Film Studies: Dustin? Bob? What are on earth are you doing? (As if we can't guess...)

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Meet the Fockers has so far earned $162m at the American box office, and it will go higher yet. Even in the challenge of Oscar season, naughty little boys of all ages love to tell you that they're off to see Meet the Fockers!

Meet the Fockers has so far earned $162m at the American box office, and it will go higher yet. Even in the challenge of Oscar season, naughty little boys of all ages love to tell you that they're off to see Meet the Fockers! They nudge you and wink, to make sure you heard the pun, and in truth this is the best preparation for the film's humour. In Meet the Fockers, Ben Stiller's parents meet those of his girlfriend, who, you may recall from Meet the Parents, is the daughter of Robert De Niro and Blythe Danner. Well, now we meet the Fockers, Ben's parents, and they are Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand. And I daresay some genius choked on that idea and recognised $162m straight away.

Nothing I say will divert you from seeing the film, and building its eventual pile of money. Still, I don't think I'm alone in sitting through its din and scramble and asking myself, what are Hoffman and De Niro doing in this twaddle? Beyond getting their piece of the pile.

Dustin Hoffman will be 68 later this year; De Niro will be 62. They have both been perceived as extraordinary young actors who arrived at much the same time - in a "class" that also includes Robert Redford, Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson and Al Pacino. Redford and Hoffman (Woodward and Bernstein from All the President's Men), were born just 10 days apart in Los Angeles. All six of those guys were born in the space of six years.

In their early years, Hoffman made The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy, Little Big Man, Straw Dogs, Papillon, Lenny, All the President's Men, Marathon Man, and Straight Time - all that before his Oscar in Kramer vs. Kramer (that was his fourth nomination.) De Niro had done Bang the Drum Slowly, Mean Streets, The Godfather Part II, Taxi Driver, The Last Tycoon, and The Deer Hunter - all that before his Oscar in Raging Bull, his fourth nomination (and he had already won a supporting actor Oscar as the young Vito Corleone). I do not mean to regard Oscar as an infallible measure of movie work in America, and I note that Hoffman would be nominated for Tootsie and gain a second statuette for Rain Man. De Niro has not won again.

Well, either man might explain, or complain, we're older now and the very same curse that falls on actresses at 40 affects actors at 50. The great American public shows no inclination to watch middle-aged men.

There's truth in that, but at the same time, there have been portrayals of middle age or early veteran status, in recent years: Nicholson in As Good As It Gets and Anger Management; Pacino in Angels in America and The Merchant of Venice; Robert Duvall in The Apostle and Open Range; even Morgan Freeman in Million Dollar Baby. I could go on. Choice is still the factor that determines careers in acting.

In just the last year, therefore, we have had plenty of opportunity to ask why Hoffman took the part of the benign hippy dad in Meet the Fockers, or the theatrical impresario in Finding Neverland or the private detective in I * Huckabees. Well, he might say, those projects looked more promising in outline than they turned out. Still, if they had been masterpieces, Hoffman's contribution would have remained modest. He is not ill. He is, if anything, rather more amiable and relaxed than he used to be. He is popular. But if you go back as far as Rain Man (1988), you will find him in odd pictures playing would-be heroic roles that belied his natural virtues - I'm thinking of Billy Bathgate, Outbreak or Sphere - or ventures where he was content to do colourful supporting parts: such as Hook, Wag the Dog and, more recently, Confidence.

Has his ambition gone? Is Hoffman happy to live in comfort, working here and there? Once upon a time it was said that his perfectionism and his ego could make any project an ordeal. Has he heard that talk, and agreed to relax? Whatever the answer, I don't think Dustin Hoffman has had a major acting challenge since he played Teach in the film of American Buffalo a decade ago.

De Niro's is another story. No one works harder or shows less sign of relaxing. He has become a successful restaurateur in New York, and he is a driving force behind the Tribeca Film Festival. Even now, on American television, he has a commercial, where his grim face and his gritty New York are meant to advertise the Tribeca Festival, and American Express. He makes more films than any lead actor around. And it's not that he is ever uninteresting: the harsh edge is there even in Meet the Fockers. De Niro still gives every sign of being a dangerous man uneasy in his own skin. But the pictures nowadays are hack works, standard pay-days, not the dazzling adventures of the Seventies. Can you honestly remember the details of Sleepers, Cop Land, Jackie Brown, Ronin, Flawless, Men of Honor, 15 Minutes, The Score, City by the Sea, and so on?

We have no right to challenge a professional's handling of his own career, I suppose. De Niro might say - after years in which he did great films for very little money - can't I cash in now, can't I make myself secure against a time when maybe no one will hire me? Of course he has that right, but by the very bright light of his early work he cannot simply edge away into the shadows and ask not to be noticed. I daresay De Niro could still make films as shattering as Raging Bull. In Heat - which is not nearly as ambitious, though much more polished - he gave a performance that suggests how much he has learned about modesty and economy. Nor do I see any hint that Dustin Hoffman might not come back to life if thrust into the right material.

But we live in a film-making climate where they are swayed by the money making opportunities of Meet the Fockers. And it's not only them: the film also includes Blythe Danner (one of our best actresses) and signals another return for Barbra Streisand. And that's where Million Dollar Baby offers the best lesson for 2004. Two of its three lead roles are characters who must be close to 70. And just as Morgan Freeman is uncanny in the film so I'd say it contains the best acting Clint Eastwood has ever done.

The lesson is that Eastwood made the film, determined on it, committed himself to it. The thing that Hoffman and De Niro owe us is the resolve to find such a project and insist on making it, no matter the cost. The choices actors make are clouded by chance, accident and luck. But at the end of a career it is choices that tell the story.

'Meet the Fockers' is released on Friday