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Did Dustin Hoffman Go Too Far with Method Acting in ‘Kramer vs. Kramer’?

April 15, 2016

The set of Kramer vs. Kramer could have been described as Dustin Hoffman vs. Meryl Streep according to Michael Schulman’s cover story for Vanity Fair. Schulman’s biography entitled Her Again: Becoming Meryl Streep will soon be released, and he wrote an adaptation for the magazine revealing the strained relationship between the then 29-year-old character actress and her costar, Hoffman, in what would go on to be a multi-Oscar winning film in 1980.

The movie deals with a divorcing couple, and the ensuing custody battle over their son, Billy. Hoffman was set to portray the husband, Ted Kramer, and casting decisions were being made as to who would play his wife, Joanna. When Streep became an option, she was grieving because she had just lost her boyfriend of two years, John Cazale, to lung cancer. Being a dedicated Method actor, Hoffman felt certain that Streep was indeed the best fit for Joanna. According to Schulman, Dustin saw her as “still shaken to the core,” and felt she could “draw on a still-fresh pain.” The film’s director, Robert Benton, also recognized Streep to be Joanna because of a “fragile quality.”

Schulman describes on the second day of shooting the film’s opening scene–a scene in which Joanna is trying to walk out on Ted–Hoffman “shocked” Meryl, the cast, and crew. Schulman writes:

“Right before their entrance, Dustin slapped her hard across the cheek, leaving a red mark. Benton heard the slap and saw Meryl charge into the hallway. We’re dead, he thought. The picture’s dead. She’s going to bring us up with the Screen Actors Guild. Instead, Meryl went on and acted the scene. Clutching Joanna’s trench coat, she pleaded with Ted, ‘Don’t make me go in there!’ As far as she was concerned, she could conjure Joanna’s distress without taking a smack to the face, but Dustin had taken extra measures. And he wasn’t done.”

Schulman goes on to say that as cameras were set to cover Joanna entering an elevator in the subsequent scene, which was just as emotionally charged, an off-screen Dustin resorted to hurling personal attacks at Meryl.

“Improvising his lines, Dustin delivered a slap of a different sort: outside the elevator, he started taunting Meryl about John Cazale, jabbing her with remarks about his cancer and his death.” Apparently, Hoffman was using Method techniques attempting to increase the intensity of her performance. At the end of the day’s shoot, Meryl left furious.

As the days on set continued, Hoffman is said to have been “driving everyone nuts. In his effort to fill every screen moment with tension, he would locate the particular vulnerability of his scene partner and exploit it.” This is to say, his emotional attacks on his other cast members included young Justin Henry playing Billy; attempting to make him cry for a scene, Dustin informed him that he may not see fellow members of the cast and crew again. This proved effective to the point where Justin couldn’t stop sobbing after the scene was completed.

And Hoffman secretly planned with the cameraman to catch a shot of him abruptly swiping a glass of wine, shattering it on the wall to punctuate his character’s anger. Streep was alarmed, and with shards of glass in her hair told Dustin, “Next time you do that, I’d appreciate you letting me know.”

Both Streep and Hoffman went on to earn their first Oscars for the film.

What do you think? Was Dustin’s behavior abusive and unacceptable? Should he have only used emotional recall techniques on himself, or was it worthwhile to target others with it? Do you believe it impacted the intensity of the performances?

Is Film at Its Worst?

July 20, 2015

Actor director Dustin Hoffman’s recent interview with The Independent has people debating whether cinema is currently at its worst. Best known for his roles in The Graduate, Kramer vs. Kramer, and Rain Man, as well as being nominated for an Academy Award seven times, Hoffman told the publication his beliefs on the subject, saying, “I think right now television is the best that it’s ever been, and I think that it’s the worst that film has ever been–in the 50 years that I’ve been  doing it, it’s the worst.”

