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The role is still the thing for Hoffman

Published Oct. 2, 2005

(ran GB edition)

Dustin Hoffman should not be an intimidating person to meet.

He is not what one would call staggering in stature. He is not rude and does not speak loudly or with great venom. He never hits anyone and, according to show business legend, there is absolutely nothing to fear as long as you're not his director.

But there remains the considerable power of the Dustin Hoffman mystique. He has been a Hollywood icon since he burst onto the scene in the 1967 classic The Graduate. His career has been peppered with some of the finest performances in the history of the cinema, not the least of which came in the movies Kramer vs. Kramer and Rain Man, both of which won him an Oscar.

Along with the great performances has come an image of an incredibly intense actor, often brooding and always complex.

He has been described as difficult. He admits to being a perfectionist. He is one of those "New York actors," whose devotion to the "method" style of acting occasionally sends him into a trance-like state as he searches for the essence of his character.

And the last thing an interviewer needs is a brooding actor in a trancelike state.

So it was not a happy moment when a tanned but tired Hoffman, looking younger than his 60 years, walked into a hotel suite in Beverly Hills to promote his new film, Mad City, which opens today, and immediately went into a trancelike state.

After shaking hands, his head turned downward and he stared for what seemed an eternity at the floor. It was Rain Man all over again.

The moments passed like a visit to the periodontist. The interviewer wondered if Hoffman would ever come out of this state, or at least if he would come out of it in time for a question to be asked. The interviewer also wondered what the actor was thinking. What important subject could keep his brilliant mind so occupied?

Finally, the actor's actor began to speak. His head was still tilted downward but his lips were moving.

"Cool shoes," he said enthusiastically before looking up and smiling.

"Thanks," a bewildered interviewer wearing the two-tone wingtip shoes said.

"You have some questions for me?"

In Mad City, directed by Oscar-winner Costa-Gavras (Missing, State of Siege and Z), Hoffman plays a still-aggressive but down-on-his-luck TV reporter who sees his chance to return to the big time when a disgruntled museum security officer (John Travolta) snaps and takes a group of children hostage.

Hoffman's character, once a bright light in the big city but now forced to endure the indignities of a non-network existence, manages to insert himself into the middle of his local story, which has now become a national story.

The plot might remind some of the 1951 film The Big Carnival's or even the lesser-known 1985 movie The Legend of Billie Jean's, both of which dealt with the role of the media in society. For Hoffman, the story is irrelevant.

"I don't go out and seek scripts; the scripts come to me and I have to decide which ones I want to pursue, regardless of the story," he said. "I look for someone fresh to play and this character seemed fresh to me.

"I look at a character in a certain way, and that is, I try to see how I would compromise myself in this guy's situation. I want to see if I can find that part of myself that is like this guy so that I can identify with him and not just play him as a good guy or a bad guy. I don't want to be caught playing a cliche."

But Hoffman, a six-time Oscar nominee, said that doesn't mean he is without an opinion on what his new movie is trying to say about the media.

"There is a temptation to simply indict the media (in this movie) but I can't indict the media," he said. "That would be too easy. In our society, we want simplistic answers; we want a good guy and a bad guy. We want someone to root for and someone to hiss at. But I think it goes a lot deeper than that.

"We have always been a society of gossipers. We have always wanted to know the worst of each other. That's what prejudice is all about. We have a need to hear bad stuff about each other because it gives us the illusion of elevating ourselves over other people.

"What may be different these days, and what may be behind all this recent debate about the media, is the technology. It has enabled us to bring out the worst in ourselves at a much faster pace. News about tragedies and celebrities are thrown at us at an unbelievable pace. It's massive for the minute and then it's gone, only to be replaced by a new tragedy and a new celebrity. We're not getting time to think or grieve, and that's a shame. But I don't think that's ever going to change."

The Los Angeles-born Hoffman (named by his mother after silent-film star Dustin Farnum) is strongly identified with the New York City acting scene, but he didn't move East until his graduation in 1958 from the Pasadena Playhouse.

When he got to the Big Apple, he slept on the kitchen floor of another struggling actor, Gene Hackman. The two actors, along with yet another young thespian, Robert Duvall, became fast friends and together searched for work.

"If anyone had told us that we would have been successful, we would have laughed in their face," Hoffman said. "We were anything but successful actors in those days. I was a waiter, Hackman was a mover and Duvall worked at the post office. We didn't dream of being rich and famous; we dreamed of finding a job. That's all.

"It was a time of terrible rejection, and we hated being rejected. It got to the point that we used to leave our 8-by-10s at the door of casting agents, knock and run, just so we wouldn't have to be rejected face-to-face again.

"It was so discouraging that I seriously considered quitting and becoming an acting teacher at a university. Then someone suggested me for an off-off-Broadway role and I got it. A year later, based on that first role, I got another role. Then sometime later, I got another role. And that got me to the attention of Mike Nichols."

Nichols, of course, was the director of The Graduate. Looking at that important film today, it seems impossible that anyone besides Hoffman could have played the role of a naive college graduate who goes to extraordinary lengths for the love of his life, getting seduced by Mrs. Robinson in the process.

But Nichols was roundly criticized at the time for casting the unknown and (according to Hollywood standards) unappealing actor with the big nose and nasal voice.

"I didn't know all this at the time," Hoffman said with a slight smile that only partially hid the lingering pain, "but apparently there were a lot of private screenings before the movie's release.

"At each screening, Hollywood executives would come up to Mike and say, "What a great film you almost had; it's a shame you cast that funny-looking guy in the lead. He kills the picture.'

"That's what everybody was saying at the time," the actor added. "The book described my character as a tall, blond WASP who was a track star. Nichols showed a lot of courage in casting me. Or he had committed one of the great self-destructive acts of all time.

"And frankly, it didn't open to great reviews or lines around the block. It looked like everybody was right and he was wrong. Then something happened; the movie just started to build a following and then it was a hit. So Mike's self-destructive act backfired on him."

Hoffman doesn't worry about his place in Hollywood history. He doesn't worry about being forgotten. He knows he'll be forgotten.

"I'm pretty cynical about that," he said matter-of-factly. "Listen, my grandmother talked about George Arliss and Paul Muni, and nobody talks about them anymore. Nobody even talks about Marlon Brando's early work anymore.

"I know who my icons were and they have been forgotten. Bigger people than me have been forgotten and so will I.

"But that has never been important to me. I just wanted to work. That's all. I'll look back on my career and remember a couple of moments when I nailed it and a couple of moments when I learned something.

"That's all acting is about. You nail something, you learn something and then it's over."