Tuesday, December 30, 2008

What Happens After You've Achieved
Muscle Memory In Your Chosen Craft

'I felt in this movie that I'm dancing more effortlessly than I ever have.'
-veteran actor Dustin Hoffman, on the Charlie Rose show last night. He's making the same point that his thespian colleague Sir Ben Kingsley made.

17 Comments:

At 11:59 AM, Blogger Geoff Schutt said...

Off topic -- but just want to wish you a SPECTACULAR New Year 2009, John.

Thanks for your words. I'll keep reading.

*
Now, to Dustin Hoffman -- I really can't find any comments suitable. I wish he was still that young struggling actor in "The Graduate" or "Midnight Cowboy," you know?

Cheers!

 
At 12:09 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Thanks, Geoff, and ditto to you. Please know that just about nothing is off topic around here.

As for the young Dustin, I share your nostalgia. He was something special. That reminds me that I was surprised to learn in recent days, via a documentary on the Biography channel, that Harrison Ford tried out for the part of the Graduate, but didn't get it. Kind of fun to imagine how that might have altered the movie. I suppose it would have been iconic either way. That's a movie that never ages. It seems just as fresh and interesting on the 50th viewing as it was on the first. And the Katherine Ross (a.k.a. Elaine) is as impossibly alluring and enchanting as ever.

 
At 1:20 PM, Anonymous Mike Q said...

The performance I'll remember from Dustin Hoffman was the appreciation he gave Alec Guinness when Sir Alec received a lifetime achievement award. I don't know if Hoffmann wrote the text, but he delivered it without notes or teleprompter. It was so eloquent that the honoree himself was clearly taken aback. A paean from one pro to another.

 
At 1:34 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Wow, can't help wanting to see that from your vivid description. But your underlying point--his deeply layered knowledge as a lifelong student of his craft, and the appreciation he has for his peers--also came through in that interview last night. He told a great story about working with perhaps the greatest actor of the 20th century, Laurence Olivier, and how he talked about how every actor, even the most experienced, only works from variations of just four or five basic characters in their repetoire. He told the brief story with such relish for learning from his elder that he reminded me of a truism: the best in every craft/profession/calling are great simply because they're lifelong students.

And I didn't mean to suggest, from my imprecise wording earlier, that I think only the young Dustin was a great actor. His middle years were just as explosively productive: he was great in Tootsie, actually making people believe he was a strong woman, and also in All The Presidents Men, playing the obsessive-compulsive, scattered Carl Bernstein. Ditto for his leading role in Marathon Man, the movie in which he played opposite Olivier. It's only in recent years that he's been perhaps less interesting, in part because he's taken less interesting roles (I'm sure he would say, rightly so, that that's only because more interesting roles aren't always offered older, shorter, less studly male actors). But I'm eager to see his latest, where he's paired with the sublime Emma Thompson.

Lastly, if someone can somehow locate a video clip, or even printed transcript, of that appreciation for Sir Alec that Mike refers to, by all means, please direct our attention to it.

 
At 1:36 PM, Blogger TJ Sullivan said...

I like his work.

I'm a fan.

"I'm WALKIN' here!"

But, the quote from Charlie Rose makes it sound as though Dustin's content to play safe roles for a paycheck.

I miss Ratso Rizzo ... Tootsie ... Rain Man ...

 
At 1:48 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

TJ, as always, you add something spot on. You put your finger on what I don't like about his last 10-12 years of work. Of course, you could say the same about even the hallowed DeNiro, whose last scintillating performance (correct me if I'm wrong, y'all) may have been in Heat. Just looked it up, and that was 1995. Okay, you saw flashes of the old Bob's ferocity in Ronin, but even that is now 10 years old. Anybody see his new one, What Just Happened? I've missed it thus far.

And how could I forget Hoffman's role in Rain Man? Simply spellbinding. Almost made me forget how comically bad Cruise was, as always.

 
At 4:18 PM, Blogger Michelle O'Neil said...

Kingsely and Hoffman. You can't get much better than that! I wonder if they've ever worked together?

 
At 4:20 PM, Blogger Michelle O'Neil said...

BTW, who you callin' less studly? Hoffman's still got it!

 
At 4:38 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Michelle,
An admittedly quick scan of the ultimate online movie source, the Internet Movie Database, now owned by Amazon.com, suggests the answer is no, to their having ever appeared together in a movie. Please let us know if that's not the case, dear anyone.

As for whether he's studly or not, I'll of course defer to you on that. I was going to add the word conventionally to that description, because his height alone (okay, my tall guy bias is at work here) puts him out of that group. And certainly when compared to the likes of classic Hollywood leading men like Charlton Heston, Robert Redford and Paul Newman in their primes, his looks don't quite (perhaps I should say remotely) stack up. He's more like a short Harrison Ford, who shares his lack of classic good looks, but more than makes up for it with sheer brute oozing charisma. Harrison also has several inches on him, though.

 
At 7:35 PM, Blogger TJ Sullivan said...

