Going into an anniversary celebration of his 1997 film Wag the Dog, Dustin Hoffman probably didn’t expect to get asked about the allegations of sexual harassment against him. But moderator John Oliver, according to the Washington Post, had a different idea of how the night should go.
“This is something we’re going to have to talk about because … it’s hanging in the air,” Oliver said, referring to Anna Graham Hunter’s account of working with Hoffman on Death of a Salesman in 1985. Hunter was 17 years old, and alleges that Hoffman harassed and assaulted her while she was interning on set.
“It’s hanging in the air? From a few things you’ve read, you’ve made an incredible assumption about me,” replied Hoffman, adding, apparently sarcastically, “You’ve made the case better than anyone else can. I’m guilty.”
What reportedly followed was a tense detente in which Oliver refused to accept Hoffman’s attempts to dismiss the allegations, and Hoffman grew more and more irritated that Oliver kept finding his answers lacking enough sincerity to satisfy him.
Excerpts of Hunter’s on-set diary describe the time she “was walking Dustin to his limo, [and] he felt my ass four times. I hit him each time, hard, and told him he was a dirty old man.” Revisiting the internship for the Hollywood Reporter more than 30 years later, Hunter recalled the time she asked Hoffman what he would want for breakfast, and he responded, “I’ll have a hard-boiled egg … and a soft-boiled clitoris.”
After Hunter’s account was published on November 1, Hoffman issued an apology, insisting, “I have the utmost respect for women and feel terrible that anything I might have done could have put her in an uncomfortable situation. I am sorry. It is not reflective of who I am.” But Oliver called out this apology — and its last line specifically — as inadequate.
“It’s that kind of response to this stuff that pisses me off. It is reflective of who you were,” Oliver said. “If you’ve given no evidence to show it didn’t [happen], then there was a period of time for a while when you were a creeper around women. It feels like a cop-out to say, ‘It wasn’t me.’ Do you understand how that feels like a dismissal?”
At a few points, Oliver read directly from Hunter’s account, including a diary excerpt in which she wrote, “Dustin is a pig, but I like him a lot.”
“That is both extremely generous and damning,” Oliver said. After a leaden beat, Hoffman replied, “Do you believe the stuff that you read?”
“I believe what she wrote, yes,” Oliver said. When Hoffman asked why, Oliver simply responded, “Because there’s no point in her lying.”
“Well, there’s a point in her not bringing it up for 40 years,” Hoffman countered, to audible groans from both Oliver and the audience.
If you watch the cellphone video embedded above that reporter Steven Zeitchik took — and you really should, because me describing the discomfort level here is no substitute for seeing it firsthand — it’s clear that both Hoffman and the audience in no way expected or were prepared to be having this conversation. And yet Oliver pressed on, despite his own palpable unease and the increasingly irritated man facing him.
The past couple of months of victims speaking out against sexual harassment and abuse have resulted in an unprecedented amount of condemnation and consequences for reported abusers that many never thought possible. But Oliver using his platform and position to press Hoffman is just the kind of confrontation that needs to be less of an outlier than it is, not least because Oliver is a straight white man from whom Hoffman — and most everyone else — probably wouldn’t have expected to get pushback. This conversation, as uncomfortable as it was, is exactly the kind of frank confrontation that needs to happen if this cultural moment of reckoning is going to move forward.