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Dreyfuss on Duddy: ‘Roles like that don’t come along very often’

Critic Pauline Kael predicted that Richard Dreyfuss would have a hard time topping Duddy.

Richard Dreyfuss is sitting at a beach table under a canvas tent at the Canadian Pavilion. Drums are playing around the bay and rain is spattering on the sand nearby. He's wearing a pale-blue suit, open-neck shirt and white flat cap that matches his beard, like one of the more successful regulars at the racetrack clubhouse.

Now 65, Dreyfuss is here to talk, in his famous nasal baritone, about something he did almost 40 years ago. That was his first leading role in a movie in 1974, as Duddy in Ted Kotcheff's The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, based on the 1959 novel by Kotcheff's friend, Mordecai Richler. The story follows a likeable, if indefensible 18-year-old Montreal hustler, who betrays friends and his lover in his desire to make something of himself.

The movie screened here as part of the Cannes Classics program in a beautiful new print, a $175,000 restoration overseen by the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television.

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While in Cannes, Dreyfuss also took time to introduce a free beach screening of Jaws, a movie that he made just a year after Duddy Kravitz, in 1975. The two movies have a connection beyond the insatiable restless appetites of their protagonists. Dreyfuss thought that Duddy Kravitz was "a great shot and a great script." As for Jaws? He turned it down twice. Then, when he saw Duddy Kravitz at its Place des Arts premiere, he thought that his performance was so bad that he would never work in film again. He promptly decided to accept the Steven Spielberg offer.

What triggered such an extreme response?

"You're asking for a rational answer to an irrational reaction. I could give you lots of reasons but … I had just never watched myself onscreen for that long. Oh, actually, I had sneaked into a rough cut of American Graffiti and quietly went insane. Later, when George [director George Lucas] asked me what I thought of the film, I said, 'It's a fine film but please cut me out of it – and I think I know how to do it.' He ignored me, of course."

The hypersensitivity may have been more than normal artistic temperament. Dreyfuss developed drug problems and went into rehab in the early eighties after crashing a car. He has later talked publicly about a long-time bipolar disorder.

When I ask him how his opinion has changed since the last time he looked at Duddy, he shakes his head: "My daughter asked me once why I never see my movies and I said, 'I never made them for me to see, I made them for you to see.'"

Although The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz was not accepted at the Cannes International Film Festival in 1974, it won the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival and an Academy Award nomination for best script, though not for Dreyfuss, who says, "But I made a lot of money betting against myself."

The accolades came soon after. He won a Best Actor award for The Goodbye Girl at the age of 30 in 1977 and another nomination for Mr. Holland's Opus in 1997. Spielberg called Dreyfuss his "alter ego" in two of the director's most enduring films, Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

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Critic Pauline Kael predicted that Duddy was the kind of performance would follow Dreyfuss around: "No matter how phenomenal Richard Dreyfuss is in other roles, it's not likely that he'll ever top his performance in this teeming, energetic Canadian film."

"There is some truth to what she wrote," he says. "Roles like that don't come along very often. You might be in bigger movies, but you don't get a complex woven character. You are unlikely to get that very often, just on mathematics alone."

And, contemplating the irrepressible Duddiness of Duddy, he wonders how it all turned out. "Wouldn't you like to find out what happens to him? I wonder if he became Donald Trump or a cab driver? Someone should make that movie."

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About the Author
Film critic

Liam Lacey is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

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