By John H. Foote
He was the least likely movie star because he was ordinary looking, he looked like one of us. No movie star good looks, but a short, ordinary little guy who was remarkably unremarkable yet who would become one of the greatest actors in film history.
Hoffman was remarkably intelligent, astute, did extraordinary amounts of research, and became the character as opposed to just acting it. It was essential to him to inhabit the soul and skin of whoever he was portraying, to slip into their skin and not act them, but to become them. Few have done it as well.
His greatest achievement was becoming a woman in Tootsie (1982), a brilliant farce set in the worlds of acting, the theater and television. As someone who has lived in those worlds I can say with absolute confidence, the film nailed it. But what was shocking was though we knew Hoffman was playing an actor who was pretending to be a woman to get work, we did not expect to accept this woman as a flesh and blood character, we lost the actor, we lost Hoffman, we gained Dorothy. There is a line in the film, after his ruse is discovered, “I miss Dorothy” and we realize, so do we. It is a miraculous performance that richly deserved another Oscar for him but instead the Academy chose to celebrate Gandhi (1982) instead.
Through the course of his impressive career, Hoffman has won two Oscars, one deserved, one not, been nominated for five others, and should have had at least two further nominations.
His win for Rain Man (1988) I will forever protest because it was so easy, and anyone could do it. In a recent piece on overrated performances I describe just how you could do it. Acting is about energy and connecting and feeding off the others energy, Hoffman gave nothing in Rain Man (1988) and instead took. It was a surprising break from his devotion to the art.
You doubt that anyone could do it? Indulge me. Sit in a chair, hands folded on lap, tilt your head, look at no one, stare off into space and very gently rock back and forth. When someone speaks to you, gently turn your head in their direction but do not look at them! Never look anyone in the eye. Speak in a halting nasal voice, punctuating your statements with “yeah”. Never change, never evolve. And you just won yourself an Oscar.
It was a lazy performance that had no arc, the better work being done by Tom Cruise, his co-star.
He has always been at his best when playing a somewhat mean and nasty character, someone who does not play well with others. Yet he can be possessed of a sweetness we cannot ignore, a sadness and sense of melancholy we understand and even appreciate. In so many instances, Hoffman is an ever day man, he is you and I. Perhaps that is why we so connect to he and his characters, because they, like us are flawed. Yet they evolve, they grow, often right before our eyes.
Hoffman has not given a great performance since 1997, yet remains active in film. He was terrific as the old perfume expert in Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006), and outstanding as the literature professor in a Stranger Than Fiction (2006). He spent a season as a former mobster on HBO’s Luck, and was superb, but sadly it was not renewed.
You will not find Rain Man (1988) on this list, nor Hook (1991), this is after all about his best.
He is in a word, as an actor, astonishing.
Simply put, this is one of the greatest performances ever put on film, an Oscar nominee, a performance which left other actors in dumbstruck awe, and winner of the National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Actor. Cast as a prickly method actor obsessed with getting it right, finding the truth, he can no longer get work because directors consider him difficult. So he dresses as a woman, auditions for a network soap, and lands the job, quickly becoming a star and spokesperson for female rights, all the while being a man. He falls in love with his co-star, and becomes a better man as a woman than he ever was as a man. There are moments any trace of Dustin Hoffman is gone, he is Dorothy. Hoffman grows as Dorothy, but not as a woman, oh no, he becomes a kinder man, a better man all round? Like Julie, we too miss Dorothy when she is gone. Simply astounding and remarkable to behold.
MIDNIGHT COWBOY (1969)
As the filthy, greasy, struggling tubercular pick pocket, Ratso Rizzo, Hoffman is stunning. He appears to be plucked from the scum of a street corner in New York, and takes Joe Buck under his wing, after first cheating him. They become an odd pair, like George and Lenny in Of Mice and Men. Dreaming of Florida, believing sunshine and orange juice will save him, Ratso is pathetic but ultimately heartbreaking and tragic. He and Voight are superb together in this ground-breaking Oscar winning film. Their friendship transcends love, it becomes about need. Ratio cannot exist with Joe and knows it. A brilliant piece of acting.
STRAIGHT TIME (1978)
So few people have seen this film, yet it contains one of his best performances and therefore one of the best performances of the decade. Hoffman captures everything about a petty criminal, Max Dembo, the sort who, lies when he does not have too, he does so to stay in practice. Ever watchful, sizing everyone he meets up, deciding how he can best use them, he is a lifetime criminal, unable to go straight, explosive anger simmering below the surface. The scenes with he and his parole officer have an uneasy tension, and when he explodes, attacking the smarmy man, beating him, leaving him in his underwear handcuffed to a pole on a busy highway. We see Max at his worst, but we also see the man he could be, until we see him do murder. He should have been nominated for this superb performance.
