Ratso’s hang-ups, Sumner’s ordeal, Braddock’s sexual desire: The Life and Characters of Dustin Hoffman – Top 10 Films takes a look at the Hollywood great’s best films…
Everyone who interviews Dustin Hoffman leaves with the same thoughts on the man: warm, intelligent, and accommodating. His small physical stature – there’s only 5ft 6in of the man – is dismissed by a presence that fills the room. He is a complete part of the Hollywood furniture: iconic and recognisable in both looks and voice. He is Tinseltown gold and a legend of the film industry.
As a child – although I did not know it at the time – it was Hoffman who filled the screen with a swashbuckling sense of tempered nastiness in Spielberg’s “Hook”. He was the best thing about an oddly misjudged and overtly sentimental attempt at reinventing the Peter Pan story. He twitched his whisker moustache and glared with contempt at any person under the age of fifteen, genuinely finding menace in the light-hearted setting.
He followed “Hook” with another light-hearted comedy, playing the unlikely hero after a plane crash lands. Known as “Accidental Hero” in the UK (it was just “Hero” in America), Hoffman’s petty criminal Bernie Laplante is the plane passenger’s saviour, one of whom is news reporter Gale Gayley (Geena Davis). Unsure of media attention pointed at his unruly background, Laplante sees homeless man John Bubber (Andy Garcia) take responsibility for his heroic actions. It’s a better film than given credit for – biting in its humour, and a strong satirical swing at the hypocrisy of media. It’s also rather forward thinking in its depiction of celebrity and tabloid sensationalism, especially in light of reality television such as Big Brother and X Factor/Pop Idol. The fact Laplante finds all this notoriety suddenly and accidentally echoes Hoffman’s own introduction to the world of film.
By his own admission he was the accidental movie star, plummeting to stardom in 1967 with the release of “The Graduate”. In the early 1960s when a twenty-something Dustin Hoffman was plying his trade on off-Broadway plays, there as no call in Hollywood for his brand of movie star. He was short, thin, lacking the strong jaw and clean-cut appeal of McQueen and Newman. Stardom was a distant dream and it wasn’t until he’d passed the age of thirty before he finally landed his big break.
Mel Brooks had initially cast him as the Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind in “The Producers” which Hoffman was excited about since he idolised Brooks. But he had to turn the part down after Mike Nichols made him an offer to play lead Benjamin Braddock in “The Graduate”. The film brought Hoffman the recognition he craved. It also turned out to be friend and roommate Gene Hackman’s career-maker. Hackman was due to play Anne Bankcroft’s husband but was fired early in pre-production. His sudden availability brought him to the attention of Warren Beatty who cast him in “Bonnie and Clyde”.
Hoffman says the experience working with Nichols was tough but educational. “Nichols is very demanding,” says the actor, but “we all learned from him.” Nichols spent a lot of time rehearsing the actors which Hoffman says was a times “excruciating”. However, he acknowledges that Nichols is a truly great film director. “He took me aside one day when I was tired and probably not focusing well on the scene, looked deep inside my eyes and said, ‘You’re never going to get the chance to do this scene again as long as you live, and you’re going to see it one day up there on the screen.’” Hoffman would be nominated for an Academy Award for the film, the first of four within twelve years, eventually winning in 1979 for his role in “Kramer Versus Kramer”. It was reward for his hours spent at the famed Actors Studio and continued plight on the off-Broadway theatre circuit, as well vindication for his use of method acting. For Hoffman though, Hollywood’s calling was a ticket home; perhaps it was written in stone that the Los Angeles-born actor would end up in the town’s most lucrative and eye-catching industry.
10. Lenny (Fosse, 1974)
Dir. Bob Fosse; written by Julian Barry; starring Dustin Hoffman, Valerie Perrine, Jan Miner, Stanley Beck
Read my full review HERE
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]
9. Kramer Versus Kramer (Benton, 1979)
Dir. Robert Benton; written by Robert Benton; starring Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Justin Henry, Jane Alexander
“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. 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.
8. All The President’s Men (Pakula, 1976)
Dir. Alan J. Pakula; written by William Goldman; starring Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford, Jack Warden, Martin Balsam, Jason Robards, Ned Beatty
Read my full review HERE
Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford are on top form as they bring down the Nixon administration. [Read my full review]
7. Rain Man (Levinson, 1988)
Dir. Barry Levinson; written by Barry Morrow, Ronald Bass; starring Dustin Hoffman, Tom Cruise, Valerie Golino
“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.
6. Marathon Man (Schlesinger, 1976)
Dir. John Schlesinger; written by William Goldman; starring Dustin Hoffman, Laurence Olivier, William Devane, Roy Scheider, Marthe Keller
It’s great to see Hoffman on-screen with Laurence Olivier, and the two don’t disappoint, especially in the well-known dentist torture scene.
5. Papillon (Schaffner, 1973)
Dir. Franklin J. Schaffner; written by Henri Charriere, Dalton Trumbo; starring Dustin Hoffman, Steve McQueen
Powerful and affecting prison drama with stand out performances from McQueen and Hoffman. McQueen gets more screen time but its testament to Hoffman’s ability that he outshines the great escapee in their scenes together.
4. Tootsie (Pollack, 1982)
Dir. Sydney Pollack; written by Larry Gelbart, Murray Schisgal, Barry Levinson, Elaine May; starring Dustin Hoffman, Jessica Lange, Teri Garr, Dabney Coleman, Charles Durning, Bill Murray, Sydney Pollack
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 was again nominated for Best Actor at the Academy Awards but failed to win.
3. Midnight Cowboy (Schlesinger, 1969)
Dir. John Schlesinger; written by James Leo Herlihy, Waldo Salt; starring Dustin Hoffman, Jon Voight, Sylvia Miles
Undeniably one of Dustin Hoffman’s finest performances, his appearance in John Schlesinger’s “Midnight Cowboy” as Ratso Rizzo is heartbreakingly humane, touching, and personal. Hoffman should have won his first Academy Award for the film but had to resign himself to a nomination alongside Voight.
2. Straw Dogs (Peckinpah, 1971)
Dir. Sam Peckinpah; written by Sam Peckinpah, David Zelag Goodman; starring Dustin Hoffman, Susan George, Jim Norton, Ken Hutchison, Donald Webster, Del Henney, David Warner
Read my full review HERE
The second greatest achievement in Dustin Hoffman’s career is Sam Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs”. He wasn’t first choice for lead part David Sumner but gladly took on the role when offered it. He was intrigued by the character’s aversion to violence and how he is finally driven to physically defend himself and his home by criminals. Hoffman displays Sumner as a nerdy, observant yet withdrawn man who has become less interested in his beautiful wife and more obsessed by work and routine. Under the constant provocation from local workers mending his home’s roof, he is encouraged by wife Amy to stand up for himself but he finds this difficult. He’s shy and unsure of himself in social situations, yet he’s strong-willed and confident when alone in his office. When he’s finally driven to stand up to his bullies, Hoffman displays his new found mental strength as an adrenaline rush of nervous energy. There isn’t a hint that we’re seeing two completely different characters switched from passive dweeb to heroic vigilante just because the plot called for it – Hoffman’s aggression is a constant throughout the film, but it is only released when he can contain it no more. [Read my full review.]
1. The Graduate (Nichols, 1967)
Dir. Mike Nichols; written by Calder Willingham, Buck Henry; starring Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bankcroft, Katherine Ross, William Daniels, Murray Hamilton
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.
Written and Compiled by Daniel Stephens
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