San Francisco International Film Festival


Before a sold-out crowd Wednesday night, Dustin Hoffman transformed himself into Ed Sullivan as surely as he once did into Tootsie. Hoffman turned the San Francisco International Film Festival’s award banquet into a variety show with himself as master of ceremonies.

First he got Tom Waits — there to present Hoffman with an acting award — to play the piano and sing “Waltzing Matilda.” Then he pulled Lily Tomlin — doing the presenting honors for director Robert Altman — onstage to do her Ernestine, the telephone operator, bit. Surprise guest Robin Williams was next,

yelling out jokes from the audience. Hoffman said he felt as if he were among family. There certainly were close ties among the celebrities gathered at the Ritz-Carlton event. Williams had co-starred with Hoffman in “Hook” and been directed by Altman in “Popeye.”

“Of course, they were their only movies that didn’t do well,” the comedian pointed out, laughing.

Waits met Hoffman almost 30 years ago, at a time when the actor had just separated from his first wife. Bette Midler brought them together at a cheap hotel room where Hoffman was staying. “Dustin was sitting at a piano playing, and there was a lot of alcohol involved,” Waits recalled for the audience.

Hoffman also shared his memory of the evening. “Tom sang all the songs from his album ‘Closing Time’ because my marriage was ending, and you know how you think your first marriage will last forever. And you know, Tom, there wasn’t just alcohol involved.”

In another connection, Waits and Tomlin played husband and wife in “Short Cuts,” directed by Altman. “Tom and Lily were there for the first five days of filming, and they set a standard for the rest of the film,” Altman recalled. In order to keep the excitement level up for the rest of the shoot, “I had to have a girl take her pants off,” Altman added, referring to that now famous scene of a bottomless Julianne Moore.

Tomlin credited the director with boosting her career by putting her in “Nashville.” “I don’t think anyone else would have thought to cast someone everyone thought of as Ernestine in ‘Laugh-In,’ ” she said.

To complete the circle, Hoffman and Tomlin will co-star this summer in “I Love Huckibees,” directed by “Three Kings’ ” David O. Russell. “Lily and I play existential detectives,” Hoffman said.

While the evening’s honorees have yet to make a movie together, they did do a promotional spot for the E! channel. “They paid us $85,000, plus they gave us lunch,” Altman said. Both men seemed genuinely pleased with their festival awards. Hoffman called his a “a big thumbs-up.” They also were happy to have an excuse to come to San Francisco. “Your city is a place I feel is separate from the rest of the world,” Altman said.

Hoffman told us that when he and his wife, Lisa, got off the plane that day,

“I said to her, ‘Why don’t we live here?’ I grew up in L.A., a town without character. It would be nice to live in a place with character.”

San Francisco would open its Golden Gate for you, Dustin.

Home-team cheers: If anyone might be expected to favor French filmmakers over the Hollywood crop, it would be French film expert Michel Ciment. But Ciment, guest programmer at the film festival, bent over backward to be fair in his State of Cinema address last weekend.

“There are at least 30 American directors still working who are extremely talented. That’s more than in any other country.” said Ciment, who proceeded to name Altman, Terrence Malick, Steven Soderbergh, the Coen brothers and San Francisco’s Philip Kaufman, among others. Kaufman happened to be seated in front of us. Afterward, we asked if it felt good to be mentioned. “Yeah,” he replied, beaming.

Ciment said that even the most artistic filmmaker craves financial success. For instance, his friend Stanley Kubrick “wanted to make a lot of money.” Kubrick agreed to direct “The Shining” because it was based on a Stephen King novel, seemingly a guarantee of huge box-office grosses. “But Stanley’s artistic instinct was greater than his business instinct, and he made a film about madness and the American family that audiences didn’t want to see.”

Farber feted: Influential film critic Manny Farber, 86, followed just one rule in writing his essays: “The last thing you want to do is say how you feel about the movie.”

Farber, father of the term “underground film,” shared his wisdom after getting a special film festival award Monday evening. A painter and art professor as well as movie critic, Farber focused on visuals in his film reviews.

“I thought I would be on safe ground describing a gesture or a piece of scenery. . . . Nobody else was doing it,” said Farber, who went to San Francisco’s Art Institute when it was California School of Fine Arts. “Pauline was so great at diving into the center of the story, into the plot and narrative.”

Pauline, of course, was Pauline Kael, who, along with Farber and Farber’s great friend James Agee, changed the face of film criticism. But Farber also wrote extensively about art and dabbled in other subjects. After dining at some friends’ house, for example, Farber composed “a very down review” of their expensive dinnerware.

Always the artist, Farber crafted intriguing phrases out of found adjectives. Take his description of Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil.” Farber called it “the best movie of Welles’ cruddy middle peak period.”

On tap: “Dopamine” leading lady Sabrina Lloyd will attend the festival’s closing-night party Thursday, along with Mark Decena, who directed the romance set in San Francisco. Lloyd has more time on her hands since her role on the NBC series “Ed” ended. Her character, Frankie, got the boot when Ed chose longtime love Carol over her.

“Save It for Later,” another shot-in-San Francisco feature, premieres at the festival Saturday night. Craig Sheffer and Theresa Russell — two talented actors we don’t see enough of — star in this saga of a son’s 17-year struggle to understand his parents. The movie was filmed mostly in the Mission, with an obligatory shot of the Golden Gate Bridge.

©2003 San Francisco Chronicle

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