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'Movie!' Takes Liberties With Hoffman's Life

Films * But 'compressions' of time, events and people have the support of those portrayed in the film who were close to the antiwar activist.

August 21, 2000|MICHAEL GOLDMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Like its subject Abbie Hoffman, almost everything about the independently financed "Steal This Movie!" is unorthodox, both in terms of what ended up on the screen and how it got there.

The film offers a quasi-documentary look at the complex Hoffman--mixed with historical footage of key events from the 1960s and a protest-era soundtrack--that filmmakers freely admit "compresses" time, events and people. Testimony of an FBI informant during scenes about the famous Chicago 7 trial, for example, combines portions of testimony from several informants, according to producer-director Robert Greenwald. Likewise, a fictional journalist, attempting to write a magazine article on Hoffman's years underground evading arrest on a drug charge, is based on what Greenwald calls "bits of several journalists" Hoffman encountered over the years.

But such "compressions" not only don't bother many of the people portrayed in the film who were close to Hoffman, they have their full support. Those individuals include California State Sen. Tom Hayden (portrayed by his real-life son, Troy Garity), Portland activists Stu and Judy Albert, Hoffman's longtime attorney and close friend Jerry Lefcourt (all consultants on the project, with Lefcourt also receiving an associate producer's credit), and former Black Panther Bobby Seale, among others.

They have all said on the film's Web site (http://www.stealthismovie.com) and elsewhere in recent months that Hoffman, a '60s political activist who committed suicide in 1989 at the age of 53, would have appreciated the movie, even if he is portrayed by an actor (Vincent D'Onofrio) almost a foot taller than he, with a nose that is "completely wrong," according to Greenwald.

"Vincent is great in the role, according to many people who knew Abbie," says Greenwald. "But the nose situation was heartbreaking to me at first. Abbie had a distinctive nose that had been broken and eventually reshaped by plastic surgery over the years. We built a prosthetic nose, we tested it, but we couldn't get it right with the limited time and money available to us. With all the issues surrounding the making of this movie--letting the nose go was one of my hardest decisions."

Greenwald had the full cooperation from Anita Hoffman, Abbie's wife and partner in the radical movement, who is portrayed by Janeane Garofalo. Anita submitted to hours of interviews, repeatedly gave notes on the script, visited the set, and viewed dailies until just weeks before her December 1998 death from breast cancer.

An Indie Approach

Greenwald says one of Anita's conditions for cooperation was that "Steal This Movie!" be financed independently, outside the studio system. He agreed to that condition and eventually raised what he calls "medium-budget money" to make the piece, shooting in New York and Toronto in 1998 and cutting a distribution deal with Lions Gate to release the film only after it was finished. The film opened Friday in Los Angeles; a wider national release is planned for September.

That promise, combined with the fact that Greenwald had known Anita and Abbie several years earlier, and his track record of making issue-oriented television films ("Burning Bed," "Daddy," "Forgotten Prisoners," "Driving While Black"), persuaded Anita to participate, even though she had previously felt it would be almost impossible to make an accurate and responsible Abbie Hoffman film. (Johanna Lawrenson, portrayed by Jeanne Tripplehorn, was Hoffman's companion during his time underground. Greenwald claims Lawrenson declined to participate in making the film but didn't object to the project.)

"A couple of studios had tried projects in the past and owned rights to [Hoffman's books] 'Steal This Book' and 'Soon to Be a Major Motion Picture,' but Anita just didn't see how it could be done in a way that would be true to the spirit of Abbie Hoffman, while still portraying how complicated he was," says Greenwald. "I proposed the idea of basing the film on her book with Abbie, 'To America With Love: Letters From the Underground,' which are essentially love letters between the two, written while he was running from the drug charge, along with Marty Jezer's book about Abbie, 'Abbie Hoffman: American Rebel.'

"Anita never wanted Abbie to be portrayed as some kind of flawless hero, and she liked my proposal to tell the story from the perspective of his years underground, and the tremendous toll those years took on their relationship and Abbie's relationship with their son. She never saw the finished film because of her illness, but she was on the set a few months before she died and told me Abbie would have been pleased."

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