Hoffman is a film that is legendary, known only by the most devout Peter Sellers cultists. Sellers wanted to buy back the negative and possibly remake the film, because it cut too close to home for the actor. Regardless of his intentions, the film did kind of disappear for many years, and remains one of his least known performances. It was an all too rare serious role for the generally comedic actor.
The film undoubtedly wouldn’t be made today, because Hoffman (Sellers) is a middle-aged executive at a firm where the much younger Janet (Sinéad Cusack) also works. Hoffman is infatuated with this young woman whom he barely knows, and blackmails her into staying a week with him at his London flat. He is a complete monster—he emotionally abuses her during their time together, although she attempts to turn the tables on him somewhat during the week.
Sellers delves into his soul with the performance, and you end up feeling for this pitiful creep by the end, which is quite an accomplishment. There is a deadness inside the character of Hoffman that is completely Sellers. He was also feeling he had lost his identity through inhabiting the outrageous comedic parts that made him a huge star. Being There taps into that feeling too, and was an almost decade-long passion project for Sellers.
Cusack is equally as good as Sellers, and given it’s a two-hander for the vast majority of the film’s running time, she needs to be. They had a very intense affair during the making of this film, which rubs off on the both actors’ performances and makes the film more believable. Sellers also had a long string of much younger wives and girlfriends throughout his later life, so he knew this guy inside and out.
Hoffman is a film that I can’t imagine is going to have a huge audience outside of Sellers completists, but it’s a fascinating insight into the man himself. The character is truly horrible and comes off very much a proto-incel. And so it’s an icky film, but Sellers’ utterly deadpan performance is utterly captivating. If you want to see some other interesting May-December relationship films made around this time, check out Twinky, which stars Charles Bronson as a writer of porno novels who marries a 16-year-old schoolgirl played by Susan George (seriously—and it’s directed by Richard Donner!) and the big outlier in Clint Eastwood’s filmography, Breezy. Both are textbook examples of films you couldn’t make today, especially Twinky!
The release from Indicator has a bunch of extras, including a selected scenes commentary with director Alvin Rakoff, who also is interviewed on camera on the disc, and some interviews with crew members. Larry Karaszewski’s Trailers From Hell is also included, which is always a bonus, and I think is how I first heard of the film. The trailer, a gallery of stills, but also a script gallery that consists of the shooting script finish off the extras on the disc. The booklet is 36 pages long, with a new essay by John Rain, archival interviews with Peter Sellers and Sinéad Cusack, a look at author Ernest Gébler’s multiple iterations of the Hoffman story, and an overview of contemporary critical responses.