Dustin Hoffman: An Outsider’s Unlikely Climb To Being Best In The Business
Dustin Hoffman will always be first remembered for his breakthrough role as Benjamin Braddock, the title character in The Graduate, but it was only the beginning of a career that led him to be considered one of the finest actors ever – an actor’s actor, as it were. Few in his craft can challenge the range and number of movies to which he has given his intensity. Two – Kramer vs. Kramer and Rain Man — have won him Academy Awards – but they were only among many in a train that included five other Academy nominations, six Golden Globes (and seven nominations), four BAFTAs (given by the British Academy of Film and Television), three Drama Desk Awards, a Genie (the best of Canadian cinema), an Emmy, the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award and the Kennedy Center Honors. Most recently, he was nominated as a 2016 Best Actor for an Emmy awarded by the International Society of Television Arts & Sciences.
At 79, he’s not through yet, and may still qualify as a leading man. That’s what he became in 1967, breaking through the Clark Cable or Robert Redford-type stereotype that dominated the industry before comedic-genius-turned-director Mike Nichols, going against the prevailing grain, cast him in The Graduate. The storyline follows a confused college graduate who returns to live with his wealthy parents and is seduced by the wife of his father’s business partner – Mrs. Robinson, played unforgettably by the late Anne Bancroft. He then falls in love with her daughter, and most 20th century movie-goers know the rest. It was a smash hit for Embassy Pictures and catapulted both Hoffman and Nichols to lasting fame. (Bancroft, too, shared in the glory –and received an Academy Award nomination –but felt later that the prominence of the Mrs. Robinson role may have overshadowed her other career accomplishments.)
It is certain that The Graduate and Hoffman changed the industry forever. Turner Classic Movies critic Rob Nixon notes that Hoffman represented “a new generation of actors” and says his breaking the mold of traditional stardom “brought to their roles a new candor, ethnicity and eagerness to dive deep into complex, even unlikable characters . . . and set him on the road to becoming one of our biggest stars and most respected actors.” Hoffman, however, mostly credits Nichols (who died in 2014) for taking the risk of giving a relative unknown such a starring role: “I don’t know of another instance of a director at the height of his powers who would take a chance and cast someone like me in that part (he would later describe himself as “a short, funny-looking Jewish guy in a role usually reserved for a tall, handsome protestant”). It took tremendous courage.”
The actor-to-be graduated from Los Angeles High School in 1955 and had thought of becoming a classical pianist, but had his first change of mind and enrolled at Santa Monica College with the intention of studying medicine. There he “caught the acting bug” and left after a year to join the Pasadena Playhouse, where he met another aspiring actor, Gene Hackman (also to become an Academy Award winner). He later joined Hackman in New York with another flatmate, Robert Duvall, who has yet to win an Oscar but has been honored with seven nominations. Hackman says: “The idea that any of us would do well in films simply didn’t occur to us. We just wanted to work.”
Hoffman later said “I was an outsider. I came to New York and I was cleaning toilets.” But after five tries he was accepted at the famed Actors Studio run by Lee Strasberg and became a dedicated method actor. His first critical success was in the play Eh?, by Henry Livings, in 1966. His film debut followed in 1967 with The Tiger Makes Out, the same year Nichols’ lightning would strike.
Hoffman turned down most of the film roles offered after The Graduate and returned to theater and the title role in the musical, Jimmy Shine, for which he won a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Performance. “I was a theater person,” he says.“ I wasn’t going to be a movie star. I wasn’t going to sell out. We wanted to be really good actors. I had told them [Hackman and Duvall], ‘I’m going out to make this movie. Don’t worry, I’m coming right back.'”
Then, in 1969, he was offered the lead in Midnight Cowboy, which he accepted partly to prove many critics were wrong about the variety of characters he could portray. “I had become troubled by the reviews that I read of The Graduate,” the actor recalls, “saying that I was not a character actor, which I like to think of myself as. It hurt me; some of the stuff in the press was brutal.” Hoffman received his second Oscar nomination for the film, which won Best Picture. It was later deemed “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. Critic Peter Biskind wrote that “Midnight Cowboy makes us a gift of one of the landmark performances of movie history: Dustin Hoffman’s Ratso Rizzo, with Jon Voight’s Joe Buck a close second. From a cesspool of dark, foul, even taboo material . . . it rescues a true humanism that need not hide its name.” (Alex Needham, in The Guardian, notes that while Midnight Cowboy “was another classic, setting up Hoffman for a career of incredible versatility . . . insecurity seems to gnaw at him even today.” He quotes him as saying “I have never been, I guess, a signature actor. Certain actors have a really dominant personality – we go to see Jack Nicholson and I don’t think anyone ever went to see me; they went to see me doing a part . . . I’d love to be Jack Nicholson.”)
