Acting His Age continued

"They're asking us to feel the same way about the mortality prospects of our work," he continues. "It's an attack levied at stars, who are by definition egomaniacal. They say it about Streisand, calling her a control freak. It's silly—she's making a movie, financing it, carrying it on her back. If it fails, she takes the rap.

Hoffmans' deep and lasting sympathy for his characters goes far toward explaining his particular genius as an actor.




TOOTSIE (1982)

"I've read that I'm 'difficult,'" Hoffman deadpans. "I know of only two occasions, STRAIGHT TIME and TOOTSIE, where I've had that problem on a film. And it happens all the time; my two got reported because the directors chose to speak about it publicly. What isn't reported is that I wasn't just the actor, I was the producer."

He explains that there are two kinds of projects. "In one you're a hired hand. You read the script and you give your notes, and then you take the money and run. There's nothing wrong with that. Or, you initiate the project and it really is yours.

TOOTSIE was as autobiographical as anything I ever worked on, though satirically so.
Sydney [Pollack] and I did have our difficulties, but they were about the script. We actually had a wonderful relationship on the set"—a wry smile—"in the chrysalis of being in hell."

Indeed, Hoffman even asked Pollack to direct RAIN MAN. Both Martin Brest and Steven Spielberg had backed out of the film—ironically, says Hoffman, because they weren't happy with the script. Pollack "really struggled with it, wrote a whole treatise, put in a tremendous amount of time. But he couldn't find a way to connect himself with it." By this point, United Artists was getting antsy and the project was in danger of foundering. Finally, Barry Levinson took over the reins from Pollack, and the result, declares Hoffman, was a "dream experience"—albeit one 18 months in the making. Were it not for Hoffman's tenacity, however, it's doubtful the movie would have been shot at all.

"You know, if you said, 'It shouldn't take 10 years to do the Sistine Chapel,' that would be an absurd statement," Hoffman points out. "Or if you say, 'It shouldn't have taken Joseph Heller 10 years to write Catch-22,' it's absurd. So, 'It shouldn't take so long to make a movie'—well it did. And what you see on the screen should stand on its own.

There's no greater feeling in my line of work than if you've had an 'experience,'" Hoffman explains, "when your character makes you cry for it. I used to have that with 'TOOTSIE'—that woman made me cry. She does to this day. It took me closer, somehow—I understood something I hadn't before. And I felt the same way about RAIN MAN. I got in there. I had an experience." As he speaks, his eyes begin to well with tears.

Hoffman grew up in Los Angeles, the younger brother, studied classical piano, became an actor, moved to New York.
Scraping for jobs, getting notices, he had talent, a future—and then he was dying. Third-degree burns from a freak kitchen fire on his legs and arms—you can see the scars—and Hoffman was lying in a hospital, his card marked "terminal." He was there a month, hooked on Demerol, looking out the hospital window and watching people waiting for the bus on those hot August afternoons. And thinking, "When I get out of here, I will never take life for granted again. I'll never waste a moment." (He'd always done a lot of sleeping between jobs.)

Then he got out of the hospital. "And by the second week I was back in bed. It doesn't make a bit of difference, brushes with death."

On another occasion, Hoffman was nearly electrocuted by an improperly grounded lamp. His last thoughts, he recalls, were about the ignominy attached to dying in such a banal manner. For someone as sensitive and self-dramatizing as Hoffman, these are remarkable admissions, especially when compared to the way he talks about his work. Had either of these crises occurred on a stage, one suspects he might still be feeling the jolt.

A young Hoffman with his father.
Such emotional contrast—seeming diffidence toward his own fate, deep and lasting sympathy for the fate of his characters—goes far toward explaining Hoffman's particular genius as an actor. Not because he fits the cliche about the artist who can't feel anything outside his work—far from that. It's more that Hoffman has so frequently chosen film parts as vehicles for his personal growth, an elaborate form of Gestalt therapy. As a consequence, his performances resist typecasting, yet taken together, they form a distinctly individual mosaic.