Dustin Hoffman's character in "Moonlight Mile" is named Ben. People immediately think of Benjamin, Hoffman's famous role in "The Graduate." In the new film they see Ben trying to persuade a young man, the fiance of his murdered daughter, to join him in the real estate business. They think they have the key: Benjamin has grown up and, like the adults he scorned in "The Graduate," is offering a young man the key to success.
This is a neat formulation, but I think it starts with the wrong Dustin Hoffman role. In 1984, he starred in Chicago and on Broadway as Willy Loman, the hero of Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman." He had lived all of his life on dreams, and all of the dreams had been dashed, and now his hopes for his son Biff were being disappointed, too.
In "Moonlight Mile," written and directed by Brad Silberling, Ben's daughter has been killed. Now he and his wife (Susan Sarandon) rattle around in a lonely marriage. He has dreams of putting together a big parcel of real estate, but she knows that most of his plans come to little. Having lost a daughter, Ben now turns to Joe (Jake Gyllenhaal), who would have been his son-in-law, and treats him as his son--even changing the name of the realty firm to "Floss & Son."
Hoffman, whose work in "Moonlight Mile" has been much praised, accepts the parallels between the two roles.
"I don't think, for myself, that you can do a lot of different things," he told me after the movie's premiere earlier this month at the Toronto Film Festival. "You try to pretend that you can, but you can't. I worked with Olivier once and he said, 'Dear boy, we've only got about four or five characters. The rest are a variation on a theme.' "
At 65, Hoffman still looks intense, focused, vaguely worried. In the movie, his voice cracks sometimes, and he will slow down when he wants to be sure he is saying a painful thing in the correct words.
"Some people say you're always doing an autobiography when you act," he said. "I think in life, too, we are constantly doing an autobiography. I cannot stop putting my family into my work. I can't help it. My father is in 'Death of a Salesman.' My father is in this. My father was an unsuccessful salesman, and a man who had a great difficulty living in the moment. And it was a tragedy of his life and of my life that he..."
Instead of finishing that thought, Hoffman related a memory. "We had the same birthday. He was 80 the same day that I was 50. A momentous occasion. We took a walk on the beach. I said, 'What do you think, Dad?' He said, 'What do I think? It's all b.s.' And I think that's the underpinning of this character, Ben. He's doing what my dad did. My father would never admit his despair to anyone. It was always, 'Hey! How are ya?' But you caught it.
"You're not going to get any answers. You want your dad to say he's 80, and he can give you the answers. And he's saying, 'I didn't have them when I was your age, and you're not gonna have them when you're mine.' "
Thinking about "Moonlight Mile," I can see how Hoffman brought that realization into the movie. The movie gives full attention and sympathy to all of its characters, and doesn't take cheap shots or make anyone into a caricature. Ben's real estate dreams are foolish, but he is not foolish, and he has a scene were he confesses to young Joe that he never really thought he could pull off the deal. It was more than, by trying to make the deal work, he was refusing to give in to despair.
Hoffman and Sarandon star with Gyllenhaal and a newcomer named Ellen Pompeo, who works at the post office and tends bar and is a local woman who the grieving Joe begins to notice. The movie starts at the time of the funeral of Diane, the murdered daughter, Joe's fiancee. The world is assaulting them with its sympathy, and they are all maintaining a kind of insouciance, or brave distance, from breaking down. There is a tone of bleak, inconsolable ... comedy.
"The director lived through this," Hoffman said. "He had a girlfriend actress Rebecca Schaeffer who was murdered. He didn't work for four years. I met him in that period. I wasn't interested in the movie because I didn't think I was right for the part, but that's my problem. When he picked the cast, he had us all at a table and he said how happy he was that he got the cast he wanted. And he said, 'We're going to have our first reading.'
"And then he broke down and we sat there and he was sobbing, and before we knew it, we were crying with him. We didn't know his girlfriend, but there was some mysterious connection that took place."