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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
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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