His first meeting with Dustin Hoffman did not begin well. Canadian producer Robert Lantos met the Oscar-winning actor for a drink at a Brentwood bistro, near Sunset Boulevard in L.A., hoping to persuade him to play Barney Panofsky’s father in the film version of Barney’s Version, Mordecai Richler’s last novel. As Lantos recalls, they had barely sat down when Hoffman said, “I want to be really clear. I’m not going to make this movie.” After telling Lantos that he looked like a nice man and had an impressive resumé, he went on to make his case: “First of all, I should be Barney. Why should I play a small part? It’s a tiny part. And who’s your director? Who is he?” Lantos gently reminded Hoffman, who’s 73, that the lead role was out of his range. “I said, ‘Could you imagine yourself being 30 onscreen?’ But we got past that quickly. He was just saying it to get it off his chest.”
Ironically, Hoffman had already passed up his chance to play the title character in a Mordecai Richler movie long ago—Lantos tried to cast him in Joshua Then And Now (1985). The producer even met him for a drink after seeing him onstage in Death of A Salesman. But Hoffman had no recollection of it. Nor did he remember sharing a table with the producer at the 2005 Golden Globes, where Annette Bening won an award for the Lantos film Being Julia. Hoffman spent that night talking to her husband, Warren Beatty, “and never seemed to take notice of me,” Lantos recalls. And five years later this unmemorable producer was asking him to play a tiny part as an old man in a movie by an unknown Canadian director.
What was supposed to be a quick drink stretched to two hours. And by the end of it, Hoffman had a proposition: “Would you consider writing another scene for my character, one that I could really pour myself into? Give me a reason to do this!”
No problem. Barney’s Version, a project that had exhausted four screenwriters, including Richler, already had such a scene, cut from one of countless drafts. Hoffman signed on. Paul Giamatti (Sideways) was cast as Barney. And they both accepted the unknown director, Richard Lewis, after checking out his only feature film, Whale Music (1994).
Now, 13 years after Lantos and Richler launched the project, and nine years after the novelist’s death, Barney’s Version is finally hitting the screen, with a one-two punch of gala premieres—in Venice Sept. 10, then at the Toronto International Film Festival Sept. 12. And like its quixotic hero, Barney’s Version overcomes ridiculous odds to score a rare triumph in Canadian filmmaking.
Powered by a trio of Oscar-worthy performances, this is an epic love story that rescues romance from cynicism, and finds the heart of a gruff literary lion. Giamatti brings massive conviction to the glorious train wreck that is Barney. Rosamund Pike (An Education) is a revelation as the good wife Miriam, the love of his life. And Hoffman deftly steals every scene he’s in.
Lantos, whose immodest ambitions have been known to exceed his grasp, has finally got it right. In Canadian cinema’s frustrating quest to turn CanLit into box-office gold, he has been our most stubborn alchemist, with adaptations that include Joshua, Fugitive Pieces, Black Robe and In Praise of Older Women. Spinning Barney’s Version into a playable script was a daunting challenge. Plotted with Russian-novel complexity, Richler’s book unfolds as a discursive memoir by an unreliable narrator who bounces through multiple time frames and three marriages, with a wandering eye for satirical tangents about everything from Quebec separatism to hockey trivia.
But 37-year-old Montreal screenwriter Michael Konyves strips away Richler’s rants and digressions (remarkably, there’s not a word of voice-over) and reduces the story to its romantic core. The film begins as farce, finds its focus as romantic comedy, then matures into heartbreaking drama, the kind that sneaks up on you with surprising emotional power.
Pages: 1 2