TORONTO -- When you make your directorial debut at the age of 75, as Dustin Hoffman has done with the upcoming “Quartet,” the first question people naturally ask is: What took you so long?
But in fact, Hoffman began one of his favorite movies, the 1978 character study of a career criminal, “Straight Time,” behind the camera as well as in front of it. However, since video assist playback had not yet become a prevalent filmmaking tool, Hoffman ultimately hired another director, Ulu Grosbard, because he couldn’t watch his takes after shooting them.
Remembers Hoffman: “We were at Folsom Prison, and I would do a take, even if it was just walking across the yard, and ask the DP, ‘How was that?’ And he’d say, ‘We gotta do it again.’ And the editor, Sam O’Steen, who did ‘The Graduate,’ would say, ‘No. It was good. Let’s move on.’ And they were in constant disagreement. I didn’t know what to do.”
“It was a coward’s way out to fire myself,” says Hoffman, who it was announced Wednesday will be among seven recipients of the annual Kennedy Center Honors on Dec. 2. “But that’s what I did. It didn’t stop Orson Welles or any of those guys not being able to see themselves in a take. But it unnerved me. I may have been looking for an excuse. It’s closer to that answer. Because why did it take another 35 years?”
The answer to that, many assume, has to do with “Quartet’s” story of aging artists, in this case, musicians and opera singers, discovering that artistic rejuvenation and satisfaction can be attained at any age. Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly and Pauline Collins star in the film, which premiered at Toronto and will arrive in theaters Dec. 28.
“People are always asking me if I made this because I’m 75,” Hoffman says. “‘Did you make this because you’re feeling older?’ And my wife, who I’ve been with for 35 years, says, ‘You have been saying that you feel old from the day I met you. Oh, my God, all you were talking about was that you were going to be 40. It’s over. It’s over. You’re going to be 50. It’s over. It’s over.’”
“Sixty was the first time I stopped saying it,” Hoffman adds. “There was a sense of freedom.” He pauses and grins. “And I still feel that way today.”