KRAMER VS KRAMER (1979)
Hoffman won his first Oscar and every other award available to him for his fine performance as a father who must get to know his five-year-old son, when his wife walks out on him. Dedicated to his career, he finds raising the son a challenge, but falls in love with his son like he never had before. He always loved him as a father should, but he never really knew him, understood him. His heartache at losing the boy to his mother when she suddenly returns is painful to see because his heart is breaking. The court room scenes are powerful, hard to watch, while the scenes with he and Justin Henry, as ten-year-old Billy, are lovely. We have watched him become a better man, a better person, for the sake of a child he comes to love, but more important, need because he discovers being a father defines him and at last, he knows that.
Comedians often make very good actors because they mask a weeping clown but when a dramatic actor, a serious actor is to portray a comic, it is a staggering challenge. They must study the timing of the delivery, the body language, they must understand what inner turmoil fuels the comic. Most great comics are angry about something and Lenny Bruce was no exception. Hoffman was portraying the first great social commentator, Bruce, who would pave a path for Richard Pryor, George Carlin and even Howard Stern to vent about social issues lacing it with comedy. Hoffman is brilliant as Bruce, who would become a drug addict, before dying of an overdose. Beautifully acted and directed, the black and white film superbly captures who Bruce was, tapping into his mind, while Hoffman slips inside his tortured soul.
WAG THE DOG (1997)
When a Presidential scandal rocks the White House, the fix it wizards fly to Hollywood to meet with a showy producer to help ease the pressure on the President by creating a war through the magic of the movies. Stanley, a producer, is a walking Hollywood cliché, a preening peacock who believes what he is doing to be hugely important, but he wants credit and the government wants it quiet. He creates a fictional war in a studio with green screen to divert attention from the fact the President is a dirty old man. Rumours abound that Hoffman impersonated producer Robert Evans for his performance. Maybe so, but Stanley is one of his finest creations.
THE GRADUATE (1967)
In his breakout role, Hoffman was superbly cast as Benjamin Braddock, a recent college graduate who in the sixties as social unrest happens, has no idea what he wants to do with his life. Feeling trapped by his parents, their wealth and social standing, instead of finding a life, he finds sex with his mothers best friend, the seductive Mrs. Robinson. Meeting for sex gives him confidence he sorely lacks, but then he falls in love with his lovers daughter. The fury of Mrs. Robinson is unleashed and the daughter finds out. Brilliantly cast as a metaphorical youth of the sixties, this was the role that made him famous. Droll, naive, deeply funny.
LITTLE BIG MAN (1970)
This funny drama is set in the old west, with Hoffman well cast as The Lonesome Kid, who will in his life meet some of the most infamous western heroes and villains, like a latter-day Forrest Gump. He will spend many years with the Indians who call themselves the human beings, and move through the west like Gump, encountering history, walking with history along the way. One of his most alarming encounters is with Custer at Little Big Horn, portrayed as a madman, and with a sad eyed Wild Bill Hickock. Hoffman, at the beginning of the movie appears as Jack Crabbe, a 120-year-old man, the only survivor of Little Big Horn, telling his story, or tall tales, in flashback.
DEATH OF A SALESMAN (1985)
As Willy Loman, one of the greatest roles written for an actor, Hoffman is superb, taking on the Arthur Miller role and bringing something new and exciting to it. A fussy little man who has deluded himself all his life about who he is, who his sons are, what his marriage is, and what people think of him, it all comes to a head when the prodigal son Biff comes home after a stint in jail. Hoffman captures the pain of a man who understands the failure of his beloved boys is his failure, less theirs than his. Yes, on the road he might be known, but for none of the reasons he tells his boys and wife, which a teenage Biff discovers. In his heart he knows he is a fraud because he let his boys down and betrayed his wife. Loman decides only in death can he give his sons a legacy.
MARATHON MAN (1979)
Cast as a brilliant historian who is totally innocent of any knowledge of his brothers dealings, which draws him into a world of Nazi wealth, couriers, and murder, Hoffman is splendid. They say a thriller is as good as the portrayal of terror in the film, and Hoffman captures this to perfection. He famously goes toe to toe with Laurence Olivier as Christian Szell, a famous Nazi dentist come to New York to cash in his diamonds. An action thriller at its core, Hoffman elevates the film with a tremendous piece of acting. In a great physical and tortured performance, Hoffman is brilliant.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.