James Mottram

DUSTIN Hoffman turned 80 in August. He even reminds me that he’s getting on in years. “I forget so quickly about so many things now at my age,” he says, muttering in that unmistakable nasally voice of his that immediately transports you 50 years back to The Graduate and talk of Mrs Robinson. In fact, he doesn’t forget a thing: names, dates, facts, figures. Hoffman talks – and likes to talk – about anything and everything: Baryshnikov, fruit-flies, Van Gogh, Rwanda…you name it.

Officially, we’re meeting in Cannes to chat about Hoffman’s new movie, the comically spry The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected). Arriving at the Carlton Hotel, dressed in a white shirt, grey slacks and black shoes, Hoffman looks taken aback. The entire seventh floor has seemingly been taken over by Netflix, the streaming platform who bought Meyerowitz and will distribute it, both in cinemas and to their online subscribers. All Hoffman cares about right now is being comfortable.

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“I gotta get another chair, I’m sorry,” he twitters. “Close to my age – you don’t want that!” He gets up, exchanges his seat for another equally ornate-looking one, then returns. He’s already a little flustered today by the gruelling rounds of back-to-back interviews he’s had to do. When he started out, he says, encounters with journalists would regularly last 40 minutes in relaxed circumstances; these days, everything has been compacted. “It’s a metaphor for the culture, really.”

Still, he may have to do a few more of these if the Academy sees fit to award Hoffman an eighth Best Actor Oscar nomination next year. He’s already won twice – for his troubled parent in Kramer vs. Kramer and his autistic savant in Rain Man. He wouldn’t object, he says, to a third statue. The feeling was pretty good last time around. “It’s like sex,” he reasons. “They once said to George Burns: ‘What was your worst sexual experience like?’ He said, ‘Pretty good.’”

The reactions to The Meyerowitz Stories have certainly been positive. The night before, the film received its world premiere in the festival’s huge Palais. Hoffman was with Lisa, his wife of almost 37 years, and his son Jake. “My son was wonderful…I said, ‘What did you think?’ And he said, ‘I thought the audience was reluctant and you could feel them. And then suddenly it brought them in. The comedy in this film is a weapon because it disconcerts you.’”

Written and directed by Noah Baumbach, The Meyerowitz Stories provides Hoffman with a deserved late great role in a career that burned so bright for so long. He plays Harold Meyerowitz, an irascible patriarch on his third (or maybe fourth?) marriage, to a lush named Maureen (played by Emma Thompson). A New York sculptor and a retired college professor, who never quite got his due, Harold has been left embittered and twisted by his own failures and other people’s successes.

The film is largely about Harold’s relationships with his grown-up kids: Matthew (Ben Stiller), and his half-siblings Danny (Adam Sandler) and Jean (Elizabeth Marvel). His own anxieties have largely filtered through to his offspring, particularly Danny, who is facing a divorce and still seeking approval from his father. It’s a wild and undulating family portrait, like Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums – which also featured Stiller. Big themes – love, illness, money, success – loom large.

Hoffman, still prone to vanity like anyone, turned the role down initially. “I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want to play an old man,” he shrugs. But it was son Jake that convinced him to do it. Clearly, though, Baumbach has a huge affection for Hoffman.

“I loved Dustin before I knew him,” the director tells me. “He feels like part of my life. And also because he made so many movies in New York where I grew up. I had great feeling for him before I met him…and have greater feeling for him now.”

While he didn’t set out to write Hoffman the part, it quickly became clear just how perfect he was for Harold. “He was writing in some respects about his father and he thought I should be playing the part,” says Hoffman. “I’m not sure why…I wasn’t until we met and started talking. And then we got together quite a few times, just telling stories – that’s my father, that’s my father. So what’s there is a combination between the two of us: both our fathers are failures and it’s painful to be a part of it.”

Born and raised in Los Angeles, Hoffman was clearly marked by his relationship with his father Harry, a prop supervisor and set decorator on movie sets who later became a furniture salesman. “Well I’ve been in therapy longer than I’ve been alive!” he says, smiling. “And what I’ve learned personally is that you try to remake your parents...even if they’re dead, you’re trying to improve them. But you cannot bear to hate them and go past that to understand them; you block your real, painful feelings about them.”

As a child, he felt like a failure, left in the shadow of his older sibling Ronald. “I think that what you feel about yourself the first few years never leaves you. My brother was the A student and the star athlete and I was neither. And I couldn’t concentrate in school and I feel now that I should’ve loved school, because I loved learning and I loved reading, but I was programmed somehow to think he was a success, I was the failure, and it never left me. My childhood, my teenage years, are the worst memories I have in life.”

