Yesterday I was listening to Terry Gross on her National Public Radio show called Fresh Air. Around this area – Tampa/St.Pete/Bradenton/Sarasota the show airs at 12:00 PM and 7:00 PM. daily – or at least weekdays. The broadcast featured Bryan Cranston who will be forever remembered for his stunning role as Walter White on Breaking Bad. Currently, Cranston is trodding the boards on Broadway as former U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson in a limited engagement of the play All The Way which was authored by playwright Robert Schenkkan.
A bit further back, I heard a Fresh Air show with Terry Gross talking with Joaquin Phoenix who starred in Spike Jonze’s Her. You’d be amazed when you hear an actor discuss his craft, his methods, and what it takes to be a world-class actor. It is sort of like listening to the man behind the curtain, about whom we have been often told to not pay any attention to, or more accurately, the actor inside the role – in his own words
But it was only last week that I listened to the Fresh Air replay of a broadcast (originally in January of 2013) with actor Dustin Hoffman. Now this post is not going to be only about the Fresh Air interview of Hoffman, nor will I write a lengthy piece about my own interaction with Hoffman because no such event ever happened. Rather I am going to have a look at a few of what I consider my favorite Dustin Hoffman films.
From the first time we saw him as a new college graduate who learned in the same film the magic of the word ‘plastics’ and the wonders of love from Mrs. Robinson – we knew that this actor was going to be something special. And through the years, Hoffman has reflected our own lives on-screen as he aged. From the youthful and innocent Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate to the ancient one, Jack Crabb in Little Big Man, from the street-wise hustler that we remember as Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy to the damaged yet brilliant Raymond Babbitt in Rain Man, or maybe you recall him as a Pirate known as Captain Hook, a driven investigative reporter in All The President’s Men, or as a husband whose marriage is on the rocks (Kramer vs. Kramer) when hasn’t Dustin Hoffman been a part of our lives with his wonderful performances serving almost as mile-markers for us?
As a comedian in Lenny, or a convict in Papillon, as the tired and slump-shouldered Willy Lomax in Death of a Salesman or as a man known as Babe who seemed perpetually on the run in Marathon Man. or even as a man and a woman while chasing the dreams of an actor in Tootsie – Hoffman has always intrigued us with his skills, beguiled us with his talents, or energized us with his drive.
Dustin began his film career in a barely noticed small role in The Tiger Makes Out in 1967. But Hoffman got a seat on the rocket to stardom in his very next role, which was also a 1967 release, as Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate directed by Mike Nichols. In 1967, Hoffman was 29-30 years old yet he gave an Oscar nominated performance as a young (21 year-old) college graduate just drifting along.
That was 47 years ago. But before that, if you lived in New York in the early sixties, you may have dined at a restaurant and your waiter might have been Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman, or Robert Duvall. They all knew each other in those days as they all were struggling young actors waiting on tables as they lived the ‘actor’s life’ and waited for the next big thing which was a part in a film. On The Fresh Air show Hoffman quoted himself from that time:
Sir, How is your salmon?
Dustin Hoffman headlined with Robert Redford in All The President’s Men. His role was that of the Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein. While personally Hoffman didn’t carry home any Oscars for All The President’s Men, the film walked off with 4 Oscars out of eight nominations. Check out this clip from Turner Classic Movies:
The 70’s were Mr. Hoffman’s best decade as a film actor. Besides All The President’s Men, Hoffman performed in eight other Oscar nominated films in this decade. Think of it – 9 Oscar nominated films in one decade by a single actor. The mind boggles.
As the 80’s began, Dustin Hoffman found it difficult to get an acting job. In fact, following his Oscar-winning performance by An Actor in a Lead Role for Kramer vs. Kramer in 1979, Hoffman did not again appear in a film until 1982 in Tootsie.
Because, in no uncertain terms, Hoffman was difficult to work with. You may not have known that but this scene from Tootsie was not only a terrific piece of writing, and performing by Sydney Pollack and Hoffman, but it was apparently taken from Hoffman’s real life experiences, reputation, and issues. Have a look at that scene in this clip:
Following the hit Tootsie, Hoffman did not appear in another theatrical film until 1987 when both Hoffman and Warren Beatty crashed and burned in the ill-fated Ishtar directed by Elaine May.
Fortunately, Hoffman redeemed himself in the 1989 smash hit Rain Man. Not only did this film win Best Picture, but Dustin walked off with the Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role.
By the 1990’s Dustin Hoffman was in his 50’s. Leading roles came far less frequently. As Hoffman told Terry Gross in the Fresh Air interview:
HOFFMAN: [referencing his earlier career] But because I was this, you know, immediate star, I got all the scripts for people in my age range before anybody else did, and that was a luxury that continued through my – well, I was 29 when I did “The Graduate,” even though I supposed to be 21, but it continued through my 30s, 40s.
Somewhere in there, in your 50s, if you’re not holding a gun, and that I’ve always…
HOFFMAN: …I’ve always refused to do, then suddenly this person who was an immediate leading – had leading roles – suddenly started getting offered supporting parts. And then you get into your 60s and 70s, and those supporting parts are even less frequent. And suddenly you’re being offered – lack of a better word – cameos, meaning that you die before the first act of the film is over. You have ailments. So, yes.
GROSS: So you refuse – you’ve refused to hold a gun throughout your career?
HOFFMAN: Yes, I did. I think I…
GROSS: That eliminates about 90 percent of movies.
Well not quite 90%, but you get what Terry Gross meant. By the way, you can read the entire Hoffman interview with Terry Gross here.
So strictly speaking, I don’t have a favorite Dustin Hoffman film from the 1990’s.
In the early 2000’s Dustin Hoffman played in films that included words like Neverland, Huckabees, Fockers, and even Panda in their film titles. For me it was mostly a lost Hoffman decade. That is until 2008 when he starred with Emma Thompson in Last Chance Harvey. Mind you, despite being 71 years old, Hoffman not only starred in, but was delightful in this romance about a man entering the autumn of his life. For me it was a return to excellence for Mr. Hoffman.
I’d pay money to see this film again.
Check out these quotes from the film:
Hoffman as Harvey Shine: I’m gonna dance your socks off.
Thompson as Kate Walker: You – You just dive in there, don’t you just, whoosh, anywhere, deep end. And I’m not, I’m not a bloody swimming pool, Harvey.
For me, this sweet film was far and away my favorite Hoffman film of that decade.
By now Mr. Hoffman had returned to TV and was brilliant in the race track drama Luck. It was a terrific TV series on HBO, but events (the care and welfare of horses) not in Mr. Hoffman’s control lead to the cancellation of the series. That show was made at the end of 2011 and aired at the beginning of 2012.
From there, Dustin jumped into the film Quartet as Director. The picture below shows Hoffman at work on Quartet.
So I am sure that for some of you, the name Dustin Hoffman may not be as familiar to you as it is to so many of us. I’ve tried to put forth in this post some of my favorite Dustin Hoffman movies. But I limited myself to just a few, and I am sure that I failed to mention so many Hoffman films that you may have thought were great.
Please let me hear from you readers about which films I may have overlooked, or which films you want included in this small tribute to one of American best-loved and iconic actors.