Dustin Hoffman is one of the most versatile and skilled actors of his generation. Alongside other Hollywood greats who came of age in the 1970s (Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern, Ellen Burstyn, Richard Dreyfuss, Sissy Spacek, Robert Duvall, Gene Hackman, Shelley Duvall, Cybill Shepard, Harrison Ford, et al), Hoffman is part of a revolutionary group of performers who flourished during the American new wave. Actors were pushed further, characters were more diverse, the challenge was heightened.
Hoffman grasped his opportunities. He has the ability to adapt to a number of different roles singling him as one of the most talented actors Hollywood has ever seen. He rose to fame playing the naïve Benjamin Braddock in Mike Nichols’ The Graduate and followed this with an Academy Award-nominated performance in John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy. The characters couldn’t be further apart – one, a rich, young university graduate with ideals yet to be shattered by time in the real world; the other a crippled, older, world-weary con man.
Much like Johnny Depp today, Hoffman can adapt to every role like a chameleon. It isn’t simply that he is adept at bringing a character to life with authenticity and grace, he embodies these people so successfully you forget you are looking at a Hollywood celebrity. And that’s the mark of a great actor. From real people (Lenny Bruce, Carl Bernstein) to disability (Rain Man) to women (Tootsie) to caricatures (Captain Hook, Stanley Motss in Wag The Dog), Hoffman has the innate ability to bring to life a range of creations (based in both fact and fiction) with a genuineness not seen on any other Hollywood film actor’s CV. The greatest compliment you can pay the man is acknowledgement of the sheer range of characters he has played alongside the regularity in which he’s played them.
10. Hook (Spielberg, 1991)
Hook was one of the first films I remember seeing at the cinema. At the time I thought it was one of the most magical cinematic experiences of my life. Growing up (and in the course of that time watching a thousand movies) has taught me the finer points of cinema and that said ‘finer’ points are rarely evident in Steven Spielberg’s over-produced, overzealous Hook. However, while the magic of the Peter Pan legend might be lost amidst a star who can’t carry the mantle, production design that lacks any sense of restraint, and the spoilt lost boy creation Rufio, I’m always thrilled to see Dustin Hoffman’s Captain Hook. He’s more caricature than character but Hoffman’s scheming Hook is deliciously devilish. Just the twitch of his well-oiled handlebar moustache and the words “The Boo Box” are enough to send shivers down my spine.
9. Wag The Dog (Levinson, 1997)
David Mamet writes this satirical comedy-drama about a political spin doctor who distracts the public gaze from a sex scandal by hiring a Hollywood film producer to create a phoney war. Dustin Hoffman is at his comedic best as the film producer Stanley Mottss. He obviously has a ball taking cues from the array of Hollywood head-honchos he has worked under throughout his glittering career. He was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.
8. All The President’s Men (Pakula, 1976)
What makes All The President’s Men tick so successfully are the performances of Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman. Hoffman was nominated for the Best Actor award at the BAFTAs but criminally ignored by the Oscars. Both men, thanks to their hours of preparation, take to their roles as purveyors of the truth with zest and determination. Redford is the less experienced Woodward, he’s all hustle and bustle, and isn’t about to let his detractors stop him pursuing the story. Hoffman is Bernstein, more experienced, more reserved; he knows the system but is given renewed energy by Woodward’s unrelenting fortitude. The authenticity of their research and the difficult and often unrewarding task of piecing together the facts is delivered by director Pakula with precision and attention to detail. And, underneath it all bubbles a fast-paced mystery-thriller that carefully builds its tension until the climatic few minutes with the famous shot of Hoffman and Redford secretly relaying messages to each other via a typewriter.
7. The Graduate (Nichols, 1967)
Dustin Hoffman’s first foray into the world of film is still his shining achievement. This tale of a recently graduated young man trying to find his place in life under the constant strain of over-bearing parents is given just the right doe-eyed, idealism-in-the-dark vitality required by an equally bemused Dustin Hoffman. Hoffman was nominated for an Academy Award for the first time.
6. Papillon (Schaffner, 1973)
Powerful and affecting prison drama with stand out performances from both Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. McQueen gets more screen time but its testament to Hoffman’s ability that he outshines the great escapee in their scenes together.
5. Kramer Versus Kramer (Benton 1979)
Kramer Versus Kramer was lavishly praised and awarded on its release in 1979. It features one of Hoffman’s most reserved and natural performances and he, along with co-star Meryl Streep, won Academy Awards for best actor and best actress in a supporting role, respectively. Hoffman was able to draw on his own experiences of divorce, a process he was going through at the time. The film also won Academy Awards for best film, best director, and best screenplay.
It was a film of its time but its message is still resonant today. Seeking to draw light on the changing cultural shift occurring in late 1970s America, Kramer Versus Kramer tells of the struggle when the American dream breaks down. It also takes to task the traditional role of the father, and how single parenthood can impinge on both work and child-parent relationships. The film gives equal weight to both the mother and father’s role, challenging the idea that mothers are automatically considered as the favoured parent in custody battles.
4. Rain Man (Levinson, 1988)
“Rain Man” gave Hoffman his second Oscar for best actor, playing an autistic savant alongside on-screen brother Tom Cruise. Some criticised his performance as over-the-top but I have always felt it is one of his most disciplined. Like Ratso Rizzo and Louis Dega, Hoffman so embodies the character you forget you’re watching one of the most recognisable Hollywood stars.
3. Lenny (Fosse, 1974)
Considered by many US-based critics as a film lacking the sort of anti-establishment relish that made its origin of study the darling of counter-culture 1950s and 1960s Americana, Lenny plays better in the United Kingdom. British mainstream media is more open to the real meaning of the comedian’s ‘blah blah blah’ skit and other obscene eccentricities. Frequently, we see Hollywood actors, musicians, and comic stars appear on talk shows such as Friday Night with Jonathan Ross and The Graham Norton Show, looking aghast at the host’s use of the ‘F’ word, or more explicit allusion to sex, homosexuality, and drug use. [Read my full review]
2. Tootsie (Pollack, 1982)
A generation – my own – actually believed for years that Robin Williams was the best cross-dressing comic actor and Mrs. Doubtfire was the funniest film of all time. Thankfully, time is good for at least one thing: knowledge. I found “Tootsie” on late-night TV and have never looked back. Hoffman showed his versatility in 1982 with this comedic turn as actor Michael Dorsey who, having struggled to get a decent role on television, dresses up as a woman and auditions for a female role, curiously getting the part on soap opera Southwest General. Hoffman again failed to win an Oscar following a nominated for Best Actor.
1. Midnight Cowboy (Schlesinger, 1969)
Undeniably one of Dustin Hoffman’s finest performances, his appearance in John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy as Ratso Rizzo is heartbreaking in its fragile portrayal of a crippled New York con-man. Hoffman should have won his first Academy Award for the film but had to resign himself to a nomination alongside Voight.
Rarely has a performance touched me as much as Hoffman’s in Midnight Cowboy. The conclusion to the troubled life of Ratso never fails to move me to tears. There aren’t enough superlatives in the dictionary to praise the Los Angeles-born actor. Midnight Cowboy is an immersive, brilliantly executed film (that also benefits from a great performance from Jon Voight) but it becomes one of the greatest American movies of all time thanks to the genius of Dustin Hoffman.
Written and compiled by Daniel Stephens.
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