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The star of TOOTSIE explains his passion for perfection, how he
develops his roles and why movies are never as good as they could be.

Dialogue on Film conducted by Mitch Tuchman


PHOTO BY GREG GORMAN
THE GRADUATE, Ratso Rizzo, LITTLE BIG MAN, TOOTSIE--for more than fifteen years Dustin Hoffman has been creating movie characters that define issues and capture attitudes of our time, that move out of the movies and become part of our cultural baggage. Hoffman has also had an unusual amount of influence--especially for a performer in this "industry"--in shaping the vehicles he appears in. This is not only unusual, but controversial, and Hoffman's career is marked by flare-ups over his demands and his vision of movies. In the Dialogue, Hoffman discusses the work of the actor in movies, his own relationships with directors and producers, his film projects and his objections to the common perception of himself as a man who loves a fight for its own sake.As he says, "You can't not fight.... That's how you get the best out of each other."

This interview was conducted by Mitch Tuchman, the coauthor (with Emile de Antonio) of the forthcoming Painters Painting: American Modernism in the Words of Those Who Created It.

Mitch Tuchman: You've said that your role in TOOTSIE took longer to put behind you than other roles.

Dustin Hoffman: I don't know why it was harder to drop emotionally. Some of it may have had to do with my mother, who I had spent a great deal of time with since she had a stroke in the last year and a half of her life, which was at the same time that I was working on the script with Murray Schisgal and then Larry Gelbart. My brother Ron felt that Dorothy Michaels is, in fact, at least in spirit, our mother. (She, as a matter of fact, is the reason that the movie is called TOOTSIE, because when I was a kid, she called me Tootsie.)

Tuchman: Any other reason?

Hoffman: Anytime you feel that a portion of your life is wasted because of a way of thinking that you have had, and you think that now you understand something, there's a sadness in having wasted so many years. Growing up in Los Angeles in the forties and the fifties and then moving to New York City in the late fifties, I was a product of the time when I was raised. It was the Playboy centerfold mentality, which still possesses me, and still works. I'm still taken by that fantasy girl. When I tried to become this character, Dorothy Michaels, I couldn't become as pretty as I wanted to become, and we tested for over a year, because I felt that I should try to look as attractive as I could, just as I want to be as a man. It suddenly occurred to me after doing Dorothy for a while that if I'd met her at a party, I'd never so much as condescend to talk to her, because physically she was a write-off. It's a shallow attitude, certainly, to judge people by the way they look. And I think that is what started to make me sad.

Tuchman: For all the opportunities that had been missed?


The character of Dorothy Michaels was inspired in part by Hoffman's mother.
Hoffman: For all the interesting women that I didn't spend time with because of the way they looked. Also, I think I realized that if I wasn't going up to these women, in a sense I was rejecting myself. I was a male Dorothy. In high school, girls passed me over for the same reasons. Dorothy was able to accept the way she looked: I couldn't. She was able to have a tremendous amount of self-respect, and I guess, for that reason, it was hard to lose her.

Tuchman: How did you get the idea for the role?

Hoffman: It started with KRAMER VS. KRAMER. At the end of the movie, I wanted to feminize that character more. We improvised a lot in that movie--we improvised a courtroom scene, and at one point I had a good emotional thing going. The judge said, "Why should you have the child?" I said, "Because I'm his mother." And I didn't know I said it and I couldn't get Bob Benton and Stanley Jaffe to use it in the cut--they thought it was gilding the lily. So when the film was over, I was very excited about a new feeling--what makes a man, what makes a woman, what is gender? I had a lot of conversations with Murray Schisgal, over what masculinity is,what femininity is, the difference between homosexuality and femininity in men. Suddenly he asked me this question: "What kind of woman would you be if you were a woman?" And I said, "What a great question." So we started to experiment. I was so concerned with looking like a woman and not like a man in drag, and sounding like a woman and not a falsettoed camp thing, that I couldn't concentrate on the character. After a year, when the day came when I looked and sounded like a woman, then I made a crucial decision: I'm not going to try to do a character; I'm just going to be myself behind this and see what happens.And that's all I did. I had to assume a southern voice because it held my voice up.

Tuchman: You developed this character before you created a story?

Hoffman: No, at the same time. While Murray was writing drafts--and after that with Larry Gelbart and Elaine May.

