YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections
(Page 4 of 4)


Hoffman vs. Hoffman

On the eve of being honored with the AFI's Life Achievement Award, the actor is still conflicted about his work and success. Especially when there are so many stories he could have been writing.

February 14, 1999|ERIC HARRISON | Eric Harrison is a Times staff writer

Hoffman's career has not been a constant string of highs. The last 10 years have been dominated by less-than-stellar films, commercial duds and impressive but small roles in movies in which other people star. And in the mix are two movies that one ordinarily would not associate with an actor of Hoffman's accomplishments.

"Outbreak," a 1995 movie about a disease epidemic, and "Sphere," which Hoffman quotes co-star Samuel L. Jackson as describing as "a monster movie without a monster," are genre films in which Hoffman plays characters better suited to action stars such as Mel Gibson and Harrison Ford.

In fact, those two actors had been sought by director Wolfgang Petersen for "Outbreak" but were unavailable.

To explain why he took the role, Hoffman describes an interview with author David Halberstam that he saw recently on C-SPAN. Halberstam, whose past subjects have included the Vietnam War, the power of the media and the civil rights movement, explained why he wrote a book about Michael Jordan in part by saying, "I'm broadening my constituency."

Hoffman has the same answer. He says he insisted on playing his character as an ordinary guy, not a superman, and he is disappointed that an ironclad release date would not allow Petersen time to have the script rewritten to remove the more grandly stereotypical elements. The movie was very successful commercially, but, as several critics noted, it becomes a different movie after the first hour.

This is one of the roles Hoffman was referring to when he talked of compromises earlier. In today's Hollywood, so much emphasis is placed on how much money movies make the opening weekend that the stars in demand are those who can "open" a picture big. He sees this as a major change in the business from when he entered it: Money seems to be the only determinant of a movie's worth. As much as he has tried to resist choosing movies for financial reasons, he says you can't help but be seduced by the demands of the business. "I know if I could do it again there are certain pitfalls I could more successfully resist," he says.

Hoffman agreed to do "Sphere" because the director was Barry Levinson, who had directed him in "Rain Man" (1988), "Sleepers" (1996) and "Wag the Dog" (1997). He and Levinson had worked together beautifully before, Hoffman says, creating multidimensional characters out of roles in the latter two films that were not fully fleshed out on the page. "Barry is the only director I ever met who, when he says we'll find a way to make it work, he's been right," Hoffman says.

This time they couldn't make it work, but he says he is glad he took the part because he was helping his friend to try something different. Critics, he says, "like it much better if you succeed at something that's been done 50 times."

After "The Graduate" became a hit 32 years ago, Hoffman says he didn't work for a year. He had rejected demands from producers that anyone who took a screen test had to commit to several other as-yet-unnamed films if that actor got the role. Hoffman wouldn't let anybody tell him what part he had to play.

He remained independent after the movie became a hit, turning down every script that came his way. He decided he'd rather go back to the stage than do movies he did not believe in. When "Midnight Cowboy" came along, he agreed against everyone's advice to take a supporting role--the kind of role he'd just graduated from--because it was a great character.

"It was not a difficult decision," he says. "But I think I started to slip after that. I got talked into doing 'John and Mary' because I'd just gotten married and my manager said, 'You want to buy that townhouse?' " This was before "Midnight Cowboy" was released and no one knew what a sensation it would become. His manager told him he had to reestablish himself as a romantic lead. "I was opposite Mia Farrow. They put us on the cover of Time magazine. So you get talked into things.

"There are certain things my friends and I never thought about when we started," Hoffman continues. "We never thought about making it--I'm thinking about Duvall and Hackman. It was out of the question in the traditional sense. Making it meant being able to work as an actor for the rest of your life.

"And then this thing happens and all of a sudden stuff enters," he says. "You're a star. Your audience wants this. Money enters the picture. If you want the money, if you want the salary that the biggest stars are getting you're gonna have to earn it; you have to do certain kinds of work."

He speaks ruefully of the days, before stardom, when the work was what mattered and he and his friends sometimes gave their best performances to an audience outnumbered by the actors on stage.

"One of the things that happens to you when a roomful of people applauds you," he says, "is that the importance of five people applauding you is diminished.

"The truth of the matter is I really feel lucky, and I'm happy that I've had this extraordinarily rare opportunity to work--because I know most actors can't get work--and to work with really quality people," he says. "And knowing all that, I really wish that I could do it again, because if I could do it again I would try to do it in a more courageous way. And since I can't I would like to at least finish that way."

Los Angeles Times Articles