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Hoffman's Got the Globe on a String : After 'Rain Man,' the actor is shifting gears for a turn as Shylock on the London stage

February 05, 1989|CHARLES CHAMPLIN

NEW YORK — Dustin Hoffman's face looks to have gone slightly out of focus, thanks to a soft, several-day stubble. He was experimenting with a beard for his stage role as Shylock in "The Merchant of Venice," which he will play in London this spring with Peter Hall's new company.

He shaved the beard for his appearance at the Golden Globes a few days ago, where he was named best actor in a dramatic role, and for a trip to Japan with director Barry Levinson to introduce "Rain Man" there. But the beard will grow back for the West End.

Over lunch in a basement Japanese restaurant on Park Avenue, Hoffman points to an old engraving of Shylock, reproduced in a soft-cover copy of the Folger edition of the play. The merchant wears a neatly trimmed and rather dashing beard, almost a courtier's.

"Glue on a beard for every performance? Worry about it coming loose in the middle of a speech? Definitely no."

An Echo of Raymond

The definitely is an echo of the speech patterns of Raymond, the autistic savant whom Hoffman played with such extraordinary concentration and intensity in "Rain Man."

"The crew began to pick up on that," Hoffman says. " Definitely and Uh-oh . It was the first time Barry (Levinson, the director) and I began to think that we were onto something. Now I hear that kids are doing it.

"It's a mystery, the speech catching on. Nothing to do with the performance; it's something else, a kind of kinetic response to the real man, the autistic savant, Peter, we were working off of. I called his brother after he'd seen 'Rain Man' and he said, 'It's not my brother, but it is. The audience loves him as we love Peter.'

"Sometimes a movie is just a job, just a movie," Hoffman says. "But the crew adopted Peter like a member of the family. He and his brother came to the location when we were shooting in Las Vegas and the crew all wanted to meet him."

Hoffman's wrestling matches with his roles--and occasionally with his directors--are legendary. "With movie acting," he says, "I tend to be taught by the dailies. It's like writing. It's a process of removing the stuff you don't like and trying to get as near as you can to what you want."

What he saw on the first several days of dailies on "Rain Man" were displeasing. "Barry said, 'Let's look again, and you show me the five seconds you do like, if there are five.' I found the bits I thought were OK and Barry said, 'Ah, so that's it.' He couldn't tell what I was unhappy about but he knew when I was happy. Then he could steer me.

"It's like in baseball--you hit a home run and then you start popping up. What you're trying to do is just connect, meet the ball. In the movies you're trying to make contact. But not until it's over do you find where it went.

"Meantime," Hoffman says, grinning, "You're full of fear and pain and self-loathing and asking yourself, 'What if it doesn't fall in. But Barry's a wonderful director who tells you to hang in there and keeps you relaxed."

"Rain Man" has recently been the highest-grossing film in release. Exactly why this should be so is not clear. The story is uncompromised: He is returning to the institution, and he is not "cured" in the great Hollywood tradition. And while the brothers have achieved a sweet, head-touching rapprochement, it is measured in centimeters and symbolized in a single jokey line, "K mart sucks." Tom Cruise as his brother has relented a little in his own self-absorption, but he has not become Albert Schweitzer overnight.

Hoffman has notions about the popularity. He thinks that audiences, like the production crew, adopt Raymond and identify him as the skeleton, or the casualty, in everybody's closet. But Hoffman also has another theory--that the audience may well also identify with Raymond's isolation.

"Electronic sound is so loud these days, so impossible to get away from--television, VCRs, Walkmans--you're not really in control of your own senses anymore. You're getting near a borderline autistic state, living not far from Raymond at all."

Hoffman understands Raymond's compulsive list-making and his rigid scheduling. "If your life is an insane asylum and you fill it up with crap, it keeps the other stuff from happening. It limits the possibilities. It's a way of closing out your options for disaster."


Now Hoffman is deep into his preparations for "The Merchant of Venice." The approach seems characteristic of his rigorous, vigorous approach to the craft.

"I've never forgotten something Ralph Richardson said in an interview. He must've been in his late 70s and he was asked what interested him, something like that, and he said, 'I'd like to learn a little bit more about acting before it's too late.'

"I've been studying the text, and reading literature around it, the historical context, Shakespeare's life, then reading the text again and again. Then I start writing out some thoughts--things about acting spring to mind, ways to do it.

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