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Festival Diary, by Johanna Schneller
On Tuesday, I made Dustin Hoffman cry

By JOHANNA SCHNELLER, The Globe and Mail
September 13, 2002

I made Dustin Hoffman cry on Tuesday, and I really enjoyed it. It was exactly the kind of moment I always hope for during the festival.

The Toronto International Film Festival is not only about watching, it's also about listening. It's about sitting silently for five minutes in mid-interview while Susan Sarandon yakked on her cellphone to an assistant who was buying baseball cards for her sons. "Why is that one so cheap?" Sarandon asked. "Because it's Canadian? Maybe it'll go up in value if they legalize marijuana. Okay, buy them all, but ask if you can get a price. I said, try to get a price. You know, because we're buying so many, ask if we can get a discount."

It's about hearing Brad Silberling, who directed Hoffman and Sarandon in the drama Moonlight Mile (which he also wrote), say that he and Hoffman had a code word they would use if either felt he was overacting.

"I can't tell you the code word," Silberling said. "Okay, I will. It was 'Olivier.' When Dustin did Marathon Man, he was young and Olivier was, well, Olivier. But in one scene Dustin thought Olivier was overdoing it. He agonized about whether he should say anything. Finally he screwed up his courage and said, 'Maybe it's a bit too much.' Olivier just replied, 'Quite right, dear boy, thank you.' It's really a story about having the courage to be collaborative. So sometimes after a take, Dustin would say, 'Olivier?' and I would say, 'Yeah, Olivier,' and he'd tone it down."

Listening at TIFF also means overhearing the most extraordinary things: The investment-banker type at the opening-night party who whined, "Flirt with me!" to the babe behind him in the buffet line. The agent walking down Bloor Street who snapped to his assistant, "Will you cut it out with the details!" The reporter going into the elevator at the Four Seasons who said, "I'm going to lose you, e-mail me your phone number and I'll call you back."

It's hearing a publicist in her hotel aerie sigh as she surveyed the sumptuous lunch laid on by her American studio -- chicken, scalloped potatoes, grilled vegetables -- and say, "All I want is potato chips and chocolate." It's the TV reporter slumped in the third-floor hallway at the Intercontinental who said, "I'm feeling very RRRRR right now," and the distributor who said, "I'm negotiating like a rabbit." It's the brunette in the turquoise slip dress at the Moonlight Mile party who said, "I didn't go to the screening tonight, because last year I went to Life as a House just before the party, and I cried so much I messed up my makeup and my eyes got all puffy and I looked awful, so I knew not to make that mistake again."

My new best friend Dustin, however, didn't seem to mind crying. During a group interview with seven other journalists, I asked him about a scene in Moonlight Mile, in which he plays the grieving father of a young woman killed in a freak shooting. Near the end, he bids his daughter's would-be fiancé (Jake Gyllenhaal) an emotional goodbye, then immediately turns away from the camera. "Most actors would have gone for a lingering close-up there," I said. "Why did you turn your back?"

"I remember that moment exactly," Hoffman answered, leaning across the table. "I'll tell you the story. I like to block out all the business I'm going to do in a scene first: 'Okay, I'm packing up my office, I see a photograph of my daughter, I cross to show it to Jake, I say goodbye.' I walked through it a few times, then Brad [Silberling] said, 'Let's try one for the camera.' So I go through the scene, I'm not expecting anything, I stand in front of Jake, and suddenly I'm completely overwhelmed, out of nowhere I'm weeping, weeping, I can't stop, and I have to turn away."

As he's saying this, Hoffman's voice breaks, and I look up from my notebook to see that recounting the moment is making him cry all over again. Tears are plopping from his eyes and his voice is getting thinner, but he keeps talking: "Brad is saying, 'Where are you going?' and I'm saying" -- here Hoffman hides his face behind one raised arm and slashes the air with the other, as if to signal Stop -- " 'It's over Brad, the scene is over, I can't do it again, I don't even want to look at him any more.' And that's the take we used."

At this point another reporter, not exactly an avid listener, tried to inject a new topic, and the rest of us flapped our own arms and cawed like startled birds. "He's in the middle of a story, let him finish," we said.

"I have six kids and only two of them are left at home," Hoffman continued, talking quickly, passionately. "They're all healthy, but nobody talks to you about the empty bedrooms, nobody warns you what that feels like."

He was crying freely then, his cheeks glistening. "You spend your whole life looking over here, at your career, and then one day you wake up and realize you should have been looking over there, and it's too late." He ran the fingertips of both hands under both his eyes, scooting away the tears, and sat heavily back in his seat.

We asked a few questions after that, but they didn't matter. It was over, the scene was over, and I bet a few of us at that table can't look at Hoffman quite the same way any more. In a place as sterile as a hotel ballroom, in an environment as controlled as a junket interview, Hoffman had shared something that seemed true.

In the past week I've been to scads of parties, talked till I was hoarse and overheard some howlers. But listening to Hoffman was the most fun of all.


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