Can it really be that Benjamin Braddock, the disaffected young man starting out his adult life in "The Graduate", turns 73 today?
That character was of course immortalized in 1967 by a then unknown Dustin Hoffman, whose sheer talent and nervous energy compensated for a conspicuous absence of classic leading man attributes.
It's sad to think young people today may know this gifted actor primarily as Ben Stiller's hippy-dippy Dad in the execrable "Meet the Fockers" (2004). In truth, over the past fifteen or so years, almost invariably Hoffman's performances have outclassed the movies featuring them.
Consider the Hoffman films that came before, however, and you spot some truly exceptional titles, fully worthy of the actor's expert, painstaking portrayals.
Mike Nichols's "The Graduate" remains one of the signature films of the 1960's. A model son and newly minted college graduate, Ben Braddock is paraded around his parents' friends like a trophy. But inside, Ben feels rudderless. He soon gets involved with his mother's sexually frustrated best friend Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), then creates a combustible chain reaction by falling for her daughter Elaine (Katherine Ross). One of the screen's foremost black comedies, the film transcends its period, speaking to new generations of youth navigating their way in the world, along with us older types well into our own journeys. The supporting cast, including deft character players William Daniels and Murray Hamilton, are note-perfect, and that Simon & Garfunkel score still stirs the soul. A must for repeat viewings.
Two years later, Hoffman transformed himself into ailing derelict Ratso Rizzo in John Schlesinger's dark, intense "Midnight Cowboy". Ratso befriends one Joe Buck (newcomer Jon Voight), a dim but handsome rube, new to the Big Apple, who's attempting to earn a living as a male prostitute. A story of friendship born of desperation in Manhattan's grimy underbelly, "Cowboy" was at the vanguard of a new kind of Hollywood movie- gritty, complex, unidealized. Though the film won Oscars for best picture, director and screenplay, and both Hoffman and Voight were nominated, that year John Wayne won acting laurels for "True Grit", in what seemed like a fond but final salute to old Hollywood.
Not that Dustin was above doing westerns. Daringly stretching himself with each new role, the following year Hoffman made Arthur Penn's sprawling "Little Big Man". In another virtuoso turn, the actor plays Jack Crabb, last survivor of Custer's Last Stand, from teen to 121 year old man, and the story Crabb relates sounds more like the lives of ten men. He gets adopted by Cheyenne Indians early on, then assimilates to white (with help from fetching co-star Faye Dunaway), and finally goes back and forth between the two races, while meeting such characters as Wild Bill Hickok and of course, General Custer. Part comedy, part stinging commentary on our past treatment of Native Americans, "Little Big Man" remains a dazzling accomplishment.
The actor would next team with legendary director Sam Peckinpah for the electric
"Straw Dogs" (1971). Hoffman plays American mathematician David, living in the rural English hometown of lovely wife Amy (Susan George). Rugged locals working on their house begin an escalating campaign of harassment against the couple, ultimately forcing the normally timid David to take violent measures. Peckinpah, who made cinematic blood-letting an art form, lets the tension build steadily to a shocking, graphic climax. Dustin's unnerving turn as David is key to the film's impact, as we see how a civilized man can revert to savagery when all he holds dear is threatened.
Three years later came Bob Fosse's astonishing "Lenny", where Hoffman inhabits the tortured comic genius of Lenny Bruce, a performer whose scathingly funny routines seem fairly tame by today's standards, but which, in the proper, conforming fifties and early sixties, offended the establishment sufficiently to prompt multiple arrests for obscenity. Hoffman recreates both the raunchy originality and honesty of Bruce's routines, and a tragic sense of the man himself, whose self-destruction was accelerated by the pain of having his unique talent so viciously maligned and misunderstood. A rare non-musical triumph for director Fosse, who was Oscar-nominated, along with Dustin.
