Soaking up success

Failure, it turns out, is never far from Dustin Hoffman’s mind, and it doesn’t take much to get the 71-year-old actor reminiscing about the decade he spent in his 20s in New York when almost every audition ended in rejection and he had to reconcile his ambition with his inability to land acting jobs.

“You’re saying to yourself that you think that you have talent and maybe people that you respect are echoing this, like your teacher,” he explains. “But you haven’t painted anything, so people can’t look at your painting. And you are living in a kind of private insane asylum, wondering, ‘Am I deluding myself?”

The two-time Oscar winner’s point isn’t about self-delusion but about failure having its place in his personal mythology. For Hoffman, it’s the penumbra of desperation that makes victory sweeter. In fact, he credits luck as much as diligence for his success and still feels fortunate that director Mike Nichols was willing to cast the almost 30-year-old Hoffman in his career-making role in “The Graduate,” although the script called for a blond, blue-eyed WASP. (“I always thought there was a kind of cloaked racism in what we call leading men,” says Hoffman, speaking about the casting practices of a studio system that was crumbling as he was coming of age as an actor.)

It’s a recent Saturday afternoon, and Hoffman is having a burger at the Casa del Mar hotel overlooking the ocean in Santa Monica, or rather he’s insisted on sharing a burger and eating French fries off this reporter’s plate. Dressed in jeans and a shirt, he maintains the air of a prosperous paterfamilias rather than the wiry kinetics of his youth. He is almost immediately intimate, and he likes to talk and talk and talk -- seemingly to everybody who crosses his purview.


Failure, missed opportunities, longing and loss are on the discussion menu today because they’re the subtext of his new movie opening on Christmas, “Last Chance Harvey,” a kind of final-shot-at-love movie featuring Hoffman and fellow Oscar winner Emma Thompson as two middle-aged people more comfortable with disappointment and failed expectations than the potential of happiness. Watching them share the screen is similar to seeing two pros waltz effortlessly. Part of their on-screen ease, says Hoffman, comes from the fact that they are playing characters “close to ourselves.” The duo had become friends on the set of their 2006 film, “Stranger Than Fiction,” and wanted to re-create the rapport they developed on the set -- the “us just hanging out,” as Hoffman describes it -- in a film where, as actors, they “could just go where the wind took us.”

Hoffman plays a New York jingle writer with a failed marriage and an estranged daughter, trying desperately to cling to his job. The character is a reasonable facsimile of the person Hoffman might have become if he had tried to follow his first love: jazz piano. As Hoffman grew up in L.A. in the 1950s, his parents insisted that he take classical piano lessons. In high school, he started listening to and playing jazz, which infuriated his parents, “and that kind of stopped me” from playing, he explains. “But my love [for music] didn’t stop, just my ability to embrace it.”

If he’d kept on that track, “it’s very possible that I would have wound up writing jingles,” says Hoffman. For a spirit like his, that would have been devastating, like a Shakespearean actor forced to play soap operas. “It’s bad enough not to be doing what your passion is,” says the actor. “It’s twice as painful to be doing something that’s within the work of what your passion is. The very work itself demeans what you love.”

Talking to Hoffman becomes like listening to a fugue about desire that persists through adversity and about perfecting one’s craft. It’s a melody about hanging out with his buddies Gene Hackman and Robert Duvall in the ‘50s, when they were all struggling unknowns. “We were competitive about what we were studying,” says Hoffman, recalling their different acting teachers. “We would almost get in fistfights, because Bobby [Duvall] was studying with Sandy Meisner and I was studying with [Lee] Strasberg and Hackman was studying with George Morrison.”


Stories tumble out of Hoffman, as do digressions on film performances he’s watched recently, like Ginger Rogers in the comedy “5th Ave. Girl,” or Barry Sullivan in Jules Dassin’s black-and-white masterpiece “Naked City.” But they’re not all random musings -- Hoffman is trying to make a point through an accumulation of detail. Almost all the anecdotes involve moments when truth intersects with filmmaking, when reality informs the art.

Like the famous scene in 1969’s “Midnight Cowboy,” when Hoffman as the creepy, crippled con man Ratso Rizzo walks down the street with his friend, the strapping Texas buck played by Jon Voight. The filmmakers had no permits to take over an entire New York City block, so director John Schlesinger had rigged up a hidden camera in a van and radio-miked the actors. It was finally going well after about 15 takes when a cab almost hit them as they crossed the street. “It went through a red light,” and Hoffman, as Rizzo, screamed out with fearful fury: “I’m walking here!”

“Now that is kind of a signature moment in that movie,” he says. “That was me reacting very angrily, partly out of fear because we almost got hit but also because he was ruining the take . . . I really wanted to say, ‘We’re shooting here! . . . And you are ruining it!’ ” Luckily, he was able to react honestly and still keep in character. “And when that happens . . . it’s the gift of movies.”

Or the time he put first put his hand on Anne Bancroft’s breast during a rehearsal for “The Graduate.” Prodded by director Nichols, Hoffman had dredged up his memory of his first make-out session, when he was so self-conscious that without any kissing or foreplay, he simply reached out and stuck his hand on his girl’s breast in an almost abstract gesture. Hoffman re-created the awkward moment with Bancroft, who, in character as Mrs. Robinson, pointedly ignored him. This caused the actor to start laughing uncontrollably, completely breaking character. He was so afraid of displeasing his director and costar that he turned his back on them and began knocking his head on the wall to try to get himself to stop. Nichols put the whole bit into the film. “Now that, I would say, is a bit of genius,” says Hoffman.


As Hoffman rhapsodizes about his career, the sun is setting over the Pacific, casting its dusky glow over the sand, bathing the actor in autumnal light. After 40 years in show business, he’s acutely aware that there are only a certain numbers of performances left and how precious it is when the drama works. “What a collaborative adventure it is,” he ultimately says. Then tears appear unexpectedly in his eyes. “I don’t mean to be emotional,” he says, his voice husky. Yet this is his art form, when artists improvise with their psyches, with their truths, effortlessly sparking one another. He sighs: “It’s as close to the jazz experience as you can get.”