Hoffman is, of course, far from a failure. “He knows everything,” says Sandler, who previously worked with him in 2014 fantasy The Cobbler. “He’s so well read.” The actor cites the scene where Harold sells his sculptures. “There were a bunch of books around [on the set] about the art world. And he literally knew every artist. He would point and go, ‘Have you ever seen this painting? Have you ever seen that sculpture?’ I think I knew none! I didn’t know what he was talking about, ever! I was like, ‘I wish I was videoing what he was saying.’”

Knowledge is one thing; parenting is another. And Hoffman has raised six children: two during his first marriage to actress Anne Byrne; four with Lisa. He’s watched some of his kids go into the arts, including Jake, who is an actor. “It’s so different [now],” Hoffman sighs, “because it’s all about making it, making it, making it, making it, and it is true. Everything is making it. My generation – and it’s an older generation – we never thought in those terms. Can I make a living? That’s all. Can I make a living? So I think it’s much more different today.”

Hoffman, who only went into acting because he did not want to work or go into the military service, really ‘made it’ after The Graduate won him his first Oscar nomination; he followed it with a series of remarkable films: Midnight Cowboy, Little Big Man, Straw Dogs, Papillon, Lenny, All The President’s Men, Marathon Man, Straight Time, Kramer vs. Kramer…all of them bona fide classics now, all of them made inside a ten year period. Hollywood was undergoing a renaissance. “We didn’t know it was the golden age of movies in the when we were there,” he shrugs.

Since then, the successes have been more sporadic – and there’s been the odd howler like the Warren Beatty vanity project, Ishtar. But success in the arts, he says, is subjective. “In commerce, it isn’t: you make money, you’re a success.” He cites Picasso and his ability to sell himself. “It was so integral to being successful. Charles Ives was an American composer who changed the landscape of American music with his symphonies; not only was he not successful, he never heard it [said to him] once. Never.”

He recalls getting an AFI Lifetime Achievement Award in 1999, with the likes of Beatty and Jack Nicholson in attendance to celebrate his achievements. It gave him a panic attack. “I never had one before. I understand now what it feels like because you want to jump out the window. It’s a visceral pain, it’s awful. You feel like you’re eating yourself up. I felt the opposite of one being celebrated, because I felt that was it – it was like a eulogy and my life was over, and I felt I hadn’t even begun to do what I wanted to do.”

We move back to the topic of therapy, and how it gradually becalmed him to realise he wasn’t such a flop. “It was in therapy that I realised something that I never realised before. I never had a sense of myself, ever. I always felt fragmented, without knowing it consciously. And the first time I felt centred, ironically, was by playing someone else.” Did he gradually exorcise these feelings of failure? He nods. “Nobody says it better than E.E. Cummings. He said, ‘I am a man, I am an artist, I am a failure. But a failure must proceed.’”

While Hoffman did proceed – not least fulfilling a lifetime ambition when he made his directorial debut with the quaint 2008 movie Quartet – he has other things of his mind than self-centred career thoughts. His mother-in-law died a few weeks ago. “I knew my wife’s mother and her father since I was born. Because they lived upstairs in L.A. and my mother was best friends with my wife’s grandmother. I played the piano at her parents’ wedding when I was about 16. So I was quite close to Marsha. She had MS for 35 years. Went from a cane to a walker to a wheelchair and never gave up, wanted to live.”

He then tells a long and very moving anecdote about being with her at the very end of her life, in the hospital. “I’ve been there a couple of times when people have passed away, but not like this,” he says. “I swear the line that came right into my head...I would say that was a pure moment...I said: ‘Boy, death doesn’t fuck around.’ That literally went into my head. And I do believe she wasn’t there anymore. She was somewhere. That’s a defining moment. But it wasn’t awful, or nihilistic. It was, ‘Oh there is a soul.’ I don’t think you get a lot of those.”

As for what’s next, Hoffman doesn’t know. There is no slate of pictures he’s already shot, ready for release. Nothing. Just the satisfaction of making The Meyerowitz Stories and all that it may bring. Whatever happens, he knows that he’s not like Harold or his own father. But given all his successes, is there a part of his life he’d like to relive? “Every bit of it. The whole thing. We have an expression in America – ‘Life is not a dress rehearsal.’ They’re wrong. It is a dress rehearsal, and that’s the problem.”

The Meyerowitz Stories (cert tbc) opens in cinemas and streams on Netflix from 13 October.