that he’s one of the recipients of this year’s Kennedy Center Awards.
All of this has to be good news indeed for the 75-year-old two-time Oscar winner who’s had to experience what it’s like to pass out of the spotlight of a youth-obsessed culture.
“It’s difficult in one sense, ” Hoffman says. “When you’re a young lead, you’re the life of the picture. When you age into supporting roles, it’s a relief not to have to carry it on your shoulders, but if you’re not Redford or Beatty, you have to look elsewhere to be able to feel you’re doing something more.”
Hence “Quartet.” Based on “Tosca’s Kiss,” the 1985 Daniel Schmid documentary about retired Italian opera singers living in the Casa Riposo per Musicisti (aka “Casa Verdi”) in Milan, “Quartet” is relocated to a manorial house in the English countryside, where Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Michael Gambon and Billy Connolly reunite as former operatic greats who remain great in spirit long after the applause has died down.
“I saw ‘Casa Verdi’ and thought it was a fresh look at people who become invisible because of their age,” says Hoffman. “There’s an 83-year-old guy who plays a mean jazz trumpet. Someone else who heard it told me he couldn’t believe the guy was really playing, but he was.”
It seems a natural and long overdue choice for Hoffman to get into directing. As an actor, he’s always possessed an unusual capacity for the critical overview, which has often, and famously put him at odds with directors.
“He can’t distinguish between a pimple and a tumor,” said the late Arthur Penn, after directing Hoffman in “Little Big Man.” “Everything includes his total attention. He has the kind of meticulousness that doesn’t settle with ‘OK, let’s just get it in the can.’ It does take a disproportionate amount of time and space.”
Terrence Rafferty, former New Yorker film critic and current New York Times contributor, observed of Hoffman, “He’s smarter than most other actors and probably smarter than a lot of the directors he’s worked with, too. The quality that makes an actor great is his capacity for surprise. He has that to a greater degree than anyone I know.”
Earlier in his career, Hoffman experienced unusual timing in roles that mirrored the age. “The Graduate” caught the tenor of a ’60s generation wary of corporate suburban life, while “Kramer vs. Kramer” revealed the post-war, post-’50s discovery of agonizing marital discord. In “Midnight Cowboy,” his Ratso Rizzo expressed the desperation of the urban underbelly. “All the President’s Men” fired up a generation of eager investigative journalists. “Tootsie” caught the updraft of rising feminist consciousness in media-saturated America. “Wag the Dog” evoked the vigorous cynicism of the Clinton era, where reality itself became showbiz illusion.
Mark Fishkin, founder and executive director of the Mill Valley Film Festival, vividly recalls Hoffman’s 1985 performance in “Death of a Salesman.”
“I came away asking, ‘Is Willy Loman less powerful than ‘Lawrence of Arabia’? To see Dustin play an Everyman and how he conveys pain that jumps off the screen — it was an iconic performance.”
The 20th century has played itself out, but not its themes. Willy Loman is back on Broadway, first with Brian Dennehy, more recently with Phillip Seymour Hoffman. The old is not exactly new again, but new to a boomer generation being eased aside into unfamiliar shadowlands. And there, Hoffman expresses them once again. Only this time, as he says, “I don’t have to ask permission.”
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