In 1976, with his career in red-hot mode, Dustin would re-group with his "Midnight Cowboy" director John Schlesinger for a nerve-jangling thriller called "Marathon Man" (1976). Hoffman plays Thomas "Babe" Levy, a nerdy New York grad student who finds himself in a nightmare soon after his mysterious older brother Doc (Roy Scheider) pops in to visit. Though Doc betrays precious little to his kid brother, he's in fact with the CIA, and hot on the trail of former Nazi Dr. Christian Szell (Laurence Olivier, in a chilling turn). When Doc arrives mortally wounded at Babe's apartment, the clueless younger brother is plunged into some heavy international intrigue. Babe suddenly becomes the target of Szell himself, who's convinced that on his death-bed, Doc must have passed his brother some vital information regarding a valuable cache of diamonds Szell badly wants to retrieve. Just wait for the scene where Szell asks Babe: "Is it safe?" Twisty, creepy and paranoiac, "Man" delivers tingling suspense all the way.
Next Hoffman highlight: a movie documenting how the determination of two young journalists brought down President Richard Nixon, who two years prior had won re-election by the widest margin in history. "All The President's Men" (1976) was faithfully adapted from the Pulitzer Prize winning Woodward-Bernstein bestseller by screenwriter William Goldman (who also wrote "Marathon Man"). The movie is more exciting than fiction, and the leads merge seamlessly with their real-life counterparts. Hoffman's scrappy Bernstein serves as ideal counterpoint to Robert Redford's more cautious, deliberate Woodward. Jason Robards also won an Oscar for his assured portrayal of wily, seasoned Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee. The film is all the more timely now with the recent disclosure of Deep Throat's identity (played here by the always reliable Hal Holbrook), that shadowy figure whose disclosures were so vital to exposing the Watergate cover-up.
In 1979, the actor hit a career high point with Robert Benton's moving, perceptive marital drama, "Kramer Versus Kramer". Hoffman plays Ted, a preoccupied, up-and-coming ad-man, who's extremely surprised to learn that his wife Joanna (Meryl Streep) is leaving him and their young son Billy (Justin Henry). On the brink of a big promotion at work, Ted has the emotional wind knocked out of him, and must now balance an ever more demanding career with caring for a young son he barely knows. In this jarring life adjustment, a formerly absentee father becomes sole parent, literally overnight. Over time, we see Ted make the hard choices necessary to be there for his boy, and also follow how his break-up with Joanna eventually resolves itself. This near-flawless drama depicts the dissolution of a marriage with unerring sensitivity, hitting no false notes. Touching performances from all three leads help bring director Benton's wise, perceptive script to heart-wrenching life. At Oscar time, "Kramer" won Best Picture, Benton took the honors for both direction and screenplay, and deservedly, Hoffman got the nod for Best Actor.
The irresistible "Tootsie" (1982) gave this serious star a rare comic role as Michael Dorsey, a neurotic, failed actor who only finds success by cross-dressing as actress Dorothy Michaels, and then winning a key role on a daytime soap opera. Problem is, Dorothy falls for Julie Nichols, the show's ingénue (a stunning Jessica Lange), while Julie's Dad, Les (a starry-eyed Charles Durning, who's hilarious) goes for Dorothy in a big way. Director Sydney Pollack and writer Larry Gelbart milk the old comic device of concealed sexual identity for all it's worth, creating a laugh riot with a sweet touch of romance. Bill Murray almost steals the movie as Jeff, Michael/Dorothy's dead-pan, philosophical roommate.
Dustin would begin the following decade with a flourish, executing a career tour-de-force in Barry Levinson's absorbing drama, "Rain Man" (1991). This ingenious, slightly off-kilter tale has slick car salesman Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise) discovering he has an autistic older brother named Raymond (Hoffman), when their newly deceased father leaves the fortune Charlie thought he'd inherit in trust for Raymond. Charlie locates his newfound sibling at the institution Raymond's called home for years, and impulsively takes custody of him. The two brothers then embark on a cross-country trip that becomes a voyage of discovery for them both. Though Cruise sometimes grates in a mostly unsympathetic role, Hoffman's Raymond makes the movie. The actor is totally believable playing an idiot savant with some unexpected life lessons to impart to his cynical younger brother. Hoffman's bravura performance earned him yet another Oscar, and the movie itself won Best Picture, Director, and Screenplay.
Now that you're armed with this list of top Dustin Hoffman movies, I have but one request: If and when you hear some young, unschooled person say, "Oh, yeah, Dustin Hoffman, he played Ben Stiller's kooky dad", do them a favor and point them towards Ben, and Ratso, and Ted, and Raymond, and all the other memorable characters that more accurately reflect this performer's invaluable contribution to film.
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