Saturday, November 22, 2008

HC: My Evening with Emma, Dustin, and "Last Chance Harvey"

On Monday, November 17, I attended a Screen Actors Guild screening of the new movie Last Chance Harvey, starring Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson (see, for a trailer that gives away far too much!). The indie will be released in the United States on December 26th. The movie was described in Entertainment Weekly as a Before Sunrise (or Sunset, I don’t know the difference) for the AARP set, which, although derisive and dismissive, isn’t altogether untrue. I would describe it as a well-done romance between two intelligent grown-ups. We movie-goers know how rare that is.

After the screening, both stars were interviewed by a writer from Entertainment Weekly. Yes, Hoffman and Thompson trotted out, climbed up on high director’s chairs, and sat below and in front of the huge screen where minutes before the audience saw their faces huge, movie-screen high. It’s a great testament to both of them that they didn’t diminish in scope at all.

Hoffman sat in the middle, slouching and playing with his microphone like a little boy. He was very likable. When asked questions about his craft, he sort of shrugged and said, in his own wonderful words, just do it. The man has won tons of awards since he started acting in the early 1960s, including two Oscars (Kramer vs. Kramer and Rain Man). While Hoffman is a great actor, I’d never go out of my way to see a movie he’s in. Emma Thompson is another story…I simply adore her, and would crawl on broken glass to see her in anything. Also a two-time Oscar winner (Best Actress in Howards End, and Best Screenplay for Sense & Sensibility), Thompson is beloved by many. If you’ve seen Thompson as Margaret Schlegel in Howards End (one of my favorite films), or Miss Kenton in The Remains of the Day (another one of my favorite films), or Elinor Dashwood in Sense & Sensibility (uh, yes, another one of my favorite films), or the nonperiod The Tall Guy or Love Actually (hey! neither one is on my list of favorite films…but she’s great in both, especially the latter, bringing realism and heartbreak to an otherwise cotton-candy film), then you may feel you know Emma Thompson. She is an actress who brings a lot of who she is to each part. Actually an (ex-) friend once commented that that was what he didn’t like about Thompson: that she always plays herself in movies. I do not feel that to be true…hence, the "ex-" (although his opinion of Thompson was only one of many reasons for the end of our friendship). Thompson is not Carrington or Gareth Pierce in In the Name of the Father, both actual people she has played, but she'll make you think she is.

But I digress.

At the start of the Q&A, Thompson teased Hoffman about his use of the hand-held microphone, warning him that if he held it too close to his mouth, he “sounded like God.” Hoffman answered that he’d “always wanted Charlton Heston’s roles.” Hoffman and Thompson first worked together, albeit briefly, on Stranger Than Fiction. It was enough, however, for them to know they loved working together, had the same work ethic, and similar senses of humor. Hoffman has stated “It’s wonderful to work with someone, to have that kind of unusual experience, where the sexual innuendos are exactly the same for both of us at the same moment!”

Thompson talked a lot about the WORK of acting, that it’s hard and you have to work at it all the time. She is simply not impressed with herself at all! When asked about how she managed to write the screenplay for Sense & Sensibility, she said Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, screenwriter of most of the Merchant Ivory films, had advised her about “dramatizing everything in the book” and then seeing which parts worked and which didn’t. Editing, editing, editing down until you got to a filmable screenplay, and that she was never really sure it was “right.” The questioner said, “Well you did something right because you won the Oscar,” and she said, in essence, that that didn’t mean or prove anything, and that’s never why you attempt something. When an audience member wanted Hoffman to sign her 20-years-in-the-making Hoffman scrapbook, and then asked Thompson to sign it, Thompson said, “But this is all about Dusty, are you sure you want my name on it?”

In discussing the making of the movie (no spoilers here), both stars talked about being very impressed with the other one. Thompson made an acting choice that floored Hoffman, doing a line towards the end of the film in a totally unexpected way. Last Chance Harvey was mostly filmed chronologically, but Thompson talked about having to do the very last scene from The Remains of the Day first! She said somehow it worked for her and Anthony Hopkins, and that almost any disturbance or difficulty or mishap can be used within the character you are playing to benefit the film. Both actors talked about collaborating with the second-time director of LCH, Joel Hopkins, who also wrote and directed a movie called Jump Tomorrow. Hopkins was occasionally uneasy about the level of input from these two veterans, but learned to trust their instincts and improvising. Thompson talked about a scene in an airport bar, where, during the rehearsal, she and Hoffman circled around the bar and tables “like cats” until they found the best, most natural, most beneficial places for each of them to sit. Would her character be facing the entrance or would her back be towards Hoffman when he entered, etc. Perhaps minor things, but fascinating to listen to from these aces.

One person asked Hoffman if a scene of him on the phone shot from outside a large-windowed part of the airport was “an homage” to The Graduate. Another asked if his LCH character name “Harvey Shine” was at all a tribute to an early play Hoffman was in called Jimmy Shine. Hoffman said neither thing had ever even occurred to him until audiences brought them up.

Thompson’s answers were well thought out, beautifully delivered, and seemingly from the heart. Onscreen and off—and I can report this first-hand now—she is intelligent, sparkling, funny, warm, and just plain lovely in every sense of the word. After the question and answer period, many members of the audience gathered around each actor. I stood near Thompson and watched as she shook hands, took pictures, and chatted with many of them. She was so present, moving in closer to talk, her eyes never leaving the eyes of the one person in front of her. She was…lovely.

I’ve admired Thompson for years. Did you know she was a part of ActionAid, visiting people in Africa to spread information about HIV, AIDS, and condom use? (See for an interview.) She is also fighting sex trafficking with Public Service Announcements and a planned Times Square installation (see youtube and 

Last Chance Harvey is far from a flaw-free movie. One plot point doesn’t work, and one is thrown in for cheap laughs and wasn’t all that funny. However, it’s worth seeing for two actors at the top of their game, some interesting supporting people (James Brolin, Kathy Baker, Richard Schiff, Eileen Atkins, and Liane Balaban, who gave a powerful performance in the role of Hoffman’s daughter), and for the London travelogue. I admit it was a little hard to concentrate on the film, knowing that at the end of it I’d see, in person, an actress I’ve admired for 15 years! I’m also sure that I’ll like the film even more seeing it a second time at the end of December.


The Write Bunch said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Write Bunch said...

(this is the original comment -- see 'comment deleted' above -- but with a correction)

I *adore* Emma Thompson and feel exactly the same way. She's a consummate craftsman and a gifted artist. She is one of my favorite actresses and when I see her on the tv screen in passing, I stop. Have you seen her film "Wit"? Amazing! Re Hoffman, he is also an extraordinary craftsman, but sometimes he overwhelms his characters and does not allow for immersion into the film by this audience member; in some films I always know it's Hoffman and I can't get past it and into the film. That happened in The Messenger. Bummer. :) Thanks for writing this.

On Tuesday I go to see an advance screening of "Milk"!!! I'll post a review.