Hoffman out of self-imposed exile

Compelling `Moonlight' drew him back to scene

October 01, 2002|By Ron Dicker | Ron Dicker,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

TORONTO - He once defined a generation. Now he fears one.

Dustin Hoffman sips a beer in an empty ballroom and recalls a recent meeting with a hot young director. They hit if off for 1 1/2 hours until Hoffman brought up Tennessee Williams. The director gave him a blank look. It dawned on Hoffman that the director didn't know who Tennessee Williams was.

"This generation scares the [daylights] out of me," the 65-year-old Hoffman says in an interview to promote Moonlight Mile, his first movie in three years. The film, which had its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival Sept. 9, opens in Baltimore Friday. In it, Hoffman plays a disconnected father who must confront the death of his daughter.

Hoffman's exile from movies was self-imposed. He hated the parts studios were offering. He fancied himself a king of independent film but says the indie kingdom couldn't believe he was interested.

Hoffman once used his craft to defy authority and conventional wisdom. After Hollywood trotted out eras of granite-jawed he-men, Hoffman seemed to be the first leading man not descended from the Mayflower. He was 5-foot-6, beak-nosed and nasal-voiced.

His Academy Award-nominated portrayal of Benjamin in 1967's The Graduate made it cool to be an anti-establishment dork. He showed that highfalutin concepts about Method acting could be applied to popular movies. He nailed the pathos of the wheezing Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy. His Oscar victories for the custody-warring dad in Kramer vs. Kramer and the autistic savant in Rain Man solidified his reputation.

He is one star who wants to enjoy his beer and leave the historical perspective to others.

"Who altered the face of acting in my generation? [Marlon] Brando and [Montgomery] Clift," Hoffman says. "Who knows about their work today? It's liberating to know there is no such thing as a legacy."

Hoffman isn't angry. He doesn't feel forgotten. He's merely making the point that, with a limited number of years ahead of him in this business, he's free to do as he chooses without the shackles of what he did before. He is asked what he sees himself doing for the next 10 years. Slightly offended, he reminds his inquisitor that Bunuel directed films into his 80s.

"Writing, directing, acting, the pursuit of things you keep putting off until you realize you can see the end of the tunnel, and you don't want to put them off anymore," he says. "There's an awareness that you are awakened and no longer chained to a maniac [meaning testosterone]. The idea of power and ambition have altered a bit, and the quality of your life becomes more important."

Some of the same themes emerge in Moonlight Mile. Hoffman and his formidable screen wife, played by Susan Sarandon, agonize over the murder of their daughter. They begin a chummy relationship with her fiance (Jake Gyllenhaal), who has moved in with them during the trial.

Director Brad Silberling loosely based his story on the death of his fiancee, actress Rebecca Schaeffer (from the TV sitcom My Sister Sam), who was shot by stalker Robert Bardo in 1989.

Hoffman found the material compelling enough to return after a series of interviews with young directors. He then took on a John Grisham thriller called The Runaway Jury that will be released next year. Now he is developing Scott Turow's potboiler Personal Injuries, enlisting old friends Gene Hackman and Robert Duvall.

Until recently, Hoffman seemed more on the Irving Thalberg Award track than a candidate for another acting Oscar. He last appeared on the big screen in 1998's Sphere. His last Oscar-nominated role was as a Hollywood producer in the 1997 political satire Wag the Dog.

His first nomination, 35 years ago, was the true shocker. Director Mike Nichols ignored The Graduate author Charles Webb's characterization of Benjamin as a 6-foot track star and debating team champion. Industry types rich enough to have a home theater received a copy of the film, and most offered a thumbs-down.

At the time, Hoffman was auditioning for Broadway and building a rejection file that would later be his inspiration for Tootsie.

When he and Graduate co-star Anne Bancroft were asked to pose nude for the poster, he feared the film would be dumped into art-house oblivion. It nearly was. He remembers no one laughing at the premiere.

"That film slowly grew, and the perception of what was American slowly grew," he says. "The American male was personified in a lack of ethnicity. It came out of an artificial construct that ironically was created by Eastern European Jewish men [the heads of the major studios], who somehow created a reality devoid of their own heritage."

Hoffman is 22 years into his second marriage and has four children. Counterculture at this point is probably the local diner. But he wonders about the priorities of actors today.

"It's unnerving," he says. "I come from a generation where one apologized for things that are considered legitimate now. You didn't admit if you were going to be in a B movie. There was a need to be an artist. On a certain level, it was a pretense. The conceit was to be anti-establishment."

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