BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Dustin Hoffman was illuminating a room full of reporters on the intricacies of his craft when he suddenly muttered, “This guy was in my shirt,” and held out an exceptionally fluffy hamster.
“Oh! Look at that!” shouted one hardened journalist.
“Oh my God!” cried another.
“I was hoping for a better take,” Hoffman grumbled, noting he had planned to pull back his jacket to reveal the hamster peeking out of his breast pocket.
That the 71-year-old, two-time Oscar-winning actor, who voices an animated rat in the upcoming The Tale of Despereaux, was resorting to pet tricks in this intense holiday movie promotion season shouldn't have been surprising. After all, the promise of another celebrity-animal interaction was what had drawn me to the Los Angeles area in the first place for a crazed few days of junkets, screenings and star encounters.
It all started in September when 20th Century Fox pitched one-on-one interviews for its high-profile December releases Marley & Me and The Day the Earth Stood Still. The line that grabbed me was this: “Owen Wilson, Jennifer Aniston and ‘Bad Dog Marley' — All 3 will be in one room together.” (Italics from Fox.) “I should do this,” I told my editor, “and I'll ask the dog all of the questions.”
Not only was Fox hosting junkets for Marley & Me and The Day the Earth Stood Still (starring Keanu Reaves and Jennifer Connelly) over December's first weekend, but the studio also added the Kate Hudson/Anne Hathaway comedy Bride Wars to the mix. At the same time, Sony would be presenting Seven Pounds with Will Smith and Rosario Dawson; Disney would be unveiling Bedtime Stories with Adam Sandler, Keri Russell and Russell Brand; Universal would be promoting Despereaux with Hoffman, Sigourney Weaver, Matthew Broderick and Emma Watson; and Paramount would be pushing its hyped Oscar hopeful The Curious Case of Benjamin Button with, well, no one knew who actually would be showing up, but the movie stars Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett and Tilda Swinton and was directed by David Fincher (Fight Club). (As it turned out, Pitt, Blanchett, Swinton and Fincher all skipped the junket, and so did I.)
Such events are vital to the studios, especially in a season such as this one. From last Friday through Dec. 26, 11 movies are being blanketed across the country, which Variety reports is the highest number ever for this stretch. That figure doesn't take into account all of the high-profile limited releases such as The Wrestler, Doubt, Frost/Nixon and others.
Studios have deemed junkets to be a most efficient way of getting the word out.
There's an entire class of professional junketeers whom the studios fly, feed and lodge at such hotels as the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills, where most of last weekend's activities took place. (The Chicago Tribune pays its own way.) These junkets are built for consumer-friendly sound bites. The format often is a press conference, as a few dozen reporters crowd into a hotel function room where a long table has been set up at the front, and everyone tries to get his question heard without any heed to what anyone else is asking.
The vibe is beyond odd: formal yet chummy. Some reporters sit upfront to wave at or shake hands with the entering celebrities, who greet them back as if they're old pals.
When the session has ended, a bunch of these junketeers seek autographs from the same stars, the transition from professional colleague to subservient fan instantaneous. One youngish fellow sitting beside me at the Marley & Me event brought a South Park DVD that featured Aniston; hence, he got her autograph as “a personal memento.”
This same guy asked the stars at every press conference: “Given the economic times we're in, what sort of gifts are you going to be giving this year?”
This question struck me as an eye-roller, but he did get some memorable answers.
Sandler, typically, played the smart aleck: “My baby's 1 month (old) — Sunny — so I got her a BB gun.”
Broderick also gave a kid-oriented response: “Lego. Thousands of pounds of Lego.”
Hoffman wouldn't let the Despereaux conference end until he'd described his “old traditional gift,” which involves fresh avocados: “You put the toothpicks in the tushy part so the tip part is going upwards ... and you put it in a glass so that the water covers the tushy, and you put it into a cabinet, dark, dark. And then it'll start to grow ... and you take it out, you put it in a clay pot, you fill it with earth, and then you write on the clay pot, ‘Happy Holidays,' and you give a living thing.”
A momentary hush fell over the room.
“So you're not giving the marijuana plants this year,” Weaver deadpanned, triggering an eruption of laughter.
Such exchanges are reminders of the obvious: These people are performers — and promotion is essentially a form of performance.
The Bedtime Stories press conference was a comedy show with Brand going for the biggest laughs.
Watch the fabulous Hathaway and Hudson being prompted to dish about their adventures playing best buddies-turned-nemeses after their weddings are scheduled for the same day, and you feel as if you're at an intimate talk show.
Asked what they seek in men, Hudson said, “I like honest guys. That always gets me going. I like guys that are really upfront and just are who they are, and they're hard to find.”
“Somehow they are,” Hathaway sighed, prompting a knowing laugh in reference to her incarcerated ex-boyfriend.
Even that level of disclosure would have been too much at the Marley & Me press conference. When Aniston and Wilson joined co-star Eric Dane and director David Frankel at the table — with a dog trainer and one of the 22 Labrador retrievers who played Marley off to the side — the moderator announced, “Please keep your questions to the work and to the movie.”
Of course, I'd thought I was getting a private audience with Aniston, Wilson and the pooch, but Fox nixed that, so there I was at the press conference.
After listening to the actors discuss their love of dogs and whether Aniston felt as if she should have had kids before playing the onscreen mother here (short answer: no), I asked a question hooked to Wilson's portrayal of the real-life newspaper columnist/author John Grogan: “Did doing this movie change at all your feelings about what journalists do, and given what's going on in the profession, is there enough room for the John Grogans out there?”
The room tittered. Aniston did a wide-eyed take.
“It seemed like it would be more fun to be a journalist than (to) be an editor, to be out there kind of doing stories,” Wilson said.
“It's seen in the dynamic between your character and my character,” said Dane, who plays a globe-trotting reporter — and the two started talking at the same time, somehow working Pablo Escobar, action movies and detectives into the brief non-sequitur exchange.
“Owen, over here,” a male reporter called out and asked when Wilson realized he had such great chemistry with Aniston. That was that.
Part of the strangeness is the disconnect between the promotion and the art. To get people to see your movie, you're expected to exchange colorful personal tidbits.
Despite the restrictions, look at how much Aniston has been revealing (on the cover of the new GQ, literally) lately.
“It's strange,” Connelly said after The Day the Earth Stood Still conference, “and then it's strange how you get used to it, so you stop thinking about how strange it is.”
Then again, the alternative is to blab about a movie that no one has seen.
“As you're answering every question, there's a tendency to answer it like every other actor has answered the same question no matter what movie they're doing,” Hoffman told me after the Despereaux conference. “'I loved working with so-and-so, and I really liked this movie, and this movie's very special.' Because we're selling cars, and we have to do it.”
Or as Broderick said: “It's boring to just talk about a movie sometimes.”