Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Thinking about Dustin Hoffman

Some people are probably grieving for Dustin Hoffman:

He has a long career with some great roles, which would be enough for many fans to not want this to be true. Beyond that, there was this video which touched many hearts:

The top comment there is that you can tell he's a good person. Hold on to that thought.

I was less surprised to hear allegations of harrassment about Hoffman because I had read this article:

To be fair, even before the article, I had already thought that "method acting" might only be an excuse for abusing your co-stars. That was largely based on reading about Jared Leto and Suicide Squad.

I don't know that all method actors are abusive; some are probably just mildly frustrating. Hoffman has had a reputation for being frustrating on set for a long time, though I only learned about it recently.

Before the Vanity Fair article, the only reference I had ever heard was the story of Hoffman staying up for two days before filming a scene for Marathon Man where his character was supposed to be exhausted, and Laurence Olivier suggested that he try acting. Funny, especially the way Steve Martin told it on "Saturday Night Live", but not completely accurate either.

Choosing different ways to provide an authentic performance is not automatically a bad thing. I can see how arriving physically exhausted might keep you from being ready to do multiple takes, therefore less ready to keep up with the rest of the cast and crew. Of course, it might also make you more likely to nail the first take. Those are probably good things to discuss with the director and rest of the cast before going in.

For example, one thing they did to help Justin Henry - the child star of Kramer vs Kramer - was shoot the film in sequence, so he did not have to keep jumping back and forth along the story arc to access the right emotions. For a child new to acting, that is a logical way to get a better performance. That would also be something that everyone understood beforehand.

It is questionable about whether there was the same universal buy-in to Hoffman telling Henry things to make him sad for real when he needed to be acting sad, as the article mentions. It seems pretty certain that Hoffman did not have buy-in from Streep on slapping her and goading her about her dead fiancé and the things he did to improve her performance. She wasn't as well-established then as she is now, of course, but I think there's a general acceptance that Meryl Streep does not need unsolicited help in delivering a good performance.

Here's something interesting: I was not able to completely track it down, but the origins of the "Try acting" story may be that Hoffman insisted on having Olivier doing a lot of improvisation and things that made him uncomfortable, and the protest may have come from that.

If we think about this in relation to sexual harassment and assault, notice the lack of interest in consent. Notice the self-assurance that all of this domination is for the good of the film; he's doing them a favor.

As a side-note, I have this sentence in my blog drafting file - "I put off writing about toxic masculinity" - because I had started writing one post, and that wasn't the way to go so I paged up and started writing what really ended up being that day's post and kept going. Several posts later, I still haven't gotten where I meant to go, but in a way it feels like I haven't been writing about anything but toxic masculinity (except maybe for Monday's post). It's everywhere.

Does that make Dustin Hoffman a bad person? Well, how are you going to define that? He is probably good to a lot of people. In the context of the wider discussion and the known allegations, Spacey is worse and Weinstein is much worse, if you can get past the unhelpfulness of the gradations.

At the same time, that for a moment Hoffman could get that men ignore interesting but unattractive women, and feel how unfair it was, does not make him a good person. It's not enough to see the inequality in a flash and then go right back to profiting from it, whether that profiting is done consciously or not. You can choose to stay conscious and work for something better, or you can choose to do what comes easily.

As far as that goes, in Tootsie a very difficult actor lies, sleeps with his vulnerable student (because it's easier than being honest with her, even if it can hurt her), uses information gained under false pretenses to make inroads with an attractive woman, but still gets the funding he needs, accolades, and even the attractive woman he wanted after one well-deserved punch in the stomach. Plus the interesting woman was a man all along so he didn't need to be attractive. I'm not sure that's the game-changer it's supposed to be.

Going back to the original story, I can easily believe that Dustin Hoffman did not intend serious harm to Hunter. Society has given many messages that young girls are hot and flirting is cool and chick only resist you because they have to do that to be lady-like. Going unquestioningly along with that happens. It doesn't feel good for the people on the receiving end, but it's not particularly beneficial for the giver either. It's not beneficial for society, though society's structure backs it up.

As we navigate that, there are decisions to make. They may involve people that you like a lot. It can be helpful to remember that this character you like so much is a character, and not the actor (though that can be so disappointing).

The answer isn't always going to be to stop liking people because of the things they do, but it should not be overlooking things they do because we like them either. It probably helps if you don't idolize anyone too much.

Anyway, I think we are done with Hollywood for a while. We are not done with abuse or with the systems that encourage it. More on that next week.

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