Top 10 Dustin Hoffman Performances

Top 10 Films takes a look at the finest performances of Hollywood legend Dustin Hoffman whose turns in movies such as Lenny, Midnight Cowboy & Tootsie remain some of the most memorable of contemporary cinema.

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 on 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.

See also our Top 10 Dustin Hoffman Films

10. Hook (Spielberg, 1991)

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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. But it still has plenty of merit, and much of that lands squarely at the feet of Dustin Hoffman. While the magic of the Peter Pan legend might be lost on 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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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

See also our Top 10 Dustin Hoffman Films

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About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. Avatar
    rtm Reply

    NIce list, Dan, I haven’t seen some of the movies here but agree about what you wrote about him in the intro, he’s a versatile actor indeed. I LOVE his recent movie Last Chance Harvey, he’s got a nice chemistry w/ Emma Thompson.

  2. Avatar
    Dan Reply

    @rtm: Thanks Ruth. I also enjoyed Last Chance Harvey. It was great to see Dustin Hoffman find a role and a film that can still show off his talents. I think he’s still a top actor today, whereas some of his generation have either disappeared, semi-retired or are making fools of themselves (ie. Robert De Niro).

  3. Avatar
    Marya Reply

    great list, though I would swap the places of Midnight Cowboy and Kramer vs. Kramer

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    Rodney Reply

    God, Wag The Dog was an awesome film. I’d forgotten about that one. To be honest, my own top two Hoffman performances would have been Tootsie and Rain Man, as I have yet to see Lenny, and I haven’t seen Midnight Cowboy in ages (and can’t really remember it!), but it’s a great list Dan, as usual!!

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    Dave Reply

    Terrific profile on one of the best living actors in Hollywood today. I liked/loved all of these titles, but I gotta throw these three out there:

    Little Big Man – a funny performance, as lively as anything he’s done.

    Death of a Salesman – he was heartbreaking as Willy Loman.

    More recently, his best performance in many, many years was a bit part in the vastly under-seen Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. It’s a very odd film, but if nothing else, it’s worth a look for Hoffman’s role as Giusseppe Baldini.

    Thanks for writing this up. Always fun to look back on Hoffman’s amazing career.

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    ruth Reply

    Totally agree about De Niro… complacency is never a good thing for anyone, especially an actor.

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    Shubhajit Lahiri Reply

    Though there are a few movies in the list I haven’t watched, I more or less agree with the list. The only glaring omission for me was the absence of Stray Dogs, which should have made the Top 3 at the least. And Graduate perhaps ought to have been moved up.

    Dustin Hoffman might not rank at par with some of his contemporaries as Robert De Niro & Jack Nicholson, he sure remains an excellent actor with a really enviable filmography under his belt nonetheless.

  8. Avatar
    Dan Reply

    @Shubhajit: Interesting you should say he doesn’t rank as highly as De Niro. I think De Niro has given us some fine performances but I do believe Hoffman has achieved a better range of characters, and has carried this on throughout the years. De Niro has really gone down hill over the last few years with his lazy comedy work. I would put them both right at the top but my personal favourite has to be Hoffman.

    Like you mention, Nicholson is up there too. One of the few actors who could outshine Hoffman.

  9. Avatar Reply

    I’m glad to see some love for Papillion. Very good film with two great leading men. Kramer vs Kramer is a great film but it’s unfortunately remembered for nabbing the Best Picture Oscar from Apocalypse Now.
    Also, +1 for THE BOO BOX.

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    DEZMOND Reply

    I must admit I’ve never liked his way of acting, which is always kinda neurotic and overly dramatic (similar to Al Pacino’s) but that was the trademark of their generation.
    However I do like watching KRAMER and TOOTSIE.

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    mark Reply

    Tootsie was a terrible film – total crap. And Sydney Pollack was ridiculous in Eyes Wide Shut – shouldn’t blame the man above Kubrick, but after Tootsie I looked back at his work and asked myself: Was 3 Days of the Condor good?

    No. Even had problems with Absence of Malice after Tootsie (the Cimino complex, perhaps?!)

    So back to Hoffman.

    Good list, but Little Big Man should be on it, as should Straight Time.

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    mark Reply

    Interesting point made above by Dezmond vis-a-vis Pacino …. years and years ago (circa 1973) when Oz TV was still in black and white, the Australian Broadcast Corporation had an arts show, which included a panel of celebrities. At one point the guests were shown a clip from Scarecrow and asked to name the actors. Gene Hackman they got – however, they didn’t recognise Pacino, with a couple of them agreeing that it may have been Dustin Hoffman.

    I think Marathon Man could have been a contender for this list – an unusual film insofar as it translated well from an entertaining book and fitted in with those 1976-77s Hollywood movies in which the audience was subjected to scenes of confusing exposition (ie Black Sunday and Sorcerer).

    Plus he looked liked a marathon man – as fit as a fiddle and youthful to boot. Maybe this should be number one on the “10 Films You Don’t Want to See Before Going to the Dentist” list.

    For what it’s worth, a cinematograher once said to me that he believed Tom Cruise came out of Rain Man better than Hoffman on the grounds that Cruise had the harder job – that being playing the anchor role against Hoffman’s scene stealing tour de force performance. I always thought that was an interesting observation, but I’m not sure I ever totally agreed with it.

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    Justin Reply

    Dustin Hoffman is not a chameleon actor like Johnny Depp or other chameleons such as Daniel Day-Lewis and Gary Oldman. They all have much more range than Hoffman. In almost all these pictures you can easily tell you are looking at Dustin Hoffman. Hook and Tootsie is chameleon acting. Hoffman has done a fair bit of “personality acting” basically playing himself with very small variations to his persona and appearance. Hoffman oscillates between chameleon and personality acting.

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