Tag Archives: dustin hoffman

Amuse-Bouche?

I want you to take what I’m about to say very seriously.

Remember when you were a kid and you were out to dinner with your parents or grandparents at some semi-high end restaurant and because you were too young to read they ordered for you and when the food came you didn’t want it because it looked unusual and they said, “Try it, you might like it” or “You never know until you try”? And then you tried it and, amazingly, you actually liked it? Remember that?

Well, Ishtar.

Like I said, I don’t want to joke about this. Ishtar has been the subject of many earned and unearned punch lines for a very, very long time, but of the laughing, how many have actually seen the movie? And among those who have seen it, who can actually claim to remember it? Surely not many; those who saw Ishtar when it was originally released in 1987 are likely to recall its highly-publicized box office problem (which I don’t want to get into) better than the picture itself. And because Ishtar never became available on Region 1 DVD, it’s been difficult for the ambivalent or even antagonistic to revisit their decades-old opinions, not to mention the new generation – the one without the Ishtar baggage – to give the movie a fresh look.

All of a sudden that’s changed. Now that www.slashcontrol.com has made the film free and available, we might be able to look again, or should I say, for the first time. For Ishtar is not a film that needs to be “rediscovered,” it’s a film that needs to be given a chance.

But let’s be clear: I can’t advocate for the entire picture. Ishtar is no lost gem like Elaine May’s A New Leaf or Mikey and Nicky, which truly are lost gems. It’s simply one half of a very funny movie. In that half, two struggling songwriters (Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty) stretch themselves to the very limits of their creative and emotional capacity. This is New York City and they just want a chance. Of course they have no chance and seem silly even for trying, but it doesn’t matter. Hoffman and Beatty are so good – on their own and together – that no matter how ridiculous their characters appear, the strength of their dream, which they handle with total, committed seriousness, keeps them credible.

And they have chemistry, real chemistry. Watching Ishtar, especially its opening moments, you can see Elaine May was thinking in terms of the Lemmon and Matthau tradition, and in that sense, the pairing of Hoffman and Beatty is fascinating. What other comic duo in the history of the movies has their dramatic pedigree? Even before they appear, you can hear – in voiceover over the opening credits – the care and attention to detail Hoffman and Beatty have put into building their relationship. It comes across as a shared facility, a mutual resourcefulness – the kind that stems from years and years of collaboration. It’s a marriage.

So love it, hate it, like it. But try it. Twenty years later, when it comes to a picture like Ishtar, its better to have an opinion than a joke.

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Master Class

It looks like Dustin Hoffman will be directing Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, and Albert Finney in Quartet. The script will be written by Ronald Harwood, based on his play. I’m so excited I don’t know what to do with myself.

Set in a retirement home for musicians, the stage version of Quartet tells of Reginald, Wilfred, and Cissy, a group of former opera singers, who along with Jean, a newcomer to the home, set about preparing a gala concert in honor of Verdi’s birthday. I’ve never seen the show, but I’m sure it contains a goodly amount of bittersweet good-old-daysing; the kind everyone today seems to be engaged with, in some form or another.

Speculation aside, we can be certain that Quartet, directed by one of the greatest actors in the world, will star three of the greatest actors in the world (review John Schlesinger’s Billy Liar to brush up your Courtenay), with a script by Harwood, one of the greatest dramatists in the world. I suggest you search your search your local internet for a credit roll, but I can’t miss the opportunity to single out his adaptations of The Pianist, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (no easy gig, that), The Browning Version (The Figgis/Finney version, far better than the Anthony Asquith/Michael Redgrave of 1951), and of course, The Dresser, which provided Finney and Courtney with some of the most succulent acting opportunities of their career (not to mention Eileen Atkins as Madge, who delivers the kind of life-capping, career-summarizing statements that just about every mid-level show business employee might take as their motto: “No, I haven’t been happy. Yes, it’s been worth it.”) I told you I was excited.

It all brings to mind a terrific documentary, a clip of which I’ve included above. To watch Tosca’s Kiss, Danie Schmid’s 1985 film of the residents of Milan’s first nursing home for retired opera singers (founded by Verdi himself in 1896), is to sit in the front row of the world’s greatest magic show, and watch – dumbfounded, if you’re me – as a group of elderly artists are transformed into previously lost, younger versions of themselves in the space of an aria, or a trembling, impossible-to-sustain high note. They’re both the magicians and the white rabbits.

As film and theatergoers, we know firsthand what joys performers can bestow upon an audience, but rarely are we privy to the private ecstasies they offer to themselves, the reasons why they do what they do. Pop psychology has its own reasons, but no textbook theory is expansive enough to match Schmind’s wordless inquiry into the stage artist’s heart and mind. It’s All That Jazz if Bob Fosse lived into his eighties.

Backstage films like All About Eve are good on struggle, the sweat and greasepaint and thankless effort, and today, with Hollywood cynicism at an all-time high, there’s no shortage of behind-the-scenes misery. But what about the good? How does it feel to nail that moment on stage? What kept Albert Finney’s “Sir” (in The Dresser) coming back, year after year, as the theater was crumbling in the midst of an air raid? Tosca’s Kiss. It shows how art sustains the artist, even after the spotlight has been taken away. Perhaps Quartet will too.

Did I say I was excited?

Goodbye, Bob Willoughby (1927-2009)

Bob Willoughby, the man considered by many to be the greatest set photographer of all time, died Friday at his home in Vence, France. He was 82.

It’s difficult not to love Willoughby’s work. He shot the most beautiful people, his pictures are graphically bold and often full of action, and they give us regular people privileged access into the private, behind the scenes moments of our favorite movies. But what am I saying? That’s what all set photographers do.

What makes Willoughby’s work stand up taller than the rest, is that it contains a true, open-eyed love for the process of making movies. One look at any of his pictures, and you’ll see he saw the stars, directors, and technicians, the way we want to see them, with curiosity, the enthusiasm of true fans, and, unlike the classical Hollywood portraits of Hurrell, only the slightest touch of idealism.

Today, we like to see movie people cut down to size. And why shouldn’t we? Many of them are just too rich and too happy (or so they seem) for us to want to let them stay that way.  But Willoughby’s work forsakes that impulse, and reminds us of all that was wonderful – and indeed still may be wonderful – about the picture industry. And the way Willoughby saw it, it was truly an industry – of stunning people out there doing stunning work.

I’m happy to say I had the good fortune to speak with Willoughby over the last year. Our communication began when I contacted him out of the blue to see if I could get the rights to a photo of his which I wanted to use for the cover of my book about Blake Edwards. Though he owed me no favors, he wanted to give it to me for a very, very low price. He didn’t have to; I was willing to pay pull price (for this shot, attached below, you would have too), but he insisted.

And when I told him I was working on a book about his muse, Audrey Hepburn, he assured me that everything they ever said about her was true. She was the loveliest person in pictures, perhaps the loveliest person he had ever met. The way he said it, with such tender reverence, it was impossible not to believe him.

So here’s to Bob Willoughby, who loved making movies. The proof is in the pictures.

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?(1966)

Blake Edwards and Natalie Wood, The Great Race (1965)

Judy Garland and George Cukor, A Star is Born (1954)


Dustin Hoffman and script supervisor Meta Rebner, The Graduate (1967)