"The star is fair game. I understand that. But what goes on between an actor and director changes meaning when it's reported to the public. With 'Tootsie,' when it blew up between me and Sydney Pollack, I was the producer. He had come on at the eleventh hour. Murray (Schisgal) and I had thought up the story, even the title." (Larry Gelbart has a co-credit for the script, but other writers reportedly worked on it as well.) "Sydney wanted to make it his. But that doesn't mean we didn't have a wonderful relationship. Our problems weren't in the work process. They were in the conceptual process."
Hoffman's unease is also based on the inevitable frustration of knowing that it's the director who determines how the actor will be seen. (Early in his career he said: "Acting, especially film acting, seems to me to be more of a female profession. The director, who has all the creative power, really uses the actor.") That discomfort also extends to interviews, for the same reason--if you substitute the reporter and editor for the director.
Hoffman was recently in Chicago to begin filming "Hero," the new Stephen Frears film, and he showed up for an appointment in the restaurant of the Four Seasons Hotel with such a dour expression on his face that he looked as though he'd been forced into the room at hidden gunpoint. He was cordial, but tense and wary, and opened the conversation with a couple of small-talk questions. Once he warms up, he's a voluble, convivial figure. When he feels particularly strongly about a topic, his voice drops with surprising force from that plaintive Ratso Rizzo level in the sinuses to a more cavernous region in his chest. Once settled, he marched unguided to the question of his reputation:
"(Critic) Leonard Maltin says to me, 'I hear you're difficult.' How do you answer that? My wife says, 'Once they ask that, you're at a loss,' and I should just joke about it. You have to say something. The truth of the matter is that the press, to the surprise of some, has a stronger effect on movies than probably ever before."
Hoffman's meticulousness has often, to him, run at odds with the generalities and unanticipated nuances that come out in interviews. ("I keep saying I'll never do another interview, but I keep hoping for redemption.")
Never did the press seem more like a rogue elephant to him than during the hoopla that attended the making of the disastrous "Ishtar," after which he told American Film magazine: "How can you open any movie when the audience has heard so much negative stuff about it first? . . . In many ways I can't evaluate it, because it's the only movie I've ever been on that was attacked like that. Before 'Ishtar,' I never realized there was this desire to kill a film."
The box-office collapse of a movie can hurt the actor more than anyone else involved in the film. That, together with the increasing saturation of entertainment values in '90s American life, has made Hoffman more pained about the press than ever.
"There's an increasing obsession with how movies are made, and your dealings with the press are made on the assumption that if you don't do this, they'll do that," he said. "It's like they were calling 'Billy Bathgate' 'Billygate' because of the difficulties that came up making the movie." (Vanity Fair reported that Hoffman had warned Disney Pictures Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg that the movie would never recoup its costs if changes weren't made.)
"It affected me," Hoffman said. "I felt I had to back off saying anything. So in another interview (NBC entertainment reporter) Jim Brown gives me this look of horror and says, 'Oh, come on, Dustin. Does this mean you're a wimp on movies?' What am I supposed to say to that?"
The critical consensus on "Bathgate" is that it's a handsome but empty movie, and that's precisely how Hoffman's dramaturgical eye saw it from the first.
"I told (director Robert) Benton that if he was going to go up against Coppola and Scorsese, he was going to have to come up with something new," the actor recalled. "I thought we had it in the idea of a Jewish Mafia, which had never been depicted before. I did a lot of research. I even went down to the Lower East Side of New York to meet some of those old hit men. They were funny, like Catskills comics.
"He didn't want to do that. Then, the problem with my character was that it had no arc. If you didn't know who Dutch Schultz had been, you couldn't feel the force of his decline. Benton wanted it to be a love story, a triangle. But there was no catalyst, no second act. The girl flies off in a plane. That's it. I said that the tension has to be that Billy is a troubled boy, ready to be brainwashed, ready to become a Brown Shirt for Schultz, and that I'm his father figure. But that didn't happen either.