I'm with you on DeNiro too John. Used to be his name was my automatic response when asked to name a favorite actor, but not anymore. No doubt. He's great. But, like so many great male actors, he'd playing it safe. I'd argue that Glenn Close and Meryl Streep, for example, are still doing great work. Close did some great work on the TV show "The Shield" a couple years ago, and Streep looks to be in line for a possible Oscar nomination for "Doubt." Meanwhile Pacino, DeNiro, Hoffman, etc ... appear to be phoning it in. What could Hoffman and DeNIro have been thinking (other than "payday") when they did that "Meet the Fockers" fluff?

I went to see "Righteous Kill" a couple months ago because I was fool enough to believe that DeNiro and Pacino together in any movie had to be great. "Heat" was great. But what a piece of crap "Righteous Kill" turned out to be. They should skip the DVD and go straight to the landfill with that one.

I just checked DeNiro's in-production projects, which included "HEAT" the video game. Due out in 2009, it's based on Michael Mann's movie of the same name. Not that DeNiro doesn't deserve a payday. He does. But is that all he wants to do anymore? I expect some might argue that he's too old to do those "Johnny Boy" roles anymore, and that, at his age there might not be many good parts but ... Nicholson still seems to find a challenge now and then, and with DeNiro's director too. If you missed Nicholson in Martin Scorsese's "The Departed" you ought to check it out. His role in "About Schmidt" was great too.

 
At 8:04 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

We're REALLY on the same page here, TJ. It was precisely that Meet the Fockers and its predecessor, Meet the Parents, that I was thinking of when I suggested that Hoffman and DeNiro had reduced their stature. I didn't mention Pacino for two reasons: because I tend to think of him as half of the person that is PacinoDeNiro (their lives and careers are eerily similar), but also because he hasn't done quite as bad a job of slumming of late as the other two giants.

You're right that the other giant of that generation, Nicholson, comes off as several cuts above them all now, not so much for the body of his work over his career, which is comparable, but because he's done far more solid work in the final leg of his career. That was largely through acceptance of serious roles. His part in About Schmidt was mind-numbingly good, and The Departed only a tad below it. Both movies gave the lie to the idea that there are no good parts left for older actors. In both movies that was the central element of his parts.

But even more than his highs, he's evaded the embarrassing lows. The closest I can recall him slumming in the last 20 years was that movie with Helen Hunt, As Good as it Gets, where he still plays a deliciously misanthropic single guy. The part is not beneath his talents.

Meanwhile, the obvious inheritor of Nicholson's mantle from the next generation, for me, is Sean Penn, who is as ferociously good and immersive in his roles as Nicholson or DeNiro in their primes. But like the former, he's managed to avoid taking any really awful parts.

While Clooney doesn't otherwise belong in this discussion, I do like his publicly stated process of balancing art and commerce: he's on record as saying he does one movie for the studio (a big moneymaker that he's not necessarily especially proud of) followed by another one for him, a smaller production with a better story and higher aim. That's not a bad way to go.

As for the ladies, Close was great in that TV role (if you're talking about the shark superlawyer). But I'm afraid she's forever typecast as the deranged killer in Fatal Attraction. As for Streep, I'm afraid her super stinker was this crazy musical thing, Mama Mia, she was in recently. Egad: that ruined it for me. I liked her in Bridges of Madison County, but I generally find her range to be too narrow. Seems like she keeps playing pretty much the same kind of person, earnestness on uppers. Or maybe downers...

 
At 9:32 PM, Blogger TJ Sullivan said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At 10:04 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

I think the visceral aversion to Close's Fatal Attraction character is fairly universal among males of a certain age, almost embedded in our DNA. It's the ultimate cautionary tale. Guess I never did catch even a glimpse of her in "The Shield." The superlawyer thing I was referring to was a short-lived series on FX called "Damages," by the way. And I also subsequently thought about how great she was as the long-suffering managing editor in The Paper, easily my favorite of her roles. Good for her for venturing into TV, where appropriate, though I'm guessing it's largely driven by how movie roles have dried up as she ages.

Lordy, how could I have forgotten about P.S. Hoffman. His somehow becoming a thoroughly believable Truman Capote was a feat not unlike DeNiro gaining 80 pounds to play boxer Jake Lamotta. Simply a thing of beauty for the ages. But the real measure of the guy is that he could also somehow steal the show in an otherwise forgettable movie like Scent of a Woman (hoo wah!) from the unpromising perch of a bit role as a wild private school rich kid ring leader of trouble. He was also delicious in Mr. Wilson's War as an over-the-top CIA renegade. I'm looking forward to seeing his new one, Doubt.

And I should have also paid homage to Streep for the signature role of her latter career, the ice queen magazine editor. But she was equally good as a therapist in Prime, caught between parental and professional duty when she learns her patient, Uma Thurman, is sleeping with her son. Okay, I'll gladly put her back on the pedestal for all that. You convinced me.

 
At 9:46 AM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

I think you guys are laying too much blame on the actors when, frankly, the Hollywood studios are producing increasingly worse crap, and more indie projects are getting subsumed more and more often, so that the good scripts and directors are fewer and far between. If you're not offered good scripts OR good direction, who's to blame? The actors? Maybe not. Who wouldn't be tempted to phone in a performance if the director and script were less than at their peak? (Or at your peak, as an actor?) Everybody's gotta make a living.