Hoffman then co-starred with Mia Farrow in John and Mary, for which he received a BAFTA as Best Actor and was similarly nominated by Golden Globe. The next year saw him in Little Big Man, in which his character ages from teenager to 121. It was widely praised but little awarded. But then, after a number of film roles notable in themselves, Hoffman starred in Lenny, based on stand-up comedian Lenny Bruce, who died at 40 and was notorious for his open, free-style and critical form of comedy combining politics, religion, sex and vulgarity. While expectations were high that Hoffman would win an Oscar for his portrayal, he was nominated but didn’t win. Critic Katharine Lowry speculates that director Bob Fosse “never gave him a chance” to go far enough into developing the character. “We never understand what, besides the drugs he injected, made him tick like a time bomb.” But Judith Crist gives Hoffman credit for the film’s ultimate success. “What is important is that Bruce’s routines are so artfully reconstructed, the juice of his creativity so carefully strained, that the claim to genius is justified. And for that Dustin Hoffman deserves full credit, vanishing into the Bruce persona to simply stunning effectiveness, capturing the restlessness, the velocity of a man’s mouth straining to keep pace with a jet-propelled intelligence.” Lenny was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Cinematography.
All the President’s Men, about the Watergate scandal, starred Hoffman and Robert Redford as the real-life journalists, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, respectively. Author James Morrison compares the two roles: “As Lenny Bruce, Hoffman plays a martyr to the cause of establishment oppression, while in All the President’s Men he plays a reporter exposing presidential malfeasance.”
In 1979 Hoffman co-starred with Meryl Streep in Kramer vs. Kramer, about a married couple’s divorce and its impact on everyone involved. It required Hoffman to change from being a “desensitized advertising art director” into becoming a “responsive and concerned daddy” after his wife walks out on him and their six-year-old son, Billy. Hoffman was going through his own divorce after a 10-year first marriage, and has said: “Giving myself permission not only to be present but to be a father was a kind of epiphany for me, that I could get through my work . . . I got closer to being a father by playing a father.” Hoffman won his first Academy Award for his role and the film also received the Best Picture honor, as did Streep for Best Supporting Actress and Robert Benton as Best Director.
Three years later, Hoffman portrayed Michael Dorsey in Tootsie, about a struggling actor who dresses as a woman to land a role on a soap opera – an experience that heightened Hoffman’s feminism in general, having seen how hard it is for women to make it in the movie business, whether as camera assistants or leading women or directors. Directed by Sydney Pollack, Hoffman’s role demanded “a steady bombardment of opposites — edgy then funny, romantic then realistic, soft then quivering.” To film critic David Denby, the character “embodies vulnerability and drive in perfect proportion. He has the knack of making everything he does seem perilous, and so audiences feel protective of him and root for him.” Tootsie earned 10 Academy Award nominations, including Hoffman’s fifth.
In 1984 Hoffman starred as Willy Loman in the Broadway revival of Arthur Miller’s play, Death of a Salesman, then reprised his role in a TV movie of the same name, for which an Emmy as Outstanding Lead Actor, as well as a Golden Globe. Hoffman first read the play at 16, but considers the story much like his own: “It was a blueprint of my family. I was the loser, the flunky, and my brother, a high-school varsity football player, was Biff. I was just destroyed by it. I just shook. I felt like my family’s privacy had been invaded. I couldn’t even talk about it for weeks.” Hoffman rehearsed for three weeks with the play’s original star, Lee J. Cobb, and remembers seeing his stage performance: “I’ll never forget that period in my life. It was so vivid, so intense, watching Lee J. Cobb and his 16-inch guns as Willy. God, how I think about what I saw on that stage!” The original play was directed by Elia Kazan, whom Hoffman considers “the perfect director, the best there ever was. I would have done anything to have worked with Kazan.”
Hoffman’s worst film failure came in 1987 with Elaine May’s Ishtar, co-starring Warren Beatty, who also produced. Hoffman and Beatty played two down-and-out singer-songwriters who travel to Morocco for a nightclub gig and get caught up in foreign intrigue. Much of the movie, which cost $55 million, was filmed in Africa. It faced severe production problems and ended up with overwhelmingly negative reviews. Hoffman and Beatty were unaffected by the flop, and Hoffman says: “The thing I love about Ishtar — and I love it with all its flaws — is that it has a statement to make. It is far, far better to spend a life being second-rate in something that you’re passionate about, than to spend a life being first-rate at that which you are not passionate about. These guys want to be Simon and Garfunkel, but they have no talent at all. They’re middle-aged guys, and at the end of the movie they wind up singing “That’s Amore” at a Holiday Inn in Morocco. It’s fair to make a movie about that.” Ishtar remains a cult favorite.
