I must say that all of the recent cinema related deaths have caused me to really want to look at some of my favorites who were among my heroes growing up and who are still around. One of my favorite actors is turning an incredible seventy years old today so it seemed a perfect opportunity to pay tribute to him.
I sometimes wonder if younger film fans truly understand just how amazing and important the great Dustin Hoffman is. He is certainly still a very visible actor but he has basically turned into one of our great character actors and rarely appears as the lead anymore. He remains though, along with much more often mentioned names like Pacino, De Niro, Hackman and Nicholson, one of the premiere and finest American actors that came out of the mid sixties.
The Los Angeles native Hoffman was born in 1937 to a Jazz pianist and set decorator. Interested in theatre from a very young age, Hoffman met Gene Hackman and in their early twenties they travelled to New York together for theater work.
After working a number of odd jobs and studying at the Actor's Studio, Hoffman began landing roles in a variety of TV shows, including NAKED CITY and THE DEFENDERS. After a minor role in THE TIGER MAKES OUT (1966) Hoffman became an overnight sensation with his work in Mike Nichols THE GRADUATE (1967). This award winning film, with it's Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack, would help define a generation and Hoffman quickly became one of the most important actor's in American film. It was perfect timing too as American cinema was getting ready to undergo some major changes and Hoffman was the perfect actor and star for the New Hollywood.
After getting an Oscar nomination for THE GRADUATE and winning many other notable awards, a few lean years and minor roles followed as Hoffman was trying to plan his next move. In 1968 director John Schlesinger offered him the role of Enrico 'Ratso' Rizzo in the astonishing MIDNIGHT COWBOY (1969) and Hoffman accepted the brave and difficult role after some hesitation. While Hoffman has admitted some disappointment in certain aspects of his performance, Ratso Rizzo is one of the most famous characters in screen history and Hoffman is brilliant in the part. MIDNIGHT COWBOY would go on to win best picture and Hoffman's performance should have won the Oscar that was given to John Wayne in TRUE GRIT. He did, however, win many other film awards for the iconic Rizzo.
Dustin would follow up the intense MIDNIGHT COWBOY with a surprising and underrated turn in JOHN AND MARY (1969) opposite a lovely Mia Farrow. He won a well deserved BAFTA award for that film and was also honored with another Golden Globe nomination.
One of his greatest and most interesting roles followed in 1970 with Arthur Penn's audacious and moving LITTLE BIG MAN. Hoffman's performance as the elderly Jack Crabb looking back over his life in the Old West is incredible and the film remains one of the most moving and sympathetic accounts of Native American life ever caught on film. Hoffman would receive another BAFTA nomination for his brave work in this undervalued American classic.
After the strange WHO IS HARRY KELLERMAN AND WHY IS HE SAYING THOSE TERRIBLE THINGS ABOUT ME? (1970) Hoffman would deliver a performance of staggering intensity in a film that would make him absolutely miserable in his personal life.
Sam Peckinpah's STRAW DOGS (1971) is one of the most controversial and greatest films in Peckinpah's extraordinary canon. A difficult and cold film that has been mis-read by many, including famously by Pauline Kael, Criterion's DVD is one of the most essential sets ever released as far as containing eye opening supplemental material. Hoffman and Peckinpah had major problems on the set and unfortunately this is a role Dustin doesn't talk about much. His work as David Sumner is masterful though and one of the key performances of the early seventies, it is a shame Hoffman doesn't have warmer feelings for the film.
A role in Pietro Germi's ALFREDO ALFREDO (1972) would give him the chance to work opposite the exquisite Stefania Sandrelli but it would be PAPILLON (1973) that would give him his best role since STRAW DOGS. Playing opposite a wonderful Steve Mcqueen, Hoffman is great as Louis Degain in Franklin J. Schaffner's exciting and moving escape film.
The years following PAPILLON would give Dustin some of his greatest roles ever. Starting with Bob Fosse's brutal LENNY (1974), a film in which he would receive yet another Oscar nomination, Hoffman became along with Al Pacino probably the best all around young actor America had. After exhausting himself inhabiting the great Lenny Bruce, Hoffman took a little time off but would return with a bang in 1976 with not one, but two, of the Seventies best films.
Alan J. Pakula's ALL THE PRESIDENTS MEN (1976) isn't just a great film but it is one of a handful that can be truly called important. Producer and star Robert Redford spent two years doing exhaustive research to make sure the film would be accurate and it remains not only of the great political films this country has ever seen but one of the best looks at American Journalism in history. Hoffman's Carl Bernstein is another totally unique and memorable creation and he would click so well with Redford's Bob Woodward. The two of them are both so solid in this film that it still baffles me how their performances were ignored by the Academy.
