Cinema: Watergate on Film

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(7 of 9)

Even the painstaking habits that annoyed Redford on the set must seem worthwhile now. The director has patiently sought out the inner dynamics of the film's many short scenes involving characters who have no lasting relationship with Woodward and Bernstein or anyone else in the film. His ability to find drama in the way a cup of coffee is handled, in the briefest play of emotions across the troubled face of a reluctant informer, is remarkable and invaluable in preventing the film from being no more than a historical record, a documentary in the dullest sense of the term. In fact, the entire Woodward-Bernstein relationship is built up not in the script (where Redford ordered it played down in favor of showing their procedures) but through fleeting exchanges of glances and gestures caught, as it were, out of the corner of an alert camera's eye. Even so, the failure to explore their relationship with more fully dramatized incidents, good sharp verbal exchanges, is a major flaw, giving the picture a certain coldness at its center.

In compensation, Pakula has developed a series of incisive actors' moments that to a degree belie Hoffman's contention that this is not "an actor's film." Hal Holbrook is brilliant as Deep Throat, giving him an arrogance and condescension that make that famous nonperson's behavior explicable. So is Jane Alexander as the edgy mouse of a bookkeeper whom Bernstein persuades to talk about the slush fund at the Committee for the Re-Election of the President. Penny Fuller and Lindsay Anne Grouse appear as newspaperwomen who help out with leads at key moments—the former dizzily, the latter with touching reluctance to betray a lost love.

Pakula is not unwilling to take credit. He observes that he had "constant hassles with actors who were awed by the subject of the film and thought in an ideological frenzy they had to give it all they had. I've never seen so many experienced professionals overacting in my life." Redford is probably entitled to credit for submerging his actor's ego beneath his producer's needs and playing, as does Dustin Hoffman, as part of an ensemble.

In his own way, Hoffman is just as essential to the film as Redford; partly because he plays the more interesting character, his performance may well be more vividly remembered. At 38, Hoffman is the best character lead in the business; it seems impossible to imagine anyone else as Carl Bernstein. On the set Hoffman is a tough, uncompromising craftsman. Pakula's crablike approach to film making, which so unnerved Redford, was just fine with Hoffman, who thrives on improvisation. "I fight like hell with my directors," he says, "but this was a relatively pleasant experience."

As a child in Los Angeles, Hoffman studied to be a concert pianist but dropped the idea fast when he discovered the fun of acting classes. It is nearly a decade since he became an overnight star in The Graduate; he now gets $750,000 a picture. He and his wife, Ballet Dancer Anne Byrne, live in New York City. Says he: "If you stay in Beverly Hills too long you become a Mercedes." He is extravagantly proud of his wife, who stopped dancing to have two children, but who is now "making a comeback second only to Muhammad Ali." He concludes, "She is the toughest of the tough of the tough."

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