Dustin spoke on stage after the screening with many funny anecdotes in the making of QUARTET, especially in his director/actor dealings with Maggie Smith, who has quite a reputation for being “difficult”, as does Dustin. He said they got along “just fine”.
He spoke of the minutiae of the producing/directing process, how he had little to work with in terms of budget, and had to complete it using his own money. He also spoke of his preferred director methods. Hates those who keep precise lists and set ideas of how actors and equipment should move, and likes those who arrive on set with very open minds.
I am second to none in my admiration of Dustin, who is 5 years younger than me, unwillingly became an unknown actor in his early twenties, while I unwillingly became a child star aged eleven. I not only admire his acting, but also his approach to his career, designed by himself. Just as conflict exists in the good story told, it exists in the good life lived. I think we share that approach.
I’ve talked here about the ways the actor can manipulate his senses and emotions, from the inside or outside, in the unending quest for a great performance. And about having no degrees of separation between you and yourself.
Agents and managers are tools. But here’s where that plan falls apart. If you are a star, an icon like Dustin, you can do it. If you are a star like Lynn Redgrave, you can also do it (with my help). If you occupy the lower depths, like me these days, you will become the tool of those same agents and managers. The tail wags the dog.
The almost legendary story of the Agatha production in 1979 is worth telling here, only because he brought it up at great length. As a matter of fact, he chose to bring up Vanessa’s behavior too, recalling her unpopular political dance with PLO honcho Yasser Arafat. He held his nose, as though to say “Vanessa didn’t notice this?” And of course, it didn’t help the marketing of the movie.
Dustin had been invited to join Barbara Streisand, Steve McQueen, Sidney Poitier and Paul Newman who had set up their own producing company First Artists Productions. They felt that they were the most important part of movies because they were the draw, and were seen onscreen (probably true). Besides, they didn’t trust the majors’ accounting practices (definitely true), and wanted to choose their own scripts and have approval of directors, casts, writers, and final edit. They invited Dustin in with his own production company Sweetwall Productions. The second to involve Dustin, this was their 17th, Agatha.
It was beset with problems from the start. Julie Christie bowed out for health reasons. Producer David Puttnam (now a life peer) was upset he had to accommodate Dustin into what he thought was a finished script and also bowed out, (but first vowed never to work with this “difficult” actor again.) Dustin, by then executive producer, had gone over budget, and so the company took his control away. Dustin claimed he wasn’t paid in the agreed way, and insisted on maintaining control all the way up to final cut. Recently hired lawyer Phil Feldman had come in as president and chief executive officer though, changed the conceptual field, and got himself sued by Dustin for 30 million dollars, which was the amount Dustin claimed for his fee, plus what he put into it, plus the amount he claimed the movie would have made if he’d been left alone. Trust lawyers to fix things, right?
Anybody who thinks that major stars are loving warm human beings are just plain wrong. They lord it, often unyieldingly, over their individual turfs.
Anyway, it became clear that the presence of Agatha director Michael Apted approved by Agatha actor/producer Dustin Hoffman, this night was not without purpose. It was a time for digs, and they flew. But Dustin also graciously congratulated Michael for the success of 56 Up, the continuing follow-up of his Up Series examination of cradle-to-grave British lives.
The time came for the Q & A, but there were no microphones available for audience participation, and so an actor in the front row got up and joined them with his actor question. Then I decided it was my turn. I put up my hand, and Michael asked me up on the stage, and so it was that I shook hands with Dustin.
I said that he and I had worked together some 50 years ago, but it was not as actors. It was in the kitchen at Ted Flicker’s The Premise on Bleecker Street, where we made the coffee, served the refreshments and cleaned up afterwards, while his friend Gene Hackman was improvising along with George Segal and Joan Darling up on the platform.
“You”, said I, “went on to become the iconic star that you are, and I went on to become Vanessa Redgrave’s brother-in-law, and then a director. And come to think of it, didn’t Vanessa get into the litigation act too? I have vague memories of that.” He looked a little stunned.
At which point Michael hurriedly asked me to move on with a question, which was “Now that you’ve crossed the aisle into the director’s corner, will it have changed you when you next act in a movie?” To which he replied that he wasn’t sure, but it would certainly make him more sensitive.
[As I left the stage, I couldn't help but recall an essay I had written for the L.A. Daily journal. In it, I reflected that I'd studied acting technically from the outside (British, Canadian) inside (U.S. the Method, Lee), and then ventured into the theater of the truly absurd, the inside of a courtroom, not pretending real life, but actually doing real life, villains and crooked deus ex machinas and all. I thought I bet Dustin or Pacino or De Niro wouldn't dare go that far. Maybe I'm ahead of 'em. Yup, foolish, and I'm proud of myself!!!]
And so a great evening came to an end.
Go and see Quartet. I think you’ll like it.