Even better, performance wise, for Hoffman, was John Schlesinger's MARATHON MAN (1976). In perhaps his greatest role, Hoffman plays a student who is unexpectedly caught up in a very deadly conspiracy. Along with THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (1973) and PARALLAX VIEW (1974), MARATHON MAN is one of the greatest paranoid thrillers of the Seventies and Hoffman gives one of the most convincing portrayals of fear and confusion ever committed to celluloid. Once again Hoffman was ignored by the Academy, although he did receive several other honors for this major film.
Ulu Grosbard's STRAIGHT TIME (1978) is a real buried treasure. Working with the young, intense and incredibly talented Theresa Russell in a film he originally wanted to direct, Dustin's work as the persecuted thief Max Dembo is along with STRAW DOGS his most underrated performance. Grosbard's great film is in need of a major re-appraisal and hopefully its recent appearance on DVD will bring that about. With the possible exception of Michael Mann's THIEF (1980) it is the most honest look at the consequences of crime in an American film of the seventies.
After the relative failure of STRAIGHT TIME and the flawed AGATHA (1979), Hoffman scored a major hit and finally won the Oscar for Robert Benton's KRAMER VS. KRAMER (1979). Benton's film, focusing on a husband who has been abandoned by his wife leaving him to take care of his son alone, struck a major chord in 1979. If it seems a bit dated today it is more the fault of how many times the subject has been covered since rather than the film itself. Benton's sensitive direction is punctuated by Hoffman's down to earth and inspiring performance. A young Meryl Streep is also excellent as is eight year old Justin Henry as the son caught in the middle. The film all but swept the 1980 Academy Awards and would prove one of the biggest hits of Dustin Hoffman's career.
Taking another well deserved break Hoffman returned in 1982 in Sydney Pollack's masterful and hugely popular TOOTSIE. In another Oscar nominated turn, Hoffman plays out of work actor Michael Dorsey who lands a gig as a woman on a weekly soap opera. Hoffman is simply astonishing in the role and the film remains one of the funniest and best of the eighties. His scenes with Jessica Lange are among the best of his career and the film is a real highpoint in American Comedy history.
TOOTSIE was a massive hit but it would mark an end to Dustin Hoffman's reign as one of America's leading actors. He took a five year break from the screen, with only a solid DEATH OF A SALESMAN TV production keeping him in the film goer's eyes.
He returned in 1987 with ISHTAR opposite Warren Beatty and Isabelle Adjani. While the film isn't the disaster many made it out to be, it hurt Hoffman. He would garner another Oscar with RAIN MAN (1988) which isn't a film I like much. Tom Cruise hadn't come into his own as an actor yet and the film has not aged well in my eyes. More disappointing films followed including FAMILY BUSINESS (1989) and BILLY BATHGATE (1991) (which at least had a great early Nicole Kidman performance). His small role in Beatty's DICK TRACY (1990) did give him the one opportunity to work briefly with Pacino but the period is otherwise a low point in his career.
Several high profile roles followed but it wasn't until the audacious and compelling WAG THE DOG in 1997 that Dustin would find another truly great role. As the smarmy Hollywood producer Stanley Motss in Barry Levinson's sharp satire, Hoffman gives his best performance since TOOTSIE and easily steals the film from Robert De Niro's mannered and self conscious performance.
Hoffman would receive another well deserved Oscar Nomination for the role but WAG THE DOG wasn't the hit it should have been. The last ten years have been a busy time for Hoffman even though he typically just pops up in supporting roles. His best work from the past decade has been opposite Rachel Weisz twice in 2003's CONFIDENCE and RUNAWAY JURY, a film that finally matched him with Hackman, and a scene stealing role in David Russell's masterful I HEART HUCKABEES (2004). He also easily stole another film from Robert De Niro in the hugely popular MEET THE FOCKERS (2005). He has several films on the horizon and it doesn't look like he is going to slow down anytime soon. I wish someone would give him at least one more great leading role though as there are still few actors who are capable of delivery such emotionally devastating and honest work as Dustin Hoffman.
I really want to embrace the heroes of my youth who are still around while I can. The mere idea of world without a Hoffman, Eastwood, Pacino, De Niro, Hackman, Nicholson and so on just kills me. Dustin Hoffman is one of our great actors and an honorable man who has managed to get through 40 years in the public eye without any major scandal or controversy, and a career made up of some of the greatest performances in screen history. We should all send him the best wishes on his seventieth birthday.