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Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman battle it out!

By Arthur J Pais
October 17, 2003 13:35 IST
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Gene HackmanIn one of the most riveting sequences in Runaway Jury, Oscar-winners Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman, who play legal foes, confront each other in a washroom at the end of the film. Though the two actors share plenty of screen space throughout the film, the washroom sequence is dynamite and may become one of the most discussed screen confrontations in recent film history.

Runaway Jury, based on a hugely popular John Grisham novel of the same name and distributed by 20th Century Fox, opens in North America on Friday.

Hackman, who plays a crook working for a powerful gun manufacturing lobby, contemptuously looks down at the idealistic character played by Hoffman who is fighting for a widow whose husband had been killed by a deranged man in a senseless attack. Hoffman looks diminutive in Hackman's presence. But when he tightens his knuckles and lashes out at his opponent, he looks as tall, if not taller.

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Hackman's character has no faith in the jury system, and he studies, with the help of a high-tech team, each juror so that he can use their weakness and vulnerabilities to blackmail them.

Hoffman, 67, is the idealist who, at one point in the film, is also swayed by an offer to swing the jury in his client's favour for $10 million. His character was expanded from the novel when he expressed a desire to part of the film. In the novel, the villain was the tobacco industry but the producers of the film, including Grisham, okayed the change, making the gun lobby the devil, believing it would play better with the audiences.

The film, which moved the novel's location from Biloxi, Mississippi, to New Orleans, Louisiana, pairs Hackman and Hoffman for the first time. The actors, who have been close friends for over 43 years,  cannot understand how they did not work together before Runaway Jury began shooting over a year and half ago.

Hackman, 73, says the two friends had tried to collaborate on several films unsuccessfully. 'It's just one of those unexplainable things,' he says in the film's production notes.

Dustin Hoffman'Fitch [Hackman] is supposedly just a jury consultant,' Hackman says, 'but he goes way behind what's really legal. Rohr [Hoffman], on the other hand, is high-minded and ethical. So when they finally confront each other towards the end, the audience can imagine what kind of conflict will ensue.'

But shooting the rousing sequence was a rather routine exercise, at least for Hoffman.

'After all these years, the most moving aspect of working of together was that we really didn't feel differently than when we first met,' Hoffman, who won Oscars for Kramer Vs Kramer and Rainman, observes. 'We still have the tenacity trying to be authentic and, at the same time, we still have an insecurity that has remained constant all these years.'

Insecurity is not a bad thing, the veteran actors readily agree. 'In a strange way, you are never secure,' says Hackman who received an Oscar for French Connection and Unforgiven, the latter in a supporting role. 'You are always on the edge.'

Runaway Jury will be Hackman's third film based on a Grisham novel, after the hugely successful The Firm and okayish The Chamber. 'Grisham writes highly dramatic kinds of scenes for actors and we like that,' Hackman says. Surely, he also has the washroom scene in mind.

Hoffman says his character is 'rarefied.'

'Like the character Gregory Peck played in To Kill A Mocking Bird,' he says in the production notes for the film. 'It is like remembering the days when doctors used to make housecalls and lawyers were not only ethical, but wanted to play by the rules.'

Director Gary Fleder says the five-page washroom sequence was shot over 12 hours and it followed a five-hour rehearsal the previous day.

Fleder, whose hits include the high octane crime hits Don't Say A Word and Kiss The Girls, says directing the scenes with Hackman and Hoffman was the highlight of his career. 'Anything could have gone wrong,' he adds, 'but nothing did. That night I met Gene and Dustin for a drink, they were just ecstatic because they knew they had nailed it.'

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Arthur J Pais