Most still-active stars of Dustin Hoffman’s caliber start getting the whole Clint Eastwood national-treasure treatment about now. Closing in on 70, with over 34 films, two Oscars, five more nominations, and several legendary performances on his résumé, Hoffman has more than earned the standard James Lipton-styled hagiography. But there’s an extra aura around Hoffman’s most recent incarnation, a distinctly beatific valence. He comes off like a hipper Ram Dass, Dr. Phil with a moptop, lauded not just for his talents but some basic message that his presence conveys. A handy comparison is today’s Bill Murray, with his benignly amused existential poise. Hoffman, who lacks Murray’s hipster sang froid, wants to share his inner peace. He’s a Boddhisattva of postmodern happiness, verging on the kind of public persona Robin Williams courts at his most unbearable—only we like Hoffman. He seems like a noble survivor of the human comedy, both in on the joke and graciously accepting the degree to which it’s on him and, maybe, all of us—whether the joke is Hollywood or life or both.
For decades Hoffman’s repertoire was considered mostly as the sum of his characterizations and their revolutionary effect on the industry. “Dustin Hoffman changed the way actors were perceived and what they were allowed to do,” says American Film Institute chair Tom Pollock. Unlike other male actors from Hollywood’s Greatest Generation— Nicholson, Pacino, De Niro—he’s still relevant and he remains, in a sense, himself: there was no particular reinvention, no self-parodying second act, no post-Scientology power-move. He just got older, wiser, and more Hoffmanly.
Born in 1937 to a first-generation Russian Jew, Dustin Lee Hoffman prepped for his destiny of leading New York’s last great Hollywood takeover by growing up, naturally, in Los Angeles. Son of a set designer and furniture maker, he attended Santa Monica City College to study jazz piano, falling into acting class because he’d heard it was unflunkable. He got bug-bit, moved to New York and made his Broadway debut in 1961, doing minor TV and film work while establishing a rep as a serious, eventually Obie-winning theater actor.
The beginnings of the New Hollywood are typically dated to 1967 and attributed to the tonal revolution of Bonnie and Clyde and the casting revolution of The Graduate. In fact, Hoffman’s success in The Graduate changed the look and temperament of American filmmaking so profoundly that it’s hard to imagine just how tough a sell the 5’5″, slope-shouldered, proboscidean 30-year-old was, back before all the raging riders and easy bulls seized the reins.
Before he lucked out with The Graduate (his second movie), Hoffman had resigned himself to the Hollywood casting designation of “character juvenile”—industry jargon for “non-lead,” or, less charitably, “funny-looking sidekick,” or, as humorist David Rakoff later dubbed him, “Jewy McHebrew.” Hoffman led character juveniles to the promised land. Adapting a novel whose protagonist was a handsome Wasp Ivy Leaguer, Mike Nichols had initially cast Robert Redford. But after a screen test, Nichols was concerned that Redford might not make a convincing loser. Redford didn’t understand why. Let me put it this way, Nichols said: had Redford ever struck out with a girl? “What do you mean?” Redford asked. And the rest, as they say, is Hoffman—who paved the way for every nebbishy antihero from Richard Dreyfuss to Steve Buscemi to Paul Giamatti.
After The Graduate made him a star, Hoffman was promptly re-pigeonholed by studios offering him Joe College parts. And so he undertook just about the most antipodal character possible: a crippled, gutter-crawling would-be pimp to a hayseed hustler. In an X-rated movie. And naturally, he got his second Academy Award nomination.
After Midnight Cowboy came the kind of run no film star seems to have nowadays: Little Big Man (‘70), Straw Dogs (‘71), Papillon (‘73), Lenny (‘74), All the President’s Men (‘76), Marathon Man (‘76)—each film captured the popular imagination. And then began one of the strangest career arcs in industry history, when, after 10 years filled with home runs, Hoffman entered the Eighties. He gave precisely five performances in the entire decade. Two—Tootsie (‘82) and Rain Man (‘88)—are AFI-sanctioned classics, the latter earning him his second Academy Award; another was one of the most infamous debacles in cinematic history. Even in Hollywood—debaser of all that is pure and sacred—Ishtar remains unmentionable: the I-Word. Elaine May’s well-intentioned 1987 buddy film somehow accrued an ignominy at least as durable than that of the Cimino Waterloo, Heaven’s Gate, or George Lucas’s folly, Howard the Duck. Like those disasters, it drew an ire more typically associated with war crimes. “Ishtar is a truly dreadful film, a lifeless, massive, lumbering exercise in failed comedy,” said the relatively kind Roger Ebert. The film became the funeral pyre upon which New Hollywood firebrands Beatty and Hoffman were immolated.
Two years ago, Hoffman recalled a time when he contemplated a new career strategy. “I said to myself, ‘Maybe I should work more often, and I did a lot of films, and something happened which I’m still trying to figure out.’” This thing presumably encompasses Family Business (‘89), Billy Bathgate (‘91), Hook (‘91), Hero (‘92), Outbreak (‘95), Sleepers (‘96), Mad City (‘97), and Sphere (‘98)—yes, a fallow period. But in Wag the Dog (‘97) Hoffman not only lived to fight another day but to parody the egotrips and cocaine-dreams he’d survived. (Hoffman insists his eerie, black-sunglassed producer was based not on Robert Evans but on his own father.) And even before Ishtar, he’d sent up his own fabled intolerability with the unemployably petulant actor Michael Dorsey in Tootsie—a film that provides another crucial key to understanding Hoffman’s singular profile.