Then, in 1988, came director Barry Levinson’s Rain Man, in which Hoffman starred opposite Tom Cruise as an autistic savant. He spent two years preparing for the part, befriending autistic people, taking them bowling and to fast-food restaurants. “It fed my obsession,” he says, having worked at the New York Psychiatric Institute when he was 21. “All my life I had wanted to get inside a prison or a mental hospital . . . where human behavior was so exposed. All the things the rest of us were feeling and stopping up were coming out of these people.” Rain Man won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Actor (or Hoffman, and Best Director for Barry Levinson.
Throughout the 1990s, Hoffman appeared in many large studio films, such as Dick Tracy in 1990, with Warren Beatty playing the title character, Hero (1992) and Billy Bathgate (1991), co-starring with Nicole Kidman. Hoffman also played the title role of Captain Hook in Steven Spielberg’s Hook (also 1991), earning a Golden Globe nomination, and was the narrator in Dr. Seuss Video Classics: Horton Hears a Who! (also 1992). He played the lead role in Outbreak (1995), which Roger Ebert described as “one of the great scare stories of our time, the notion that deep in the uncharted rain forests, deadly diseases are lurking, and if they ever escape their jungle homes and enter the human bloodstream, there will be a new plague the likes of which we have never seen.”
Faster forward. There was Sleepers with Robert De Niro, Brad Pitt, Jason Patric and Kevin Bacon. He starred in David Mamet’s American Buffalo and opposite John Travolta in the Costa Gavras film Mad City. He then would gain his seventh Academy Award nomination for his performance in Wag The Dog (1997), a black comedy produced and directed by Barry Levinson. The story takes place a few days before a presidential election, where a Washington, D.C. spin doctor (Robert De Niro) distracts the electorate from a sex scandal by hiring a Hollywood film producer (Hoffman) to construct a fake war with Albania. He next appeared in another Levinson film, the science fiction psychological thriller, Sphere, opposite Sharon Stone. Then Moonlight Mile (2002), followed by Confidence (2003).
Hoffman finally had a chance to work with Gene Hackman in Gary Fleder’s Runaway Jury (also 2003), an adaptation of John Grisham’s best-selling novel. He played theater owner Charles Frohman in the J. M. Barrie historical fantasia Finding Neverland (2004), co-starring Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet. In director David O. Russell’s I Heart Huckabees (also 2004), Hoffman appeared opposite Lily Tomlin as an existential detective team member. Seven years after his nomination for Wag the Dog, Hoffman got another opportunity to perform again with Robert De Niro, co-starring with Barbra Streisand and Ben Stiller in the 2004 comedy Meet the Fockers, a sequel to Meet the Parents (2000). As the title character in Last Chance Harvey, Hoffman acted with co-star Emma Thompson in the story of two lonely people who tentatively forge a relationship over the course of three days. He’s now trying to promote Kung Fu Panda 3, “a perfectly charming kids’ movie, enhanced by Hoffman’s infinitely expressive growl,” according to Alex Needham.
Having worked closely with Hoffman for so long, Barry Levinson offers this about him: “There is no Dustin Hoffman. He is many, many people. He can do comedy and he can do drama. He has an enormous range, and yet he’s still Dustin somewhere in there. He’s intelligent and has a great sense of how to connect with people, because he’s very interesting. On a day-to-day basis, he’s like an actor who’s making his first movie, with the enthusiasm and energy to want to make things happen and try things and experiment.”
Looking back on his career to date, a number of Hoffman films demand mention: Straw Dogs, Papillon, Marathon Man and Family Business among them, as does his directorial debut in 2012 with Quartet, a “wickedly comic” film about redefining old age and growing old with hope, about which the Boston Globe’s Ty Burr wrote in part: “Directed by a first-timer named Dustin Hoffman, the new movie gives its actors and storyline space to breathe, make mistakes, forge connections. And it’s about performers and performance, which are things this director knows about.”
Indeed. Perhaps that’s why the commendation for his Kennedy Center Honors Award bears this summation: “Dustin Hoffman’s unyielding commitment to the wide variety of roles he plays has made him one of the most versatile and iconoclastic actors of this or any other generation.”
By Don West for 70+ Life at the Top