Dustin Hoffman

Fox Searchlight

Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin in "I ♥ Huckabees."

Dustin Hoffman Stops Trying So Hard

By MANOHLA DARGIS

BEHOLD the man: modest in stature and generous of nose, with a head of luxuriantly thick hair and a body he once unkindly likened to a stump. Throughout nearly four decades of off-again, but mostly on-again film stardom, Dustin Hoffman – recently returned to the top of the charts with "Meet the Fockers," the highest-grossing live-action comedy in history – has been anything but kind about his looks. Following the dizzying success of his first important movie, Mike Nichols’s zeitgeist comedy "The Graduate," Mr. Hoffman talked often about his looks and what an off-Broadway guy was doing on the Hollywood screen.

"I grew up thinking a movie star had to be like Rock Hudson or Tab Hunter, certainly nobody in any way like me," he told an interviewer in 1967, a month before "The Graduate" went into production. Twenty-five years later, during a publicity jag for "Hero," the actor told another interviewer that without "The Graduate" he might have spent his life doing regional theater. "I hardly looked like Tab Hunter or Troy Donahue," he said. And just two years ago while promoting "Runaway Jury," the actor again summoned up Tab Hunter. Like some blond devil doll, the star of "Operation Bikini" seems destined to haunt Mr. Hoffman to the end of days – or at least until the next junket.

Is it any surprise to learn that Mr. Hoffman grew up in Los Angeles, land of smiley beach boys like Tab and Troy, who had fun in the sun while "Dusty" wore braces and suffered from polyps and pimples? No wonder that after deciding on acting, Mr. Hoffman left for New York City in the late 1950’s, joining a generation of bright young things eager to follow in Brando’s epic footsteps. There, Mr. Hoffman followed a classic script: he studied with Lee Strasberg, crashed with Gene Hackman (and Robert Duvall), worked as a waiter (only to be fired) and won raves while performing off Broadway (and snared an Obie award). Still, Tab Hunter was never far from his thoughts.

For moviegoers who have either grown up or grown older with Mr. Hoffman (he turns 68 this year), this persistent blond doppelgänger may seem strange. After all, without bleaching his hair or bobbing his nose, Mr. Hoffman has been at once a critically revered actor and a commercially popular star with all the usual accolades. (Tomorrow evening, the Film Society of Lincoln Center honors Mr. Hoffman at its annual gala tribute.) Mr. Hoffman has been around so long that it is easy to forget what big news it was that he – rather than, say, Robert Redford – landed "The Graduate." Or that he helped pave the way for similarly untraditional types like Al Pacino and Mr. Hackman, who in the 1970’s would strip the gloss from the role of the leading man and usher in a new era of authenticity.

Mr. Hoffman was in the midst of an acclaimed run in the British play "Eh?" at Circle in the Square when he was asked to test for "The Graduate" in Los Angeles. Despite Mr. Nichols’s handshake and offer of a drink, Mr. Hoffman has said, he felt instantly miserable: "This is not the part for me. I’m not supposed to be in movies. I’m supposed to be where I belong. An ethnic actor is supposed to be in ethnic New York in an ethnic off-Broadway show. I know my place." It got worse when he met his future co-star, Katharine Ross. "The idea that the director was connecting me with someone as beautiful as her," Mr. Hoffman said, "it became an even uglier joke. It was like a Jewish nightmare."

The nightmare worsened the day of the screen test, when Mr. Hoffman was put in a makeup chair and subjected to a two-hour overhaul. Afterward Mr. Nichols asked if the makeup department could do something about Mr. Hoffman’s eyebrows, which were clinging to each other. And then Mr. Nichols asked, "What are we going to do with his nose?" Mr. Hoffman has called it "one of the most demeaning experiences I’ve ever had." He won the role, of course, and later an Academy Award nomination, but it is instructive that in the years that ensued this famously fastidious technician would become a screen changeling, a performer who not only looked radically different movie to movie, but even scene to scene, as if he were still heeding a voice asking, "Can we do something about . . . ?

"The Graduate" made Mr. Hoffman a star, and to judge by his interviews, a somewhat uncomfortable one, at least initially. Still, he followed this newfound celebrity with the smartest decision of his career by taking on the role of Ratso Rizzo in John Schlesinger’s "Midnight Cowboy." Based on the novel by James Leo Herlihy, the film tracks the New York misadventures of a transplanted Texas hustler, played by Jon Voight, whose only true human connection in the big city is with Ratso, "a cripple" with a childlike body and the mind of a latter-day Fagin. The X-rated film was infamous for its blunt sex scenes, which caused almost as much of a stir as Mr. Hoffman’s transformation from the clean-cut, emphatically heterosexual Benjamin Braddock into the feral, sexually ambiguous Ratso, a character dipped in grease and breaded with grime.

With "Midnight Cowboy," Mr. Hoffman received his second Academy Award nomination for best actor. Mr. Voight was nominated in the same category, but both men lost to the emotional favorite, John Wayne, for his role in "True Grit." (Hollywood’s old guard was not yet ready to cede to the new.) More significant than Mr. Hoffman’s nomination, however, was the role itself. "Midnight Cowboy" signaled that the actor was not going to ride the fame train with likable, ingratiating types. True to his unhappy nickname, Ratso encourages loathing, and Mr. Hoffman’s performance is a marvel precisely because he pulls you uncomfortably close to a character who is difficult to cozy up to; the performance inspires sentiment but not sentimentality. Repellent and seductive, Ratso, like Mr. Hoffman’s most memorable creations, seamlessly embodies contradiction.

