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Dustin Hoffman: Dustin's duel with the dame -

Dustin's duel with the dame: He'd been warned she was the diva who could destroy him, but here Dustin Hoffman tells how he won over Maggie Smith

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Somewhere on a film studio’s cutting room floor is a six-minute scene showcasing the hitherto unheard and unappreciated opera-singing talents of Dame Maggie Smith, Sir Tom Courtenay, Pauline Collins and Billy Connolly.

Their rendering of a song from Verdi’s Rigoletto was to have been the climax of their new film, Quartet, but director Dustin Hoffman decided to scrap it — much to the relief of all concerned — because, as Connolly puts it: ‘Let’s face it, we weren’t very good.’

And Tom Courtenay adds: ‘The film is better without our singing. The irony is that all the extras in the film were real opera singers. Any of them could have sung perfectly well while we mimed. But Dustin wanted realism.’

Hoffman — making his full debut as a director at the age of 75 — says: ‘It was all huge fun, and none of us took ourselves at all seriously. I have never enjoyed myself so much.’

The story centres on four elderly opera singers — played by Smith, 78 today, at her Downton Abbey-style best; Courtenay, 75; Collins 72; and Connolly, 70 — living out their twilight years in a retirement home for musicians, Beecham House, named after the celebrated British conductor Sir Thomas. They’re troubled by dementia, creaky joints, terminal tetchiness and bittersweet memories of the past.

Smith and Courtenay’s characters, Reg and Joan, were briefly married, which doesn’t help matters. ‘All I want is nothing more than a dignified senility,’ complains Reg.

Imperious Joan sneers at having to spend the rest of her days in a home associated with Beecham. ‘His father made laxatives,’ she says. ‘Seems rather apt for a nursing home.’

The four are being persuaded to sing together in a fundraiser, organised by the pompous Cedric Livingstone, played by another septuagenarian, Sir Michae...

Dustin Hoffman