Dustin Hoffman made his first impact on Hollywood and American moviegoers just over 30 years ago in Mike Nichols’ THE GRADUATE. Even though the actor at first didn’t see himself as right for the role of the tentative and easily seducible young Benjamin Braddock, his performance is among the most precisely shaded acting jobs of its era. Looking back, it isn’t surprising in the least that THE GRADUATE made him a star.
But there were many at the time who were quite surprised. In the Sixties, “real” leading men were perceived to be tall and strong with chiseled features and perfect smiles — cinematic gods. But Hoffman had more in common with an earlier generation of stars — Cagney, Robinson, Bogart — who didn’t look like gods, but like real, albeit extraordinary, human beings. Hoffman, an actor first, a star second, went to great pains to assure that his performances would be suffused with realism and with empathy. He once said, “One of the things that constantly hits me is that when I go outside on the street, what I see is not what I see on the screen. I turn on the television, and what I see on the screen is not what I see in real life. It bothers me. I want to get closer to what I see in life. I love to see hair out of place. I love to see people without makeup, or at least with their own blush showing, their own pimples, and their own specific behavior.”
Dustin Hoffman was a fresh presence in the American cinema of the late Sixties, and by creating a gallery of characters with “their own specific behavior,” he remains so today, as adventurous and inventive as any actor in the American cinema. He brought no cliches with him when he started out and has not accrued any since.
There is, perhaps, one truism attached to Hoffman’s early career — he was that archetypal overnight success who had been working at his craft for many hard years. By the time he found his way to the screen, he had already paid his dues on the stage in California and New York. While supporting himself with an impressive array of jobs, including demonstrating toys at Macy’s, stringing Hawaiian leis in the flower district, and working as an attendant at the New York Psychiatric Institute, Hoffman methodically built a career for himself, from walk-ons to one-line parts to supporting roles to leads. He even won an OBIE Award along the way, for his performance in JOURNEY OF THE FIFTH HORSE. Hoffman made his film debut in a small role (19th billing) in THE TIGER MAKES OUT, which was directed by Arthur Hiller and starred Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson and was filmed on location in the streets of New York. But his next film role was farther afield — he had the lead as a bumbling insurance inspector in the Italian comedy MADIGAN’S MILLIONS, a film which wasn’t released in the United States until nearly two years after it was made, in order to capitalize on Hoffman’s new-found fame, thanks to THE GRADUATE.
Even Hoffman — especially Hoffman, perhaps — wouldn’t have predicted the kind of success that would attend THE GRADUATE. The role of Benjamin Braddock was not one that Hoffman felt particularly suited for at first, and he said as much to Mike Nichols during the screen test. “I had read the book.” Hoffman once explained, “and I said, ‘Mr. Nichols, I’m not right for this part. Benjamin Braddock is tall, he’s blond, he’s Anglo-Saxon. I’m too Jewish. And when I don’t feel connected, I get in trouble, I get tied up in knots and I argue with everyone.’ ‘Read it again,’ Mike said, ‘but this time, think of Ben as Jewish.'”
After THE GRADUATE, Hoffman received numerous offers to play disaffected college boys but his next role could hardly have been less like Benjamin Braddock. It was the pitiful, dying con artist Ratso Rizzo in MIDNIGHT COWBOY. If THE GRADUATE made Hoffman a star, it was his brilliant performance as Ratso, opposite Jon Voight’s Joe Buck, that placed him in the pantheon of the screen’s finest and most interesting actors. In creating that pathetic figure, Hoffman proved that he placed far more importance on the truth of the character than in any ideas of movie star vanity. Few leading men in Hollywood films past or present have been willing to immerse themselves so deeply in roles that can be so physically unappealing, but Hoffman takes genuine pleasure in surrendering himself to the part.
In fact, Hoffman’s career seems to divide neatly between the “character parts” like Ratso, Michael as Dorothy in TOOTSIE, Captain Hook in HOOK, Louis Dega in PAPILLON, Raymond in RAIN MAN, and Mumbles in DICK TRACY and his “normal” people (read: without makeup or obvious affectation) such as John in JOHN AND MARY, Carl Bernstein I ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, David in STRAW DOGS, and Ted in KRAMER VS. KRAMER.
But such divisions are tricky. His “normal” parts are no less challenging and inventive than the others. The timid, frustrated mathematician in STRAW DOGS physically resembles the canny, perceptive reporter in ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, and both of them look just like the anguished father in KRAMER VS. KRAMER. But beyond the surface of face and form, the characters are entirely different — they walk and move differently, speak with individual cadences, react to events in ways that suggest that they truly are who they seem to be. For an actor with such a distinctive voice, face and body, Hoffman has proved remarkably adept at disappearing into a role — even when there is no makeup involved. He was that way from the very beginning, after all. When Hoffman played THE GRADUATE, a character in his early twenties, just out of college, the actor himself was actually 30. It was a role for which he had to transform himself just as thoroughly — and as seamlessly — as he would when creating Ratso Rizzo, 121-year-old Jack Crabb in LITTLE BIG MAN, or the snarling Dutch Schultz in BILLY BATHGATE.
Virtually the only criticism that has ever been suggested about Hoffman is “perfectionism,” a label he wears with pride, and some amusement. The classification is justified: Dustin Hoffman is certainly a perfectionist, an artist who examines and considers every minute element of his work in order to create the most moving, human, and believable character possible. It is this perfectionism that has led to a career of stunning variety, nearly unparalleled achievement and an avalanche of awards, including Academy Awards for KRAMER VS. KRAMER and RAIN MAN. Perfectionism and dedication to his craft will lead this great actor to many more remarkable, perhaps astonishing, performances before his fascinating journey is over.
Three decades ago, it seemed impossible to see Dustin Hoffman as a leading man. Today, it’s hard to look at him and think of him as anything else. Dustin Hoffman is perhaps the consummate leading man — both a Hollywood star and one of the great actors of his generation.