The 1970’s were Mr. Hoffman’s bounty years, the decade in which he was given opportunities to push harder, further, deeper, working with the likes of Arthur Penn ("Little Big Man") and Sam Peckinpah ("Straw Dogs"). By casting against matinee-idol type, Mr. Nichols had helped set in motion Mr. Hoffman’s twinned career as a versatile character type and a durable leading man, a chameleon in glasses and prosthetic teeth and an Everyman with feathered hair and button-down shirt. The actor put his dual identity to work when he tunneled into the core of the comic Lenny Bruce in Bob Fosse’s "Lenny," and found a man equally touching and abrasive. A few years later, in Schlesinger’s thriller "Marathon Man," he created a study in neurotic bravura for a performance that could have been a throwaway.

Although that film is notorious for the scene in which Laurence Olivier’s Nazi turns dentistry into a method of medieval torture, some of Mr. Hoffman’s best work in the film happens during a pickup scene that begins in a library. Mr. Hoffman’s character sits scrunched in his chair, nervously tapping a pencil and eyeing the chilly blonde (Marthe Keller) seated opposite him. The woman is playing hard to get as part of an elaborate subterfuge. But right now all that matters is how Mr. Hoffman transforms the man’s native unease – the pulsing tics, the animal watchfulness – into sexual desire. Midway through the scene, Mr. Hoffman doesn’t just look as if he could jump out of his skin; he looks as if he could jump into hers. It looks as if there is nothing else in the world he needs to do more.

Mr. Hoffman brings a similar erotic intensity to a scene in "Lenny," when the comic locks his future wife, a bodacious stripper (the glorious Valerie Perrine), in his gaze. It’s the look of the little guy, the guy who wasn’t captain of the team or big man on campus, the guy who has to work harder to get the girl. The guy who knows that for the seduction to work she has to see not just him, but his desire, has to believe that no one else anywhere, any place, wants her more. It’s a look that Mr. Hoffman perfected early (it’s how Ratso reels in Mr. Voight’s Joe Buck in "Midnight Cowboy") and why, unlike some of the actors who broke big in the 1970’s, like Robert DeNiro, he is at ease sharing the screen with women.

The 1970’s came to a close with Mr. Hoffman’s celebrated performance as a single father in "Kramer vs. Kramer." This postfeminist tearjerker ushered in the most commercially successful and least interesting period of Mr. Hoffman’s career, a decadelong run that also included "Tootsie," which found the star romping about in drag, and "Rain Man," in which he played an autistic savant with a gravitas befitting Shakespeare. All three films were box-office champions and, as a reward, Mr. Hoffman received Academy Awards as best actor for both "Kramer vs. Kramer" and "Rain Man." But despite the showy virtuosity of his performance in "Rain Man," Mr. Hoffman had stopped digging into his roles and getting under the skin of his characters. He was Dustin Hoffman now and bigger than his movies.

The 1990’s initially looked rather dire, as Mr. Hoffman appeared to struggle to find vehicles that fit two increasingly conflicting forces – his critical stature and his age. There were not many new places left for him to go. He alternately hid under makeup ("Hook") and saved the day ("Outbreak"); and in the 1930’s gangster film "Billy Bathgate," as Dutch Schultz, he tried to pull an epic out of dross and instead fell on bad habits, including the singsong that sometimes creeps into his voice. It wasn’t until "Wag the Dog," in 1997, that he again seemed in full possession of the screen. As the Hollywood producer Stanley Motss, a role he based on his salesman father, Mr. Hoffman let his freak flag fly, which is always the prerogative – and mission – of the true character actor.

Since "Wag the Dog," Mr. Hoffman has made the occasional unwise choice – or perhaps just returned a favor. But he has also settled into a beautiful groove. He no longer has to carry his movies, and that may shed light on the new looseness he brings to both a commercial entertainment like "Runaway Jury" and an art-house gem like "I ♥ Huckabees." In "Runaway Jury," Mr. Hoffman is all thumbs, dropping his character’s Southern accent every other scene; but he holds the screen effortlessly. In the past, the actor would have exhausted the audience (and himself) with the sheer intensity of his effort: one of the disadvantages of greatness is that you can bleed yourself dry just trying to hold at that level, whatever the quality of the material.

During the first leg of his career, Mr. Hoffman often came across as a man and an actor with something to prove. He seemed to excel at playing put-upon and pushed-around characters, men who are less agents of change than bystanders, victims and patsies, which made him an ideal star in the late 1960’s and 1970’s. Stardom brought obvious dividends, but it also became a cushion and a crutch, buffering him from the specter of failure that had seemed to drive many of his earlier performances. But stardom was also, as "Ishtar" seemed to prove, a sand trap even for Hollywood heavyweights. The drama of the actor’s own marriage infused "Kramer vs. Kramer" with real feeling, but the movies that followed did not often require the star to sell anything beyond the recognizable commodity called Dustin Hoffman.

It may be that age has mellowed the actor. And just in time, too. Certainly it is impossible to imagine Mr. Hoffman enjoying the artistic success today that he had in the 1970’s, if only because the intelligent, low-concept adult movie in which he starred has generally given way to two opposing extremes, the blockbuster and the boutique item. Mr. Hoffman broke into Hollywood after the collapse of the old studio system took with it the divide between stars and character actors, but before the ossification of the contemporary system, with its equally oppressive new hierarchies of beauty and youth, its neo-Tabs, hardbody Troys and Botox blonds. In the late 1960’s, a door inched open and Mr. Hoffman slipped through, the actor who became a star by finding transcendence in the recognizably, fallibly human.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company | Home | Privacy Policy | Search | Corrections | RSS | Help | Back to Top

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