The kindly, nutty, deceptively imposing presence Hoffman provides in two of his 2004 releases, I ♥ Huckabees and Meet the Fockers, would not exist without his female co-stars. In both films, Hoffman turns fellow Seventies survivors Lily Tomlin and Barbra Streisand into partners, muses, and essential halves of his laughing-Buddha Gestalt. Streisand’s sex therapist Roz Focker (author of Meet Your Orgasm) is a suntan-crunchy-jewess near-stereotype; Tomlin, Hoffman’s existential detective partner, a de Beauvoir to his Sartre. And both are, despite all the comic absurdity, convincing recipients of his avid, rabbity embrace. Hoffman’s love of femininity seems not just genuine but genetic.
“For whatever reason I was never one of the guys,” Hoffman told a reporter many years ago. “I don’t understand the world of men. It’s a foreign land to me. Men hang out. I never hang out with men. I have a passion for sitting down with a group of gals.” As it happens, several of Hoffman’s great roles were characters compelled to embrace their femininity to become better men. In Tootsie, Dorothy Michaels doesn’t just get Michael Dorsey a soap role, she enables him to find love and peace. And in Kramer vs. Kramer, Hoffman’s type-A careerist gradually becomes more maternal (a change aided by a wardrobe of increasingly billowy, untucked shirts) as he learns how to be a parent.
But Hoffman is more than a survivor from the golden age. He’s someone who shows us a graceful, humane, engaged, soulful, compassionate way to live in the here and now. Bernie’s credo in Huckabees—“There is no remainder in the mathematics of infinity, there is only The Blanket”—just about sums it up. It’s possible that today’s Hoffman would have ultimately coalesced without the rough patches, but it’s hard to imagine. Hoffman’s poise — more than just a game, Shatner-esque ability to “laugh at himself” — is completely in keeping with his lifelong methodology.
The Marathon Man anecdote perennially used to smear the Method generation—in which master craftsman Laurence Olivier chides shambling wreck Hoffman, “Why not try acting?”—elides the fundamental creative role Hoffman’s real life has played in so many cinema classics. A striking number of the prized moments in Hoffmania are the fruit of improvisations. Benjamin Braddock’s mute, robotic cupping of a distracted Anne Bancroft’s breast; his slow, rhythmic headbutting against the wall when rebuffed; his brief, preassignation whimper in silhouetted close-up—all found just before the camera rolled. Likewise, Ratso Rizzo’s cabbie-snarl, “I’m walkin’ hee-ah!” was barked at a real cabdriver who was actually driving into an actor playing a scene on a Manhattan street.
All these impromptu Hoffman creations were done in character, as opposed to the “character” of a Gary Oldman stunt performance. Even Rain Man’s autistic Raymond Babbitt was, in a sense, an autistic Dustin Hoffman. “You’re more in an exaggerated zone of yourself,” he once explained. “I don’t understand people that see a distance between themselves and characters like [American Buffalo’s] Teach or Ratso Rizzo or what we call the fringe of society or the losers of society or the gutter heap or the lowlife.” Every actor draws upon life, but Hoffman’s career has enjoyed moment after moment of sweet synchronicity between character and autobiography.
In the midst of his divorce, Hoffman came reluctantly to Kramer vs. Kramer, the film that finally won him his first Academy Award. He and screenwriter-director Robert Benton shaped the final script from 12-hour venting sessions in a hotel room, during which Hoffman shared every gory detail of his ongoing domestic implosion. And then, as Benton recalls, Hoffman set himself a strange acting challenge: playing himself. “It requires an extraordinary kind of self-observation and discipline,” the director said in a recent documentary. “I know it sounds simple, but it’s the hardest thing an actor could do.”
The challenge brought out two contradictory sides of the actor: the pugnacious thespian warrior—a onetime outsider driven by revenge—and the kinder, warmer, future existential detective, both employed to illustrate the bipolar emotions of divorce with unsurpassed detail and authenticity. To summon rage for the confrontation scenes, Hoffman nurtured a genuine anger not just for his real wife but for his formidable 29-year-old co-star, Meryl Streep—who he began to conceive of as a stuck-up, virtuosic, Ivy League Pete Sampras-of-acting against whom he’d have to muster all his strength. (In one bash of a wineglass, Hoffman shows a bitch-slapping fury worthy of Jack Nicholson.)
But Hoffman also showed the opposite side of that emotional tempest—and in doing so tapped what, in one more classic moment, seems like an oceanic reservoir of affection. The scene was not scripted—just a serendipitous moment during which Streep was standing in an elevator, wiping her tears from a just-completed crying scene. Now her character was about to go up to see her son; she was, like Streep, preparing for a scene.
Lit from above, Streep finishes dabbing and looks at Hoffman, her expressionless face like fine marble. “How do I look?” she asks. And Hoffman, not Ted Kramer, looks back at Streep, not Joanna Kramer, and gives a smile so warm, so twinkly-eyed, generous, and genuine it could melt an arctic continent. The smile of someone who, like existential detective Bernard Jaffe, knows the world-binding, soul-warming power of The Blanket.
“You look terrific,” Hoffman tells Streep, his gaze saying everything about love the script hadn’t. And just like that, everyone on set knew they’d found what was mising. It became the film’s final scene.
© 2005 by Chris Norris