By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — “Growing old ain’t for sissies” is how movie icon Bette Davis put it, which is why she’s referenced in Quartet.
And, come to think of it, neither is moviemaking.
In 1978, Oscar-winning actor Dustin Hoffman set out to direct the gritty crime drama Straight Time, in which he was also starring. But because he felt he couldn’t objectively evaluate his own performance, he fired himself as director.
Now, thirty-five years later, at the age of 75, he finally makes his directorial debut with the gentle and elegant comedy-drama Quartet.
And everybody wins!
His audience-pleasing ensemble charmer, an entry in the less-than-crowded subgenre that might be described as “feisty geriatric cinema” (and includes The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) never patronizes the elderly. It sees its characters as vital and interesting and funny. And so they are.
The plot, such as it is: three members of the titular foursome must convince an aging and reclusive prima donna of an opera singer, played by the inimitable Maggie Smith -– who was once the group’s solo star and was briefly married to one of the two men in the group –- to perform at a gala annual concert in order to raise enough money for the residents of Beacham House, a retirement community of opera musicians, to renovate and continue to have a home.
So, yes, we are now in generic hey-let’s-put-on-a-show territory.
But with a quartet of nary-a-false-note contributions from Billy Connolly, Tom Courtenay, Pauline Collins, and Michael Gambon, as well as Smith, the film remains a watchable delight, with a love of the performing arts coursing through the veins of the narrative.
Hoffman knows enough about acting (needless to say) to allow his seasoned British thespians to do their thing by staying out of their way.
And he had either the good fortune or accrued wisdom to cast his film with nuanced, highly skilled actors, and to trust the power of performance and their ability to capture and communicate authenticity.
His first-time direction, then, is relaxed, but not so much that he abandons his function as the conductor of an acting ensemble.
He also gets to work from a script by Oscar-winning screenwriter Ronald Harwood, based on his 1999 play, that approaches the difficulties of old age with a bracing sense of humor while addressing the prospect of finding fulfillment during the golden years with not only sentimentality but insightful context.
And where romantic love is concerned, says Quartet, growing up can happen at the same time as growing old.
So we’ll perform 3 stars out of 4 for the seriocomic Quartet. It’s easy to be passionate about a movie this appealing that’s about undying passion.