Fresh from Kennedy Center Honors, the actor Dustin Hoffman was promoting his new movie, Quartet, his directorial debut. At a Q&A following a screening last week, the Academy Award-winning actor noted the relationship between acting and directing. When he was starting out, he wanted to direct. He had a dream: You could be the next Kazan, he was told, and he looked for projects to direct. He was supposed to direct Dead Poets Society and be in it. When he hesitated, the role went to Robin Williams. Decades later, he directs Quartet, and was named Best Breakthrough Director at the Hollywood Film Awards. Given that producers have been reluctant to allow him to direct without acting in the movie, he is vindicated, even though at 75, he would fit right in.
The Academy Award-winning Ron Harwood (The Pianist) wrote the Quartet screenplay from his stage play. Said Hoffman, Ron Harwood saw a documentary Tosca's Kiss (1983); Verdi was wealthy and designed a house for retired opera singers. He was inspired by this idea of a retirement home for people who refuse to retire. Hoffman agreed to take on the project, provided they could hire real retired opera singers and musicians. They found a castle outside London and all these 70-, 80-year-olds were entirely professional showing up for long shooting days early each morning. As in the movie, these people are alive again.
Add to Quartet's achievement in showing dignity in aging, stellar performances by the iconic Maggie Smith, as a diva reluctant to enter this retirement home, Billy Connelly, a randy gent in his senior years, Pauline Collins, ditsy in her dotage, and the elegant Tom Courtenay, who starred in both stage play and film of Harwood's The Dresser.
As Hoffman explained to his audience, some directors want you to act exactly as scripted, Hitchcock, for example. Some want those authentic moments. Hoffman watched Gosford Park, Robert Altman's vision of British life upstairs and downstairs. He used hidden cameras to get authentic moments. For Midnight Cowboy, John Schlesinger encouraged actors to improvise. Hoffman as Ratzo Rizzo crossed a crowded Manhattan street, a real street at 6th Avenue midtown. As Ratzo shuffling along with Jon Voigt in cowboy hat and boots, people did not recognize him from The Graduate. They did several takes trying to coordinate everything perfectly as the actors approached the street corner, not seeing a cab coming. Hoffman improvised, "I'm walking here," one of the most famous lines in the movie. He really wanted to say, "Hey, we're making a movie here," but that would have ruined the scene.
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