Tuchman: Why did Sydney Pollack take the agent role?

Hoffman: Whenever we worked on the scenes between Michael and the agent, he would read the agent, and I just thought he was wonderful. He didn't want to do it. I just said, "Sydney, there's so much between us that seems to be part of this relationship." Sydney had said on more than one occasion that an actor's an actor and should just be an actor. The actor is usually a hired hand. Regardless of whether you're a star or not, you're still a hired hand, because when you're a star you're then working with star directors, so it evens out--you get treated the same as when you were off-Broadway.Yet this was my project--I was the producer. Pollack's refusal to see me in any role but that of an actor was somewhat paternalistic, just the way the agent sees Michael. I think that some directors are closed-minded about what an actor can contribute. You'll hear directors say sometimes, "Yes, I got a performance out of that actor; I had to push him. I had to push him further than he thought he could go."Well, there are probably a lot of uncredited occasions where actors have pushed directors into areas that they haven't gone into before, and I think there have been more than a few occasions where a picture is better because of the actor who is in it. They will say, "The actor is subjective--only cares about his own part." Not so. An actor is as capable of considering "the whole" as the director, and often does. Sure we care about our own parts, but we have a responsibility to the entire film also, and I don't think many of us ignore that responsibility. And, believe me, I know some very subjective directors, who focus mostly on covering their ass. Yet actors generally are thought of as somehow less intelligent or responsible or aware of what filmmaking is about than the director or the producer. I think Brando once said it--we're housewives, we're these emotional creatures. They say, "We're going to make you look good, just don't argue. Don't try to make the big decisions. Leave that to us.Leave that to the daddies, the husbands." It doesn't have to be that way. I think there should be a real partnership, not the classically imagined situation where a supposedly "solid, objective" director simply "handles" a "neurotic, subjective" actor.


On the set of TOOTSIE: Hoffman and Sydney Pollack.
Tuchman: This business of you and Pollack having to agree on everything--was that a stipulation he made?

Hoffman: No. It's one I made. He said, "If I'm going to direct this, I'm going to produce it." I said, "But you're taking away all the controls I've earned over the years I worked on the project." He said, "Well, I won't do it otherwise." So we bargained, and I had to give him final cut. But even that was with an agreement that I would get script and cast approval and that I would go into the cutting room, see it as it was being cut, and be able to disagree and even show alternatives. What's on the screen is the result of our discussions, our arguments, our fights. If I had not argued, I think the film would be fifty percent different. I'm not saying it would be worse or better, but it certainly would be much different.

Tuchman: I've heard that Shelley Winters sometimes builds up a maelstrom of tension on the set and then works out of that somehow. Is fighting really necessary for your performance?

Hoffman: No. I heard Sydney say on television that he thought I was neurotic, that he thought I needed to work out of that kind of thing, and it's not true. I didn't work that way with Bob Benton in Kramer, and I haven't worked that way in most of the films I've done. I've done about fifteen films, and I think I've had a rough time with about three or four directors; Sydney is one of them. Sydney and I had a rough time together, and I wish that he could find it in his mind to see it as it really was, and not the picture he has painted for himself,which is, "I'm the normal, healthy, rational director, and he's the neurotic actor, and I had to sit on him." I like to be very prepared, and I feel that the success or failure of a film is many times determined before you start principal photography. I wanted rehearsal very much. I was promised two weeks and was grieved that I didn't get it, and that we followed the risky course of starting to shoot with a screenplay that wasn't completed, because Sydney had decided to rewrite the script I had approved. And I think that created a tension that never eased. Never dissipated. We should have had all those disagreements out in a rehearsal room someplace, before we started to shoot, like I did with Benton, and we should have locked in the script before we started. That way we could have avoided most of the delays and arguments during shooting.

The trouble with movies is that it's such an intimate experience, especially for the principals. You get married when you start working together, before you become friends. I don't think Sydney and I ever had a chance to become friends. I don't even know if we would have; I don't know if we're the type of personalities that blend together well. If you want to get down to the facts of the accusation that I'm "difficult," simply talk to the many directors that I've worked with, and I don't think you'll find more than three or four who would say I gave them a rough time. That doesn't mean I don't "fight" in the sense of questioning decisions--battling if I think they're wrong--but it's not that I "love" fighting or get off on it.