Dustin Hoffman: If I Had A Vagina
FOR THOSE of us who grew up with The Graduate and Midnight Cowboy, Dustin Hoffman remains an emblem of American cinema's last burst of glory, the gritty and innovative art movies of the '70s. At 70, Hoffman continues to put his shoulder to the wheel in film after film, most of them not in the slightest bit gritty or innovative; recent examples include voicing a character in an animation called Kung Fu Panda.
People who know all the words to Mrs Robinson naturally overlook these aberrations. We only notice the deadly serious Hoffman of Wag The Dog or the flip, smart and yet still quite serious Hoffman of I Heart Huckabees, the Hoffman who is still carrying the standard for the cinema as we remember it.
Imagine, then, how disturbing it is to have one's nose pressed against the window of Mr Magorium's Wonder Emporium, a new children's fantasy in which Hoffman rather disturbingly approaches the role of a 250-year-old owner of a magic toy shop as if he had to method-act all the animated robots and shopaholic kids off the screen.
What proves even more disturbing, however, is the real, raw Hoffman doing his obligatory rounds of interviews. He's certainly a showman, but it is still quite surprising when a press-ganged celebrity gets up in front of a round table of journalists to play all the parts in a complicated anecdote about ostriches. He calls for wine; he calls for ale. He brightens when a German journalist who knows his little ways suggests that, were our Dustin to have his own shop, it would sell erotica. Open sesame! From that moment we're on to Hoffman's Mastermind topic, the wondrous fit of male and female body parts.
"I do love the essential differences between men and women," he says matter-of-factly. "And I think there are essential differences; you don't have to pretend they don't exist. One of the things I always used to say is that if I had a vagina, I would have been much more selective. But this thing called a penis is like taking a dog for a walk. How many times do women fantasise about having sex with men on the street?" He turns to the female journalist next to him, who happens to be Swedish. "May I ask you that? Men think about it every minute."
Actually, Hoffman isn't interested in erotica. "It's boring, because it's not real." But when the drinks arrive, a leaping association of ideas - beer and wine; he can't mix the two - leads him straight to the garden of delights. "You can't mix sex and chocolate," he announces. "Because they both hit the same part of the brain. It's redundant."
Later, when I ask him about the lack of meaty parts in films these days, he hears meaty as matey - that Australian accent - and then - yes - mating. "Mating. I like the metaphor. By the way," he adds, to soften the misunderstanding, "I like your hair. I love it."
It's as if he's got Tourette's syndrome, the German journalist says later. But you can't fault Hoffman for friendliness; having peaked before celebrity culture made megastars' lives a tabloid misery, he treats publicity as a kind of marvellous party where he's getting all the attention. He is as funny as a fit on his fondness for hardware stores; disarmingly straightforward on the behind-the-scenes battles on I Heart Huckabees, now up for all to see on YouTube. Of course this stuff is child's play for an old trouper like him. "When did YouTube start existing?" he asks us, youngsters that we are, without expecting an answer. "I've been doing movies since 1967. Have I been involved in movies that had scenes that made this exchange look like nothing? And did we hear stories of Jack Nicholson throwing a television set across the room trying to kill Roman Polanski in Chinatown? Did Bill Murray not pick up the producer who was running Universal and throw her into the lake on What About Bob?" The names keep coming: Gene Hackman, Mel Brooks, Robert Duvall. "We heard these things constantly. And shouldn't that happen if it has to happen? Yes."
Hoffman began taking acting classes at college, as he has frequently said, because acting involved girls. "That makes a good story," he says now. "But the main thing was that I found I could do it. I didn't think I was any good. I was failing in college and my friends said, 'Take a course in acting; no one fails acting, it's like gym.' So I took it and I found I liked learning lines and I liked rehearsing and the hours would go by. So I thought, 'OK, I'll be an actor."' Acting also meant he could go on failing.
Until he was 31, he has said elsewhere, he lived below the official poverty line. All his friends were in the same boat. "You could be a failure as an actor and not be a failure; you weren't measured by whether you had a job or not. We were against making a living! It was the '60s: Ferlinghetti, Ginsburg, Jack Kerouac, coffee houses and guys reciting poetry they wrote, probably 99 per cent of it bad. But the girls were attracted to you if you were, in quotes, 'a bohemian'."
He even had a job in a toyshop, although one rather less fantastical than Mr Magorium's. For three weeks every Christmas he would don a Toronto hockey shirt and challenge young customers in Macy's department store to defeat him at tabletop hockey. To keep himself entertained, he would affect a French accent. There were, he chuckles, a few tricky moments when French customers turned to him for help.
"One of the constants in my life is that I've never been bored, ever," he says. "Depressed, yes. I've been very depressed. I think it's a natural condition. I think we want life to be more than it is, somehow. But I don't know how you can be bored. Sometimes, you will be with someone who you feel is boring and I, as an actor, would say, 'What is the quality that makes that person boring to me?' And that's interesting, to deconstruct it."
Mr Magorium's Wonder Emporium is unusual among children's films in that the plot is spurred by the hero's imminent death. As with Willy Wonka, he is looking for a successor to take over his grand project. "I love that," he says. "The idea of teaching a child about what we call mortality: I don't think you can teach a more useful thing. I think the worst thing you can do is deny it.
"It's kind of like sex if you have kids. They tell you - and I think they're right - 'Don't answer the question beyond the question.' So is it true that a penis goes in a vagina? Yes. That's it. Stop. Do I have to die one day? Yes, we all do. That's the most comfortable aspect of mortality; it's not only for a few people. It's not like life. We're all going."
Ah, the penis. And what about the vagina? Working back along his single track, we might think back to Tootsie, one of a succession of acting challenges for Hoffman. In it, he played an unsuccessful actor who finds stardom after he auditions for a television sitcom pretending to be a woman. It was one of seven roles that have earned him an Oscar nomination over the years - he has won twice, for Kramer vs Kramer (1979) and Rain Man (1988) - as well as numerous other awards.
Does he look back with longing, as so many old Hoffman fans do, at the old glory days? The days when films meant something, opening weekend figures meant nothing and a man could throw his producer into a lake without fear or favour? No, he says. Good films are still being made, even if they aren't being made by studios any more.
"Would Midnight Cowboy be made by a studio today? Not on your life," he says. "But we have the indies and they represent I think what the studios were doing in the '70s. And they exist and they get the most attention and nominations."
And we still have sex and death and, thanks to him, quite a lot of red wine which he urges us to drink at the studio's expense as he backs out of the door. Hoffman is still relating a metaphor for filmmaking involving a plein-air painter, a canvas and an oncoming train as publicists nudge him out. Another table of journalists requires entertainment in the next room.
None of it makes any difference; you'll always be Ratso, snivelling hero of grunge cinema, to me.
Mr Magorium's Wonder Emporium is now screening.
edit: subject line? Totally fixed. Let's call it a subconscious mistake.