What’s to blame? He asserts, “It’s hard to believe you can do good work for the little amount of money these days. We did ‘The Graduate’ and that film still sustains, it had a wonderful script that they spent three years on, and an exceptional director with an exceptional cast and crew, but it was a small movie, four walls and actors, that is all, and yet it was 100 days of shooting.” Compare that to many modern movies which can be made in a striking 20 to 30 days–of course besides the extravagant Hollywood films that feature comic strip themes or an ambitious movie like Jurassic World which was shot in 78 days. The reduced budgets associated with today’s dramas, skyrocketing marketing costs, along with the fact that digital technology empowers movies to be shot more quickly is arguably affecting the quality of cinema.

But consider in just the first half of 2015, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Fast & Furious 7, and Jurassic World have each surpassed billion-dollar profits across the globe. And some experts predict this year will become the most booming year to date when you take into account other lucrative hits like 50 Shades of Grey and American Sniper–and then add upcoming films like the Mission Impossible, Star Wars, and Hunger Games franchise movies which will be released the second half of this year. So clearly regardless of this debate, people are still willing to spend their hard-earned cash on what’s showing in theaters. Indeed, studios are largely focussing on franchises, adaptations, and remakes in recent years which come with built-in audiences; they’re less willing to take financial risks on original storylines.

However, some people disagree with Hoffman’s point about the overall state of today’s cinema. After all, films like Boyhood which was shot intermittently over eleven years and with a tiny budget of four million, and Birdman which was shot in just 30 days with a low budget of eighteen million prove that good quality movies can and do get made these days. Birdman star Edward Norton said in an interview with Indiewire last year, “I feel like people are always talking about the business and how hard it is. But [David] Fincher’s got a terrific movie. Alejandro’s [Gonzalez Inarritu] got this movie; Wes [Anderson] has made one of his best movies ever. Richard Linklater made another great movie. Paul Thomas Anderson has made another great movie. Bennet Miller’s movie is incredible. Do you know what I mean? I mean like, c’mon. You can’t get cynical … what more do you want? How many good movies do you expect there to be?”

So with whom do you tend to agree? Do you side with Dustin Hoffman and say today’s films are seriously lacking in quality? Or do you think Edward Norton’s point about people being too cynical is a more accurate description what’s going on these days?

What’s Your Idea of Success as an Actor?

April 26, 2015

When Oscar- and Golden Globe-nominated and BAFTA-winning actor Chiwetel Ejiofor was lauded for his portrayal of Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave, he was overwhelmed with support before the awards ceremonies. In stark contrast, he likened the subsequent days after the awards season to the Olympic Games and the World Cup saying, “You win and it’s great. But then it’s time for the next one, and nobody cares if you won before.” So what is Chiwetel’s idea of success in regards to his acting? He was once quoted as saying, “I like to disappear into a role. I equate the success of it with a feeling of being chemically changed.” Perhaps he is continuing to feel chemically changed in his more recent projects including playing an FBI agent in the film The Secret in Their Eyes, and starring in a London theater production called Everyman.

Kevin Spacey has had his share of accolades as well. With Best Actor Academy Awards for his portrayals as Roger “Verbal” Kint in The Usual Suspects, and the mid-life challenged Lester Burnham in American Beauty, and more recently taking home a Golden Globe for his character Frank Underwood in the political drama series House of Cards. But Spacey similarly equates success with an inner feeling. “I very often watch a lot of young people sort of meander around without any idea about why they’re doing what they’re doing. I mean to want and to be ambitious and to want to be successful is not enough. That’s just desire. To know what you want, to understand why you’re doing it, to dedicate every breath in your body to achieve; if you feel you have something to give, if you feel that your particular talent is worth developing, is worth caring for, then there’s nothing that you can’t achieve.” 

Dustin Hoffman has had his generous share of awards showered upon him for roles in movies like Kramer vs. Kramer and Rain Man. But he insists that even if he hadn’t received “by freak accident” a breakthrough role–as Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate–which lead to his prolific and celebrated career that he’d still be acting any chance he could find. “There’s no question in my mind whether I’d be teaching at some college or whether I’d go to some repertoire theater in Seattle, wherever, I’d be doing it.” His idea of success is actually doing what he loves to do, likening his sense of purpose as an actor to Picasso and his relentless drive to paint.

What are your ideas about success in your career? Do you share the sentiments of these three noteworthy actors, or do you have other ideas of success and milestones to mark along your actor journey?