Dustin Hoffman brings mischievous wit and charm to Cannes Film Festival

He’s graced the silver screen for more than five decades, but Hoffman shows no signs of slowing down or losing his childlike enthusiasm for his craft, as he speaks from the Cannes Film Festival

PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 May, 2017, 10:24am
UPDATED : Friday, 26 May, 2017, 11:16am

Afternoon Mediterranean light pours into an open doorway where Dustin Hoffman sits, grinning.

He will turn 80 this summer and his hair, still full, is mostly white. But he looks remarkably good. Age has done little to dim his eagerness for engagement, his mischievous wit or, it turns out, his proclivity for continual self-examination.

In Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), which is competing for the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, he plays a mostly forgotten abstract artist whose failed ambitions and self-obsession have instilled deep neuroses into his children (Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Elizabeth Marvel). Hoffman, a two-time Oscar winner, might seem to have little in common with Harold Meyerowitz, but he disagrees.

“Feeling like a failure, it’s constant,” says Hoffman. “I do try hard to improve each day, but you don’t. I’ve been in therapy forever. In fact, I have a deal with my analyst that after I die she’ll come and sit at the grave site and we’ll find a way to communicate.”

At even the celebrity-stuffed film festival, Hoffman is a standout. A “legend,” as he was accurately called at a press conference – a label Hoffman reacted to with an eye roll. “I resent people who say they grew up with my movies,” he responded. He’d have preferred to play either Ben Stiller or Adam Sandler’s parts, his character’s sons, he said – a joke, but also not.

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This isn’t Hoffman’s first trip to Cannes. He was here in 1974 with Lenny, and more recently with Kung Fu Panda.

“More than a few people came up to me and told me that Kung Fu Panda was my best work. So I vowed never to come here again,” he says with an ear-to-ear smile. “Yet, here I am.”

And he has lived it up, dancing with co-star Emma Thompson on the red carpet, borrowing a photographer’s camera at the photo call and pondering whether one young reporter with the last name of Hoffman was a long-lost son. “It was that press tour 25 years ago,” he joked.

The Meyerowitz Stories, which Netflix will release later this year, drew headlines for Sandler’s dramatic turn, but Hoffman is also predictably great in it. He calls his character – prickly, psychologically abusive, selfish, funny – a combination of his own father and Baumbach’s.

“If your father feels like a failure but doesn’t really feel that he should be, it’s particularly burdensome on many children, and I certainly was one of them,” Hoffman says. “You keep trying to change their third act. You keep trying to save them. Even if they’re dead, you somehow want to see them more positively than was accurate in their life.”

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At this stage in his life, Hoffman cannot help but reflect on his success, the kind that so painfully eludes Harold Meyerowitz.

“I do believe you don’t learn from success, that it crusts you over. You learn from failure, but that has nothing to do with what the culture says,” says Hoffman. “I’ve often wondered, at least in my business – which it is – or in my art form that whatever amount of drugs or drinking or different types of self-destruction, that they were thinking as they were coming up, that if they ever hit that moment of money and success, that that would be it. And then they found out that it has nothing to do with your inner self – not a shred. It may for a while, if you kid yourself, and yet it doesn’t fill up that hole. I do feel that about Trump very strongly.”

The election of Donald Trump, recent comparisons of White House scandal to Watergate and the hardnosed reporting of many, including The Washington Post, have given one of Hoffman’s hallmark films, All the President’s Men, a new relevance. Hoffman agrees, “absolutely,” and says he has enjoyed watching his old character, Carl Bernstein, on CNN.

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With the sunlight starting to fade, Hoffman is due back at his hotel. But before he goes, he is stopped cold by a question of whether acting has helped him, along with all those years of therapy.

“Yes, I think I have to say yes,” he says after some thought. “I’ve always said that there’s no such thing as playing a character. You give yourself a walk or a different accent, certain aspects of a character. But you keep yourself there. You’re not performing someone else.”