Dustin Hoffman graduates at last

The actor who came to fame flirting with Mrs Robinson is now a director. Geoffrey Macnab explores what can prove a tricky transition

When film stars go behind the camera, the results range from the brilliant to the unspeakable. For every Charlie Chaplin or Clint Eastwood, there are plenty of big-name actors who've stumbled badly as directors: Tom Hanks with Larry Crowne, John Wayne with The Alamo, Eddie Murphy with Harlem Nights to name a few. Dustin Hoffman is the latest (and, at 75, one of the oldest) big-name Hollywood actor to decide that it's time he started calling the shots.

To understand the inspiration for Hoffman's directorial debut, Quartet (which receives its British premiere at the London Film Festival next month), picture an image of an old lady in a retirement home in Milan, standing in the corridor next to a nurse. She's an elegant but very frail looking creature who admits to "aching legs" and who walks with the aid of a stick, and with her handbag perched precariously on her elbow. She used to be a singer, the "last of the romantics" as the receptionist calls her. She is asked to share a song. We expect to hear a few croaks but when Signora Scuderi bursts into an aria from Puccini's Tosca, her voice has an uncanny beauty. Age hasn't withered it at all. This is one of the most magical moments in the film Il bacio di Tosca (Tosca's Kiss) (1985) from the Swiss director Daniel Schmid. Il bacio di Tosca is a delightful and very poignant documentary about opera, art and old age. Its protagonists are the residents of the "Casa di riposo per musicisti", the rest home for musicians that was founded by Verdi.

Hoffman's Quartet (directly inspired by Schmid's documentary) is set in Beecham House, a fictional English equivalent to the retirement home shown in Il bacio...Taking its cue from the documentary, it portrays the musicians' idiosyncrasies and petty vanities, their compulsion to out-do one another, but also the way their passion for their art sustains them, even as their faculties wither. The American star of Tootsie, Kramer vs. Kramer, Marathon Man et al, has assembled a cast of formidable Brits: Maggie Smith as the ageing diva, Tom Courtenay as her hostile former husband, Billy Connolly as the sex-obsessed old baritone and Pauline Collins as the wilfully scatty Cissie.

Quartet (scripted by Ronald Harwood from his own play) is genial and uplifting fare, full of scene-stealing antics from its venerable leads. The film lacks any transcendent moments like those when Sara Scuderi bursts into song. That's inevitable given that Hoffman's leads are actors, not musicians. Maggie Smith may have an Edith Evans-like hauteur and a genius for delivering waspish one-liners but she's no Maria Callas. For all her skills as a comedienne, Pauline Collins isn't a Joan Sutherland. If Hoffman can't offer us any startling sequences in which the elderly troupers suddenly re-harness the musical ability that once made them stars, his film stands as an affectionate tribute to performers in their dotage. He clearly adores his actors and is always ready to indulge them. "It wasn't difficult to direct them because everything I despised in directors for 45 years I knew they despised," Hoffman said of his cast at Quartet's Toronto premiere.

The 75-year-old American had an unsuccessful start to his own career, encountering constant rejection before his big break in The Graduate (1967), when he was already 30 years old. During the casting of Quartet, he reportedly refused to meet any actors he wasn't going to give a role to because he couldn't bear telling them he didn't want them.

Many big-name directors are intensely suspicious of actors. Alfred Hitchcock notoriously suggested that they "should be treated like cattle". When he had conceived a film in his head to the last possible detail and paid such exhaustive attention to scripting, mise-en-scène and editing, he didn't want unpredictable performances to compromise his original vision.

"When an actor comes to me and wants to discuss his character, I say, 'it's in the script", runs one of Hitchcock's most famous quotes. "If he says, 'but what's my motivation?', I say, 'your salary'."

Hoffman's approach is the polar opposite. As an actor turned director, he is looking precisely for the unpredictable moments the actors can provide, the little bits of comic business and improvisation that add extra richness to the script. Stars often wrongfoot their fans by choosing very challenging material to make films about. Gary Oldman's Nil By Mouth (1997), a study in domestic violence and male brutality on a south London housing estate, was one of the greatest British films of the 1990s. By contrast, Johnny Depp's The Brave (1997), exploring the plight of young Native Americans, has disappeared almost without trace in spite of a cast which included Depp and Marlon Brando. (Neither star has directed a feature since). Hoffman has avoided this problem by making his directorial debut with a gentle, crowd-pleasing comedy.

If the stars themselves are appearing in their own movies, their task becomes doubly complicated. Discussing his new feature, Argo, Ben Affleck recently told The New York Times that the most important tip he received from Warren Beatty, Kevin Costner and Robert Redford about directing himself on screen was: "Make sure you get enough coverage of yourself... the polite thing to do is bang out one take on yourself and move on. Because you don't want to look like a prima donna."

In other words, false modesty can be a hindrance. By the same token, audiences can see through the narcissism of stars who direct themselves in vanity projects. Hoffman sidesteps these problems by staying behind the camera.

Sometimes, films aren't treated fairly simply because there's a star directing. In spite of its classic status now, Charles Laughton's southern-Gothic melodrama The Night of the Hunter (1955) had a lukewarm reception when it first appeared. Madonna was excoriated by critics for her feature W.E. (2011). "If that had gone out under the name of a first-time film-maker or... Sofia Coppola, people would have said it was innovative, distinctive, entertaining and beautifully crafted... unfortunately she has a profile and a status that meant she was always going to get a kicking!" Stuart Ford (one of the film's backers) recently told Sight and Sound.

Hoffman is unlikely to face such opprobrium. As an actor, he is known to be demanding. "Difficult to work with" is a phrase that's often connected with his name. As a director, however, he shows a surprisingly light touch. He isn't trying to dazzle us with his artistry or method-style intensity but, rather, to provide a platform for his actors. It's easy to accuse Quartet of being saccharine and of pandering to the tastes of older audiences who enjoy a bit of schmaltz with their popcorn but it is a competently made and engaging debut. Any fears that it's an ageing star's vanity project can be safely laid to rest.

'Quartet' is the American Airlines gala at the London Film Festival in October. It is released in the UK in January

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence