American actor and filmmaker Dustin Hoffman is one of the most celebrated actors of 20th century Hollywood.
His wonderfully moving performances as anti-heroes and emotionally vulnerable characters have helped establish Hoffman as an acting force to be reckoned with. Actor Robert De Niro described him as “an actor with the everyman’s face who embodied the heartbreakingly human”. He is famous for his performances in films like The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy among others.
Born in Los Angeles, Hoffman knew from a young age that he wanted to study in the arts and entered into the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music. Later, he decided to go into acting and trained at the Pasadena Playhouse in Los Angeles. When he told his family about his career goal, his Aunt Pearl warned him, “You can’t be an actor. You are not good-looking enough.”
On his 83rd birthday, we look back at some of the crowning jewels of Dustin Hoffman’s extensive acting career.
Dustin Hoffman’s 10 Best Films:
10. The Graduate (Mike Nichols – 1967)
The Graduate was one of the most iconic films of New Hollywood, a youthful display of acting talent mixed in with influences from European arthouse cinema. It has an enduring legacy as a cult classic. The reserved and troubled Benjamin (played by Hoffman) spends his summer in California, either floating aimlessly in his parents’ swimming pool or making love to his middle-aged neighbour (played by Anne Bancroft).
The nuanced character of Benjamin Braddock was Hoffman’s breakout role. The film beautifully shows how the performativity of class conformity is so problematic. For his performance as Benjamin, Hoffman received his first Academy Award nomination as Best Actor, and the film’s director Mike Nichols won the Oscar for his work as well.
Reflecting on his experience, Hoffman said, “Mike Nichols was wonderful. [The Graduate] was 100 days of shooting, but it was [also] a month of rehearsals. Starting from zero on a sound stage with tape, like you do in a play. You can’t do that today because it’s like we’re not going to be paying for the cinematographer and the art director and all of these other people’s salaries if they’re not shooting.”
9. Papillon (Franklin J. Schaffner – 1973)
This 1973 film is an epic adventure story which features Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman as a pair of prisoners. They develop quite a strong bond over their long tenure in prison. Papillon (played by Steve McQueen), a tough, steely-nerved safecracker and Louis Dega (played by Dustin Hoffman), a white-collar criminal guilty of forging counterfeit war bonds seem like two highly incompatible characters, they share surprisingly tender moments in the unforgivingly cruel French penal colony in Guiana.
“Mentoring is what we actors do constantly. Sometimes the director doesn’t like it, so you have to talk out of the side of your mouth like in those old prison movies,” Hoffman said while recalling his experience.
“The next take, just do it the way you want it, don’t be so big.”
8. Lenny (Robert Fosse – 1974)
Biopics are always demanding for actors to do. However, Hoffman is brilliant in his personification of stand-up comic Lenny Bruce. Bruce believed in taboo and rebellion, his “offensive” comedy routines made sure that the police often came looking for him.
His foul-mouthed and politically-aware brand of comedy has inspired subsequent generations of comedians. Lenny episodically portrays the Jewish-American comic, revelling in fame and struggling with drug addiction. Hoffman is commendably hilarious, angry and vulnerable as Bruce.
Junior members of the crew were highly disgruntled because of Robert Fosse’s high demands and his persistent coldness. “He’ll do 25 takes,” one crew member said, “then walk over and move a glass on the table — move it half an inch — and do it all over again.”
7. Little Big Man (Arthur Penn – 1970)
Based on Thomas Berger’s picaresque novel of the Old West, the 1970 film features Hoffman as Jack Crabb, the oldest man in the world at age 121, who is perpetually lost in his nostalgia about his eventful life. Raised by the Cheyenne, Jack was a gunslinger, an associate of Wild Bill Hickok, a scout for General George Armstrong Custer, and the sole white survivor of the Battle of Little Big Horn. Little Big Man gave Hoffman a chance to show just how versatile he was by playing a range of characters in a single role.
In an interview, Hoffman spoke of the challenges of doing the film, “How do you do a guy from 15 to 121? Recalling this old film is actually in flashback, it’s difficult to answer because it’s a question put forth to painters or sculptors but not to a movie actor.”
He added, “You don’t have time. Most of the times there was no rehearsal as was the case for Little Big Man. You talk a bit with the director off the camera, read the screenplay and then you start to work.”
6. Wag The Dog (Barry Levinson – 1997)
Wag The Dog remains one of the most insightful political satires to this day, starring Hoffman as Hollywood producer Stanley Motts who is hired by political spin doctor Conrad Brean (Robert DeNiro) to start a proxy war with Albania. All of this is done just to draw the country’s attention away from a sex scandal which involves the President of the United States making moves on an underage “Firefly Girl”. Hoffman was said to have modelled his performance on colourful Hollywood producer Robert Evans, and it won him his sixth Academy Award nomination as Best Actor.
