Maggie Smith and Dustin Hoffman arrive at the "Quartet" premiere… (Jag Gundu / Getty Images )
TORONTO -- Actor Dustin Hoffman has been trying to direct a movie for years. At the age of 75, he has finally done so, and if the audience reaction inside the Elgin Theatre on Sunday evening was any indication, it was well worth the wait.
From the two standing ovations awarded to Hoffman and his 77-year old star, Maggie Smith, before the film even began, to a third handed out at the conclusion of the screening, it was evident that this older crowd at the Toronto International Film Festival was thrilled with Hoffman's film "Quartet."
From a screenplay by Ron Harwood ("Australia"), who first wrote it as a play, the film centers on a retirement home for opera singers and other musicians set in the English countryside. Smith plays famous vocalist Jean Horton, who reluctantly comes to the home, having sworn off singing once her abilities start to wane.
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She is reunited with her former partners, played by comedian Billy Connolly, Tony Award winner Pauline Collins and Oscar nominee Tom Courteney, who convince her to revisit their famous quartet performance from "Rigoletto" for the home's annual gala. Hoffman even cast Michael Gambon as the home's pompous show director, reuniting Harry Potter's professor Dumbledore with its beloved professor McGonagall.
Hoffman said he employed his six decades of experience in film to try to rectify the mistakes of directors that came before him. "Here the actors were allowed to have a chance to fail and fail and fail better," he said in a post-screening Q&A. "They found it. Their instincts are organic, and I'm so thankful to have had the opportunity to work with these great artists."
When asked why it took him so long to make his directorial debut, he quipped, "I'm still working that out with my therapist. It's called working out my demons."
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Hoffman clearly has great respect for opera singers and other musicians, employing many acclaimed retired performers, who had been all but forgotten, in roles in the movie. The film is a comment on aging, and Hoffman went to great lengths to portray the third act of life with dignity and respect.
"So many of these people have been forgotten by the culture," Hoffman said of the musicians he employed. "They worked 14, 15 hour days for over 50 days on this shoot and they loved it. They treasured it."
Hoffman said he developed his admiration for opera singers during his early days in New York when he was living with Robert Duvall. Duvall's brother sang opera, and Hoffman met all his friends.
"They are extraordinary people. They don't achieve a maturity in their work until 40 and there is only a short time until they can't hit the high notes. They are like athletes. I have such respect for them," he said.
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