Monday, October 8, 2012

Advertising advice from Dustin Hoffman and Arthur Miller.

The great magazine, perhaps the greatest, "The New Yorker," concluded its three-day "New Yorker Festival" yesterday and my wife and I were lucky enough (or my wife was plucky enough) to get tickets to two of the events.

The first was a celebration of the work of "The New Yorker's" most-noted writer ever, Joseph Mitchell, a hero of mine since I discovered him for myself in the early 90s. Mitchell's most famous book, "Up in the Old Hotel," is a collection of some of these writings and we got to hear actor Bob Balaban, and writers Ian Frazier and Mark Singer, read and talk about some of Mitchell's work. Additionally, Mitchell's surviving daughter was there and spoke with love about her dad. She toted with her about two dozen file folders filled with type-written sheets of paper. More of Mitchell.

Then we subwayed uptown to the Director's Guild Theatre on West 57th Street to see a yet-to-be-released movie, "Quartet." It was, at 75, the directorial debut of Dustin Hoffman and starred Maggie Smith, Billy Connally and Tom Courtenay. Afterwards Susan Morrison, a "New Yorker" editor interviewed Dustin Hoffman.

The movie was wonderful.

The interview was breathtaking.

Hoffman doesn't answer questions in one sentence or even five. He goes on for fifteen minutes, touching everything and running down tangents until he turns to the audience, gives us a look and squinckles his eyebrows as if to say he's sorry.

He has nothing to be sorry for.

He talked what it was like to work with Mike Nichols, Barry Levinson, John Schlesinger. What it was like being a waiter for ten years and rooming with Gene Hackman and Robert Duvall.

For me the highpoint of the afternoon--and into the evening--came when he spoke about doing "Death of a Salesman." He insisted before taking the part that Arthur Miller be on hand during rehearsals and through most performances. Hoffman wanted to make sure he was serving Miller's masterpiece right.

"It's a really funny play," Hoffman said. "Miller jabs, jabs, jabs, jabs, jabs. He gets you laughing. And then comes the roundhouse punch to knock the wind out of you.

"Once after the first act, we really had the audience laughing at Willy Loman's foibles. I went offstage and said to Miller, 'That was a great first act.'

"Miller looked at his watch and tapped it. 'It was three minutes too long,' he said.

"Of course it was long, I said. I didn't want to speak over the laughter.

"You have to, Miller said. That's how you get them like this," Hoffman scootched up in his seat and leaned forward in it. "Not like this," and Hoffman lazed back.

There's a lot of talk in advertising these days about "lean forward marketing." As if that were something new, as if it were the domain of "new media."

No media or generation can stake a claim on leaning forward. Certainly Euripides had Athenians leaning forward during "Medea," almost 3,000 years ago. And people leaned forward in Sumer, to hear "Gilgamesh," sung. And in Israel, almost 6,000 years ago, people leaned forward to hear the Torah.

If you want people to lean forward, give them something interesting to lean into.

There's a lot that's changed in our business over the years and decades.

That truth never will.

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