Hoffman gave his insights on satire, saying, “I think what satire does is simply point out what we overlook as humans in life. The absurdities have always been all around us and I don’t think that they are that new. I think they are cyclical.”
Continuing, “I think all that changes is the hair-dos, the accoutrements, the fashion, the way of speaking, the technology but human behaviour is, in a sense, an absurd condition and the satire has always been there.”
5. Kramer vs Kramer (Robert Benton – 1979)
Dustin Hoffman won his first Best Actor Academy Award for his wonderful performance as Ted Kramer, a man who is obsessed with his work. He wants to tell his wife Joanna (Meryl Streep, who also won her first Academy Award for this performance) that he has been assigned an important account but discovers that she is leaving him to raise their son Billy (Academy Award nominee Justin Henry) by himself.
In one of his most moving performances ever, Hoffman beautifully navigates the dilemmas of being a father and more importantly, a single parent.
Hoffman said, “At the beginning, (the director and the producer) said they would allow me to collaborate with them and they never stopped allowing me to put in my two cents…I would say the entire film was improvised within the scenes themselves.
“The director allowed us to tinker with his script and he believed as I do that there’s never a final script. I think that what is on the screen is a spontaneous and organic performance by all the people in the film.”
4. All The President’s Men (Alan J. Pakula – 1976)
Hoffman plays the role of Carl Bernstein in this classic political thriller — one of the reporters who was a part of the monumental Washington Post investigation into the Watergate break-in. He strikes up a perfect, antithetical balance with Robert Redford as fellow journalist Bob Woodward. The iconic film follows the story of these two reporters as they explore the dark and murky world of political corruption. Filmed by accomplished cinematographer Gordon Willis, All the President’s Men is one of the most engaging political thrillers thanks to the compelling dynamics between Redford and Hoffman.
Speaking about the two protagonists, Redford said, “That’s what made the movie exciting and dramatic for me. One guy was a Jew, the other was a WASP. One was a Republican, the other a liberal. They didn’t much like each other, but they had to work together.”
Adding, “I developed the project over 3-1/2 years. I started it when few people were talking about Watergate. Later, I spent a lot of time with the two journalists. By that time they were working beautifully together.”
3. Rain Man (Barry Levinson – 1988)
Playing someone who suffers from a mental disability can be challenging for any actor—it’s a role that comes with a certain responsibility.
Hoffman gracefully pulls it off in Rain Man, as Raymond Babbitt who lives with autism and has a remarkable capacity for recalling facts and information. His long-lost brother, Charlie (played by Tom Cruise), pretends to take Raymond on a trip in order to extract their father’s fortune from him. Hoffman researched and developed his own approach to the mannerisms of his character, putting on a consistently flawless performance for two hours. It won him his second Academy Award for Best Actor.
“I didn’t think an easy ending was the right way to go,” said Barry Levinson, the movie’s fourth and final director. “There had been a bunch of endings where (the brothers) were going to live happily ever after, but it didn’t seem to apply.”
Producer Mark Johnson added, “What we ended up with was much more simple than anything else that existed (in the scripts) before.”
2. Tootsie (Sydney Pollack – 1982)
The premise of a crossdressing comedy might seem controversial at first, following in the footsteps of Some Like It Hot (1959). Theoretically, there are a lot of reasons why Tootsie shouldn’t work but the earnestness of its intentions eclipses all possible caveats.
It follows the story of actor Michael Dorsey (played by Hoffman) who comes to the conclusion that he has burned too many bridges to get roles in films. He transitions to his alter-ego Dorothy, full of love and kindness and he finds professional success in doing so. Apart from the light-hearted comedy, Tootsie is an important part of the discourse of gender binaries. For his endearing performance as Michael and Dorothy, Hoffman earned his fifth Academy Award nomination.
“When we got to that point and looked at it on screen, I was shocked that I wasn’t more attractive,” Hoffman said. “I said, ‘Now you have me looking like a woman, now make me a beautiful woman.’ Because I thought I should be beautiful. … And they said to me, ‘That’s as good as it gets’.”
1. Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger – 1969)
After his iconic performance in The Graduate, Hoffman plays the role Enrico “Ratso” Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy. Ratso is a product of the New York streets and strikes up an unlikely friendship with fresh-off-the-bus cowboy Joe Buck (played by Jon Voight), who has dreams of being a gigolo. They lurk around Times Square as Joe offers himself to high-class women and (occasionally) men. Midnight Cowboy was the first (and only) X-rated film to win the Oscar for Best Picture and it also won Hoffman his second Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.
“When we started having screenings, people would get up and leave. They were so offended,” Hoffman recalled.
He added, “It’s a love story, and maybe a love story we hadn’t seen before. People just sat there [crying] when it was over. It worked on a narrative level, on the cinematography level, and it had music that was [its] soul. It’s a surprise when something hits you that strongly.”