Saturday, October 21, 2006

London Film Festival: Dustin Hoffman Screen Talk

When I booked my ticket to hear Dustin Hoffman give an interview with Channel 5's Kirsty Young I wasn't quite sure what to expect. The actor has quite a reputation, and I particularly remember some scathing comments by screenwriter William Goldman that implied the last thing Hoffman would turn out to be is self-deprecating

As I got up to leave what turned out to be more than an hour and a half of talk from Hoffman I heard the lady behind me comment "That was pretty intense". And indeed it was! It was also intelligent.. and honest.. and emotional (Hoffman struggled to keep back the tears a couple of times). Most importantly of all it was very entertaining. The actor, by his own admission, has demons, and some of those were clearly on display at times, but his honesty about those demons was quite breath-taking. The time flew by and I came away more of a fan of the actor as a person than I expected to be when I went in.

Kirsty Young (barely recognisable - looking like she'd had botox and it had gone horribly wrong, but maybe it's just too long since I've seen her on TV?!) did a fantastic job as interviewer. She had obviously prepared well but Hoffman is one of those people who starts off talking reluctantly and then a thought triggers another thought and another and fifteen minutes later he's still telling great anecdotes. Young had the wit to realise what her role was, throw away the elaborate notes and detailed questions, and just steer Hoffman in the general chronoligical direction she wanted to go. A weaker interviewer wouldn't have thrown away her research and would have tried to impose her own agenda.

Alas the same couldn't be said of the audience questions. Thankfully far more intelligent than those at Comic-Con or other 'fan'-oriented events, and this was mainly a rather intense 'film luvvie' crowd, but why do people think that when they have the floor they have to repeat the question six or seven times interspersed with their own long rambling opinions as if they were at a private dinner party with the guest, rather than in a room full of people waiting to hear the actor speak?

Hoffman said too much to repeat here and I wasn't taking notes, but the overall event was one of him being very self-depracating and telling lots of good anecdotes about his career and the actors he'd worked with.

When asked what he'd like to achieve by his next birthday he was unusually brief and concise: " to direct a film, or at least finish directing a film. I started one but never finished it.", before going on to say "And I'd like to feel less guilty about my success". He also quoted Sir Ralph Richardson who, when asked the same question at the age of 80, had said something about wanting to learn "a bit more about acting."

He was very complimentary about most actors he'd worked with, commenting eg on how he expected Will Ferrell in his new movie Stranger than Fiction to give a 'performance rather than act' and found himself embarrassed when Ferrell was not only acting but showing him he needed to raise his game to be on the same level. And he reminded us of the lack of age difference between himself and Anne Bancroft in The Graduate. "I was thirty. She was thirty-five. That's good acting!" he paused, "... and very good lighting!"

There was lots of discussion about the Hollywood machine but I thought Hoffman made some great points about how although it was a different industry now things hadn't changed in the way actors and writers were treated. He quoted a Marx Brothers story where 'the best and most famous comedians in the world were doing a movie and yet the producers just kept complaining that a movie set in a department store wouldn't work'. He then went on to highlight one key difference today: "I don't think bad work got applauded the way it does today just because it makes money at the box office". As someone who reads the likes of Empire or Total Film and wonders how dreck like Pirates of the Carribean 2 or the last three Star Wars movies can get four or five star 'reviews', it's a sentiment I wholeheartedly agree with.

One anecdote he told, albeit in a 'probably much funnier when you were there hearing it from him' way, was about Sir John Gielgud and the story he'd heard about a play that the actor absolutely loathed, but couldn't get out of. Apparently one night he finally broke and in the middle of a speech stopped and, suddenly wheezing and sounding very hoarse asked 'Is there a doctor in the house?'. 'Yes. I'm a doctor', shouted a voice from the back. 'Doctor,', said Gielgud, 'Don't you think this play's a pile of shit?'.

All-in-all the talk was a real treat for movie fans, and a great way to spend a Saturday afternoon!


Nigel said...

Sounds like a good session. You don't hang about before posting your reviews, do you?

Ian said...

With my memory (the "senior" moments seem to increase by the day) I don't dare hang about!