A Quartet of two


Now it is Sunday and the New Yorker Festival has been going on without me for two days. Well I cannot bear it anymore. I must attend at least something. A festival of Q&As is right up my alley and already I have let the likes of Ben Stiller, Viola Davis and Lena Dunham pass me by. But no more I tell you.

What will I choose?

Oh. I see there is a new film, directed by Dustin Hoffman (his directorial debut), supported in part by BBC Films and starring Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay and Billy Connolly. Seems utterly British. Just the way I like it then.

So, I add the final touches to an ongoing experiment and rush off to Midtown West and the Director’s Guild Theater to try my luck at getting rush tickets. This 4pm preview + Q&A session with Mr Hoffman will be highly popular, I fear. So I am prepared for a queue. As I bluster up to the stage door, I stutter something to the organisers. Something about a queue to get rush tickets for the Hoffman piece in a few hours time.

They point to a yellow stand reading “Line for non-ticket holders”. There is no one there. Not one soul. I AM the queue. Marvelous. So now I only have 2.5 hours to wait. And when did Autumn arrive I wonder? I have not transitioned to coat wearing yet as my mind and heart are still firmly lodged in summer. Oops. It seems I only have the legend Streisand to distract me from the now shivering state I find myself in. So that is a relief then.

At 3pm I successfully purchase the ticket and now I am in the home straight. It is only an hour more and Hoffman will be there, chatting to me. Can’t wait.

Soon enough I am taking my seat in the second row (strategically placed on the edge to minimise chances of tall or fat head issues) all the while taking this opportunity to regain feeling in my icy fingers. I am amused by my passage of luck this weekend and glance about the room taking in all the faces. But wait. Who’s face is that? Sitting only seconds away from little old me. Is that Billy Connolly of comedy fame? That Glaswegian funny man who regularly has my family in stitches at any and all family gatherings? Number two in the list of all time greatest welders (my father takes the top spot for the 29th year running)? It most certainly is. By Jove my luck just keeps a-coming.

Sat in the middle of the second row, Mr Connolly is ready for the film. And so am I.

Quartet is a gem. Set in a beautiful mansion somewhere in Fair Old England, this elderly residence houses aging musicians of all specialities. Opera singers, violinists, jazz trumpeters and singers in their 70s and beyond. A bunch of divas, their future in this magnificent setting is at risk. Charity funding is depleted and survival rides on the Annual Gala, where they all perform, so that monies raised can support them one year more. But they need a star to reach that target. Cue Maggie Smith. Arriving just in time to jostle her peers with her bristly manner. She of course refuses and the likes of an old flame Tom Courtenay, a wonderfully amusing Billy Connolly and a magnificent Pauline Collins displaying increasing signs of dementia throughout must convince Maggie Smith that she has to perform. For the sake of Beecham House, their home.

When Dustin Hoffman comes out on stage I am still wiping my eyes and wishing I was home in a field. With about 50 films to his name, one forgets how many classics this treat of a man has created. Kramer vs Kramer, as he learns to bring up his son in the day to day business of life. I just get goosebumps thinking about those kitchen scenes as he tries to make breakfast. A task he has never had to do until his wife (Meryl Streep) leaves them. And after a brief browse on Youtube I found this clip of Mr Hoffman winning the Oscar for Kramer vs Kramer. That voice!

Yesterday I sat in a room for nearly 2 hours listening to this man and his unbridled enthusiasm for life and art. His respect for opera singers, at one point, brought him to tears as he struggled to express their passion and “ferocity” in hitting those notes and hitting them again. He repeatedly punched the air as he tried to articulate the ambition and animal-like instincts to make those notes.

For Quartet he wanted his set to swim in an atmosphere of freedom and artistic openness (he didn’t say it exactly like that I promise). To achieve that, he (and his casting director) filled their beautiful mansion with real life retired musicians. Musicians who have not had a call to work for possibly decades and yet still have their abilities in abundance. Hoffman is moved as he describes their feeling of gratitude to work every day for sometimes 14 hour shifts on set creating the tone he was looking for.

One aspect of the film is the build up to the finale of the gala. Will Maggie Smith perform with her one time colleagues, Pauline Collins, Tom Courtenay and Billy Connolly in their famous quartet from Verdi’s Rigoletto? In fact, the story was based on a mansion Verdi had built for himself in Milan. When he died he donated it to retiring opera singers. This place really existed! Take me there?

So what was Hoffman’s Rigoletto? Death of a Salesman, he says. He tells us that even meeting Arthur Miller was a dream come true. It was the first play he had ever read, he felt it was his life. He was Happy. His brother Biff, the successful one. His father a salesman. It was his life. He has the best stories. In preparing for the role he remembers Miller telling him how he wanted it done.

It is like jabbing. Miller told him. You jab the audience, making them laugh with Willy Loman’s contradictions. With his ridiculousness. And then when they are not expecting it. You knock them out. Make them laugh and then make them cry.

Hoffman absorbs this and exiting the stage after the first act, he asks Miller.

“How was it? Good wasn’t it?”

“You were 3 minutes over”

“But they were laughing? Everyone was laughing. I have to wait until it dies down a bit otherwise they will miss the dialogue”

“Let them miss it. Talk through it. I want my audience here (Hoffman perches on the edge of his seat, eagerly anticipating what is before him). I don’t want them there (Hoffman leans back, relaxed in his chair).”

Dustin Hoffman of Rain Man, Tootsie and Meet the Fockers fame (don’t tell me you didn’t love that cast) is telling me (OK us) about Arthur Miller’s directions. I am so happy to be here right now I might burst into a million pieces.

And I could have sat there all night. So too could Dustin it seemed. But apparently the stage people needed to tidy up. It was a Sunday night after all. As he wrapped up his never ending stream of brilliant stories of some of the most influential moments of film gold he brought Billy Connolly up on stage.

At the end the duo just didn’t want to leave. They had enough time for everyone in the room. In order to avoid stuttering something embarrassing to Dustin Hoffman about him being a legend I turned to Mr Connolly, hoping I would fare better here.

“Please can I shake your hand Mr Connolly? I have some of the best lifetime memories sitting in my living room in Newcastle laughing with my family at your stand up, and I want to thank you for that.” (my hands shaking as he grabbed them, happy with the compliment).

“Oh Newcastle. Newcastle is great. I was pinball champion in a pub opposite the railway station for many years.”

“I think we will get your DVD out at Christmas and have good giggle Mr Connolly” and with that I smiled and took my leave.

My sister does a magnificent impression of this Mr Connolly. Often without any warning.

It took me a whole hour, possibly more, to come back down to Earth. I did wash my hand though, which is progress in my obsession with “meeting” celebrities, at least.


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