TORONTO — Dustin Hoffman could be saying anything right now. He could be talking about his acting career, an astonishing body of stage and screen work that spans more than half a century; or “Quartet,” which marks his film directing debut; or his suit — the suit is sharp. The point is, it wouldn’t matter. If you’re a woman of a certain age, sharing a hotel sofa with the star of “The Graduate,” all you hear is “Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me.” You’re only human.
Hoffman may be 75 now, silver-haired and miles past vaulting into an Alfa Romeo convertible, but he still looks enough like Benjamin Braddock, the tortured lover-stalker who won a generation of hearts when he pleaded “Elaine!,” for you to be transported straight back to 1967 every time he speaks. He’s perpetually captured in the A-frame of Anne Bancroft’s stockinged leg, though that hasn’t stopped him from immortalizing a host of other memorable characters: Ratso Rizzo in “Midnight Cowboy,” Carl Bernstein in “All the President’s Men,” Dorothy Michaels in “Tootsie,” even Chuck Clarke in “Ishtar.” He has seven Oscar nominations under his belt, with two wins (best actor, “Kramer vs. Kramer” and “Rain Man”).
Now Hoffman has finally ventured behind the camera. “Quartet” is Ronald Harwood’s adaptation of his stage play about an idyllic retirement home for opera singers and musicians. The cast includes Maggie Smith, Pauline Collins, Tom Courtenay, and Billy Connolly as performers who struggle to recapture the magic of their once-exemplary “Rigoletto.” The film is a sweet geriatric tonic that should play in theaters for months, if “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” is any barometer, and there’s one question that Hoffman is constantly being asked about his job change.
“I can’t tell you why it took so long because I’m still working that out with my therapist. It goes under the heading of Demons,” he said during a post-screening Q&A last fall in Toronto.
“I decided a long time ago [to direct],” he told a gathering of press at the London Film Festival in December. “Sometimes it takes you 40 years to get around to doing something.”
However he finally got here, it’s clear that this is Hoffman’s time both to reinvent the present and celebrate the past. Recently he was a Kennedy Center Honoree, sitting next to the Obamas and receiving shout-outs from esteemed friends and colleagues such as Robert De Niro. And when he sat down to be interviewed the morning after “Quartet” premiered to a thunderous ovation at the Toronto International Film Festival, he was as giddy as a debutante.
Talk about seductive . . .
Q. So, do you plan on unveiling any other talents at 75?
A. You want to know the truth? As much as I’ve loved this experience and want to do it again, I originally wanted to be a jazz pianist. I studied classical and jazz — wasn’t very good, that’s why I didn’t become that (I didn’t have a good ear, I couldn’t pick stuff up quickly) — and if God were to tap me on the shoulder and say, “OK, you’re a jazz pianist, but you can never do any more directing, acting, or anything,” I’d still say yes in a second.
Q. About that house that was featured in the movie, what I want to know is: When can I move in?
A. Here’s the thing: Ron Harwood was inspired by a documentary called “Tosca’s Kiss.” Verdi was extremely successful toward the end of his life, he had amassed a fortune, and he built this mansion, of which he actually said, “This is the best thing I’ve ever done in my life.” Not the operas; this was the best thing he did. And he put it in his will that after he passed, all these singers and musicians who no longer have work can live there. And we tried to replicate the fact that, no, this is not a nursing home, this is an exceptional place. We changed it from the Verdi House, which still exists in Milan, to the Beecham House.
Q. The idea of making such a place for talented people to live out their days still practicing their craft . . . it’s inspired.
A. [Nodding] Once we decided to use real opera singers and retired musicians, it became for everyone an extraordinary experience because the spine of the movie was in the making of it, because no one had knocked on these people’s doors. They had been first-rate and suddenly they’re just invisible.
Q. The movie promotes this beautiful idea that art has a way of prolonging life. Is it safe to say that’s something you believe in?
A. Yes. And I would say art in the broadest sense, because you can make an art out of anything, and it deepens the more that you work at it.Continued...