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COVER STORY : Down to the Basic Hoffman : The actor's perfectionism has earned him quite a reputation; but as he sees it, details are everything and nobody is as hard on Dustin Hoffman as Dustin Hoffman

November 24, 1991|LAWRENCE CHRISTON | Lawrence Christon is a Times staff writer

"A movie is like life in that everything depends on just a few decisions you make at the beginning. Mike Nichols wanted to cast against type--the character in the book is actually a blond WASPy guy. They were originally going to cast Robert Redford. We created a whole new character in rehearsal. The hard part for me was not playing someone nine years younger; it was catching the virginal quality, the Oedipal panic. Gene Hackman was originally cast to play Mr. Robinson, but he got fired and then picked up to do 'Bonnie and Clyde,' and his career took off."

Just before "The Graduate" was released in 1967, producer Lawrence Turman held a screening in his house, and someone said, "Great movie. Too bad the lead is miscast." In retrospect, the opposite is true: Hoffman's performance carries a surprisingly humorless, sketchy film, laced with a precious Simon & Garfunkel score.

"Nichols knew there was no second act--the Berkeley segment was all filler till we got to the wedding scene," Hoffman said. "But he had those performances so keyed that we could've done it on a stage."

The silences of Hoffman's Benjamin Braddock were not limp and self-pitying, as they may have been in another young actor. They were filled instead with the shunting suspicions and discontent that mirrored a young generation fearful of seeing itself harden into "plastics." (He was paid $20,000 for the role; his salary now is reportedly in the $6-million range.)

In 1968, Life magazine ran a lengthy spread pitting Hoffman against John Wayne. It was supposed to contrast the old with the new, Wayne as "strong, decisive, nearly always a winner," Hoffman as the new Everyman, "uncertain, complex, and by any familiar standard, (a) loser." But in truth it described two Americas in perpetual conflict (the John Wayne figure re-emerging in the Reagan era), and two distinctly different approaches to acting.

Through Strasberg and Arthur Miller, Hoffman's pedigree goes back to the Group Theatre of the '30s, the most important seminal troupe of 20th-Century America. He's a scion of its urban disquiet.

At noon Hoffman showed up for his first day's shooting of "Hero," the Stephen Frears comedy in which Hoffman plays a small-time con artist on the lam who witnesses a plane crash and rescues all the passengers, but then has to hide while someone else (Andy Garcia) takes credit for the feat. "It's quite a statement on the media and how Americans view heroes," Hoffman said.

The shoot consisted of a single scene--his view of the plane screaming over the roof of his car in a shower of sparks during a downpour. How to make a plane crash funny is a daunting task, but Frears shot through the windshield, with Hoffman peering up and out like a face bobbing in an aquarium. (Hoffman stayed soaked for hours but kept up his spirits with nonstop chatter in a High Anglican accent and by telling jokes.)

Frears is not an autocratic director. His face has the shadowed, faintly viscid bloat of a blue-collar type who works long hours indoors and doesn't watch what he bolts down by way of food and drink. His cheery ordinariness masks the sensitivity and shrewdness that shows up in his work ("My Beautiful Laundrette" and "Dangerous Liaisons"), and he's adroit at keeping things going on the set to avoid tension.

He and Hoffman locked into each other like old pros who understand the monosyllabic shorthand of their game--a day's shoot isn't for long, earnest discussion; it's for tactical adjustment. An arc light went out and an eight-minute break was called.

"An actor couldn't call an eight-minute break to discuss his part, could he?" Hoffman said jokingly. He was testing Frears, who merely chuckled and busied himself with a monitor adjustment.

Schisgal stood off to the side, his heavy-lidded eyes conveying an ancient Hasidic mournfulness. "I come in early along and we talk," he said of his relationship with Hoffman. "If he's getting along with a director, like Barry Levinson or John Schlesinger or Mike Nichols, he doesn't need me. He had trouble with Pollack and Benton. But that happens. Making a movie is like a marriage. Sometimes the tensions get too great."

"We did three plays in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, in 1965," Schisgal said later, looking back on his first meeting with Hoffman. "He was in all three, with Gene Hackman and Estelle Parsons. I'm an early riser. I'd come down at 6:30 and he'd be there on the porch, with a script and a million questions. I don't know what drives him. Maybe it's the younger-brother syndrome. He's by nature an intense, passionate person. He goes until he conks out.

"With him, everything has to be good about a film: the sets, the costumes, the lighting--all the ingredients. He's smart enough to know that if the film isn't good, it won't matter what he does. Dusty has a great sense of audience. He always addresses himself to that, not to some abstract notion of art or craft. Acting is never a dance for his own delectation."

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