Sunday 29 April 2012

John Burnham Schwartz and Dustin Hoffman

John Burnham Schwarz is a successful writer, the author of five novels. One of his books, Reservation Road, was made into a movie. 

When John was a teenager,
his fatheran entertainment lawyerrepresented Dustin Hoffman. At the time Hoffman was a regular guest at their house.

John Burnham Schwartz front left, Dustin Hoffman far right.
A couple of days after watching the movie Me and Orson Welles, I came across a piece Schwarz wrote for The Guardian, called Dustin Hoffman and me. It includes the following anecdote.
It was August 1979, a rainy night in an old beach house on the Atlantic coast. I was 14 years old. John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men was on my summer reading list for school and, after dinner, as my family drifted back into the living room to sit by the fire, one of our house guests – a famous, energetic and physically unprepossessing actor with a prominent nose and flat, nasal voice – picked up my copy of the book, opened it at the first page and began performing it aloud, inhabiting the disparate minds and voices of the protagonists George and Lennie with uncanny precision. At first, self-conscious smiles appeared in our makeshift audience, though we quickly realised that this extraordinary display was no laughing matter. We were meant to watch and listen, which we did – for hours, as the rain beat down on the roof, the branches of the pine trees scraped and tapped against the windows, and the fire burned to embers. And when the hulking man-child Lennie (twice our guest's size, one had to assume) ended up crushing another man with his bare hands, and the rage drained from his powerful limbs, his terrible confusion – he had wanted to protect, not to hurt – made him, in the actor's sublime incarnation, what he truly was, both wolf and lamb.

I stayed for the duration, hardly moving in my seat. A trip to the bathroom was out of the question; the bathroom from which, earlier in the day, behind the locked door with the whaling ship painted on it, I had overheard my mother quietly sobbing (three months later, she asked my father to move out of the house, which he did). When the performance was finally over, and with a curtain-call bow of triumph, the actor handed me back my book, his sweaty fingerprints still on the cover, tragedy for me was no longer just a notion in a story, but a ghost in our house.

For a couple of years at the end of the 1970s, Dustin Hoffman was a fixture in our family. My father was his lawyer and friend. Dustin was a movie star at the peak of his fame, the most intelligent and brilliant actor any of us had ever met, and he was with us a lot, making us laugh, entertaining us, opening doors to worlds brighter than our own, observing our ways and moods and accidents, our spilled drinks and sullen glances and careless goodnight kisses, never missing a beat. And we enjoyed it mostly, and depended on it, until in every respect that particular show came to the end of its run.
Great actors are different to the rest of us. If you're interested in acting, and in the way one will ruthlessly exploit the pain of others in a quest for acting greatness, it is worth reading the article in full.


Kathy said...

Wow. Thanks, Henry.

Anonymous said...

Dustin Hoffman, great actor!
But as a person...hmm!!!