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LONDON — Dustin Hoffman delivered an emotional account of his 30-plus years in the movies at an invitation only event at the British Academy of Film & Television Arts on Tuesday evening.
The two-time Oscar winner, speaking at the British Academy’s HQ, broke down in tears twice and drew lots of laughs while talking through his filmography as part of Bafta’s Life in Pictures season of events.
Tears first came when Hoffman began explaining the background to landing the role in Kramer vs. Kramer, a part he won his first best actor nod for in 1980.
“I was getting divorced, I’d been partying with drugs and it depleted me in every way,” Hoffman said.
His voice began to crack when he began explaining he didn’t want to meet with the producer Stanley Jaffe and director and writer Bob Benton because he didn’t like the script.
“You’re script has no feeling of what I’m going through,” Hoffman said as the tears came when recalling the emotional turmoil of his breakup and divorce.
He explained through tears that “for whatever reasons you just end up not being able to inhabit the same space,” referencing the break-up from first wife Anne Byrne and the fact “there were children involved.”
He also said at the time he had just come off the back of doing two movies back to back – Straight Time and Agatha – and had “decided to quit movies for a second time.”
He previously thought he’d quit after one critic labelled him as a “cretin” in The Graduate.
But Benton persisted, asking Hoffman what it would take for him to change his mind and do the movie.
“We’d have to go into a room for three months and rewrite it,” Hoffman said, saying that is exactly what they did.
“We finished and I got offered a writing credit and stupidly turned it down,” Hoffman said, “but it was a liberating experience for me to push all the stuff I was going through out there.”
More tears welled when he began talking about the child actor, Justin Henry, who played Billy and landed the part with no acting experience.
“I later discovered he was coming from a home that was breaking up. There was a moment during a break in the testing when I thought, this is the right kid, he’s my son.”
Hoffman recalled failing to cast Kate Jackson — who, at the time, was at top of the list “because she was in Charlie’s Angels, the biggest show on television at the time in the U.S.” So, he suggested Meryl Streep, someone who was a young actress on the rise.
It was one of those “perfect times to cast someone,” Hoffman said, because she’d just lost her boyfriend in tragic circumstances. Streep went on to win the first of three Oscars with her turn but Hoffman never worked with her on a film again.
As the house lights dimmed before the clip of a scene with his estranged wife played by Streep, Hoffman whispered an apology to his wife Lisa, who was in the audience, saying he didn’t know what was wrong with him.
More tears came from the actor when discussing his experience making his other Oscar-winning film, Rain Man with director Barry Levinson. Hoffman described how, two weeks into shooting, he was sitting in an open top Cadillac with Tom Cruise, wishing he could leave the movie because he just couldn’t play the part of the autistic brother Raymond Babbitt.
Levinson took him aside to watch the rushes because, unbeknownst to Hoffman, the actor had created the essence of the character by just repeating “yeah” to everything Cruise was saying to him.
“It was that marvelous feeling when you find yourself in a territory when you think you’re not getting it,” Hoffman said. “It’s feeling like you’re in between worlds.”
Hoffman described his extensive research into highly functioning autism sufferers saying he came to the conclusion they are unable to rid themselves of all the information a human is presented with.
“It puts enormous pressure on them. We’re like vacuum cleaners, we can get rid of a lot of it but they can’t.”
Added Hoffman: “My children tell me, don’t cry Daddy, you can see why.”
There were also laughs aplenty across the evening that ran to more than two hours. Among the biggest was Hoffman’s account of Tootsie, a role where he played an unemployed actor who auditions as a woman to land a role in a soap opera.
He described how after shooting a scene in a restaurant dressed as his female character Dorothy Michaels opposite Sydney Pollack, he’d been told Jon Voight, who he starred with in Midnight Cowboy, was eating in another part of the restaurant.
“I went over to him as Dorothy and had an entire conversation about how much I liked his work and managed to fool him,” Hoffman said.
But more was to come. On the subway, Hoffman still in costume, had run into his childhood acting hero Jose Ferrer.
After talking through Ferrer’s career with him, mentioning how much he’d admired his chops, still in drag, Hoffman said he couldn’t resist asking one last question. “Would you mind very much if I sucked your cock?”
Ferrer stared at his female form for a while before calming replying: “Not right now,” Hoffman recalled.
He shared that after he walked off, Ferrer had asked his friend “who was that scumbag of a woman.” Hoffman said he’d never been one to “censor his mouth.”
Hoffman also discussed his childhood upbringing in Los Angeles in a house “that movies were never mentioned in” after his father got fired from a studio job with Columbia and became a furniture salesman.
And he also told stories and anecdotes from other career highlights including Midnight Cowboy and Meet the Fockers and working on friend’s films such as Stranger Than Fiction and smaller indie pictures such as Last Chance Harvey, opposite Emma Thompson, whom he met on Stranger Than Fiction.
The actor’s directorial debut, Quartet starring Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Pauline Collins and Billy Connolly unspooled last night in a gala screening during this year’s BFI London Film Festival.
Previous BAFTA Life In Pictures seasons have featured Will Ferrell, Kenneth Branagh, Charlize Theron and Colin Firth.
Hoffman’s evening was hosted by writer, critic and broadcaster Francine Stock and sponsored by Deutsche Bank.
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