That said, I do pretty much agree about Nicholson's choices. On the other hand, Jack really WAS slumming with that piece of crap "Anger Management."

When you get a director/writer as good as Michael Mann, everybody does better than usual. Even the small roles in "Heat" are utterly memorable. Mann consistently gets more out of actors than many other directors do, partly because the scripts are great, partly because he works his actors hard. "The Insider" was Pacino at peak power, in my opinion.

"Ronin" was a better movie than most critics thought it was, largely because most (American) critics didn't realize it wasn't just another CIA action film, but was simultaneously a European social-commentary film. It was both. There are elements of satire in "Ronin" that slipped right by lots of folks, apparently. Then again, most American film critics are pretty superficial, present company excepted of course.

When you mention Clooney's overtly (cynically?) practical comment about alternating good roles and blockbuster roles, you have to remember that studios like blockbusters, because they make lots more money. I think Clooney stated what lots of actors actually do. I doubt it's fair to demand that every actor work at their peak for every film, purely for our pleasure. It's human to need a break, every now and then. I'm not disagreeing with some of your assessments of Hoffman's recent choices, but I would also point out that getting offered those roles from his greatest films (I do not count "Rain Man" among them, although it was good, it wasn't great) is something few actors get offered even that often. Hoffman has done well. It would be nice is somebody offered him a really good script and director, I agree. There's probably some typecasting going on there, too.

 
At 10:38 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

I see movies are yet another subject you've mastered with your usual depth, Art. Glad you also saw a lot more than first meets the eye in Ronin. That one really stood out for me too. And yes, I completely forgot Jack in Anger Mgmt., which, while not as cheesy as the Fockers series, nevertheless inarguably constituted slumming. He must have had to hold his breath before agreeing to play opposite that odious $20-million-a-picture lightweight Adam Sandler. And thanks for the reminder about The Insider, which hadn't yet come up in this conversation, but should have.

As you may know, Heat continues to be the object of much love and affection by hardened cinephiles in large part because it was the first-ever on-screen pairing of DeNiro and Pacino, the Italian-American acting icons who both appeared in The Godfather, though never together (DeNiro actually played Pacino's father as a young man). Mann had some fun with all that, turning it into a two-hour-long bit of cinematic foreplay in Heat, and when they finally did meet in the coffeeshop to agree to disagree on their roles in life, it was worth waiting for.

When it comes to Hollywood studios, I think the balance of power has largely shifted to the individual stars, at least the very biggest ones, who can find their own funding with the help of their agents. So I'd differ a little there. And where I do differ with TJ, I think, is in cutting some serious slack to actors in their late 60s and even now early 70s who have been doing bang-up work for 40-plus years. I figure they've earned the right to coast a little. I'd just prefer that they not completely tarnish the rep they've gained from that body of work by accepting completely awful roles. But then, JFK, Marilyn and James Dean will stay young forever, only because they died early. The rest of us, including actors, have to deal with the inevitable trade-offs of age, experience and an interest in having a less complicated and more prosperous life.

 
At 9:34 PM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

Everything you say about aging actors is very wise. I think you're also right about the power of star quality in the studios; I hadn't taken that into account, but you're right, it IS a factor.

The Pacino/DeNiro dialogue in "Heat" was a great moment, for sure. But it's an iconic moment in a great film, rather than a symbolic moment in a weak film. You know? That's just one damn good movie.

I freely admit to being a long-time student of Michael Mann. The original Hannibal Lector film, "Manhunter," was Mann's, and it too is a very good film. (Not as great as some of his later films, but very good.) Mann has a way with timing, and with musical elements in film, that is simply light-years beyond many of his peers.

M. Night Shayamalan was compared several times to Hitchcock early on in his career; but I think he also owes a debt to Mann. (I think he's more or less acknowledged the debt in quiet, subtle ways, in some of his films, too.)

Mann is a photographer, as well as a director, and his sense of lighting, color, and composition in the cinema frame is really stunning. Very few other directors think about such elements at the same level Mann does, in my opinion.

 
At 10:40 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

I must admit to never being remotely conscious of Mann before The Insider, which isn't really that long ago. Only then did I become aware of his earlier movies, some of which I had seen and enjoyed, but never thought about who had directed them.

As for this M. Night character being compared to Hitchcock, I have to say I always considered that to be not merely laughable but idiotic. When this guy makes a movie that can even hold Psycho's jockstrap or Vertigo's leg warmers, I hope someone will send me a telegram. Till then, I put it down to the kind of historical amnesia that leads the contemporary idiot culture to murmur about how the latest Batman movie, Dark Night, is a gothic masterpiece almost encroaching on the hallowed celluloid turf of the likes of Citizen Kane. I actually heard someone (whom I previously considered to be intelligent) try to make that case. I tried my best not to derisively snort like a horse at the thought of such appalling ignorance.

Okay, enough of this movie chit chat for now. Time for all of us to give it a break and celebrate the imminent passage into a new year. I hereby raise my virtual champagne glass to you all in a toast.

 

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