As a director, Dustin Hoffman celebrates his fellow actors
I have been astonished at how little fanfare has accompanied the release of “Quartet” from Dustin Hoffman. As an actor, Hoffman has over 70 credit listings on the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) with two Best Actor Academy Awards to date (“Kramer vs. Kramer” in 1980 and “Rain Man” in 1989) out of seven nominations (interestingly, all for lead performances), but his work here behind the camera marks only his second foray into directing and his first fully credited stint. It could be argued that, strictly based on the variety of his performances, Hoffman epitomizes the notion of an actor’s actor and a near-great one in terms of a generation that includes names like Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Robert Duvall and Gene Hackman. Of that distinct class, only Hackman has never taken the helm, but it seems almost impossible for even the most experienced director to not defer to their judgment a time or two during filming.
How could Hoffman overcome such complete deference now as he sets to work with Academy Award winning screenwriter Ronald Harwood (for “The Pianist” back in 2003) on an adaptation of Harwood’s own play about a retirement home for musicians where they host an annual event celebrating the birthday of Verdi? Well, quite shrewdly, by crossing the proverbial pond, enlisting a Who’s Who of stage and screen veterans to take the lead roles and coaxing a stellar ensemble of bit players comprised of former musical theatre professionals to back them up.
There’s enough quirk and mirth in the opening sequence where the cast of characters is introduced to fill a great and lively season’s worth of deliciously sudsy period drama. A stereotype or two pop up – like Billy Connolly’s randy Wilf Bond who puts on a charm offensive that is obviously harmless, but still quite a handful – but it’s all in the service of establishing a key to the lay of the overpopulated landscape. Of course, none of that matters much when the great diva Jean Horton (Maggie Smith) enters the picture. No longer able to live independently, and with no family to care for her, Jean arrives and immediately upsets the delicate balance of egos, especially among the reigning trio of elders Wilf, Cissy Robson (Pauline Collins) and Reginald Paget (Tom Courtenay). There’s complicated work and personal history between these players; in particular, the formerly married couple of Jean and Reginald.
With a younger cast, sex and backstabbing would be the order of events, but with “Quartet” all that is in the past. Yet, it is a past that’s far from buried, largely because these vivid memories feel like all that remain and the hurt and the passion re-animate the players. In many ways, audiences and critics will seek to compare this film to “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” another story about a group of seniors in their twilight years in unfamiliar environs. The disparate retirees staying over in that “Hotel” to a large extent led far more traditional lives that lacked the glories and interconnectedness of the main “Quartet” here.
Despite the intimate personal drama on display, this film is about the struggles artists and performers face during later transitions and it is even more intriguing when seen through the perspective of actor-turned-director Hoffman, who graciously offers himself as an example of how to embrace a changing role that comes later. Hoffman and his cast turn their backs on performative bombast, but capture a rawness in these characters and their situations that lets us know that there’s still lots of life and living before the finale.
Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com