There’s a certain generation of male stars who emerged in the 1960s and 1970s who signify that golden age of American cinema, starring in some of the most acclaimed films of that era while also maintaining long careers as box office draws that continue to this day. Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Robert Redford, Warren Beatty — a line-up of actors that, for the most part, puts today’s A-listers to shame. And the unlikeliest of them all is Dustin Hoffman.
In no way a traditional-looking leading man, Hoffman broke out with “The Graduate” in 1967, and went on to star in a string of classics and fondly remembered films like “Midnight Cowboy,” “Little Big Man,” “Lenny,” “Straw Dogs,” “All The President’s Men,” “Marathon Man,” “Kramer Vs. Kramer,” “Tootsie” and “Rain Man” among others. There were a few disappointments along the way, and like some of his contemporaries, Hoffman’s edge has come off a little in more recent years — although arguably less so than someone like De Niro or Pacino. But still, it’s hard to think of a better sort of career to have.
Hoffman turned 75 years old yesterday, an impressive milestone for a man about to make his full directorial debut on “Quartet.” Everyone has their own favorite Hoffman performance — Ratso Rizzo, Lenny Bruce, Carl Bernstein, Tootsie, Raymond Babbitt. But to honor his birthday, we wanted to pick out a few turns that are perhaps less widely celebrated, but are just as impressive as the achievements on his more lauded work (as we did for Jack Nicholson when he reached the same milestone a few months back) Read on for our five picks.
For the most part, Dustin Hoffman has had a career that's been atypically free of ego, in terms of the choices he's made. Ok, he's had his star-driven moments (the legendarily contentious production of "Ishtar" among them), but Hoffman's always shown a willingness to play second fiddle, from following up his star-making performance in "The Graduate" with the second lead in "Midnight Cowboy" to being just one cog in an expansive ensemble like "Luck"). And one of the more undervalued examples of that is his turn in Franklin J. Schaffner's "Papillon." The title character in this case goes to Steve McQueen, in one of his best performances, as a French criminal wrongly convicted of murder, and sent to the notorious prison colony Devil's Island. There, he becomes the friend and protector of forger Louis Dega (Hoffman), and the two plan their escape together. It's admittedly old fashioned stuff ("Patton" and "Planet Of The Apes" director Schaffner was one of Hollywood's last classicists), and decidedly overlong at nearly 150 minutes, but McQueen is terrific, and Hoffman, as the tragic, bottle-glassed Dega, even better, simultaneously generously enabling his co-star, and quietly half-inching scenes away from him.
“Straight Time” (1978)
Based on Eddie Bunker's novel “No Beast So Fierce,” an ex-con turned crime fiction author and occasional actor (he played Mr. Blue in “Reservoir Dogs”) in many circles of cinephelia, “Straight Time” is an uncrowned jewel that doesn’t get enough love. Originally meant to be Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut, after several weeks of shooting, Hoffman realized he was in over his head by starring and directing in the same movie and he asked his friend, Belgian-born filmmaker Ulu Grosbard, to take over the movie (they met when Grosbard was directing an off-Broadway revival of Arthur Miller’s “A View from the Bridge,” and Hoffman served as stage manager and assistant director). While it nearly cost them their friendship (and did for several years), “Straight Time” is a somber, gritty and vastly underestimated thriller. Featuring an excellent supporting cast including Theresa Russell, Gary Busey, Harry Dean Stanton, M. Emmet Walsh, and Kathy Bates, Hoffman stars as Max Dembo, a lifelong thief just paroled after six long years, who's hoping to go straight, play by the rules and get a regular job. But hounded by a manipulative asshole parole officer (Walsh) who’s more than happy to throw him back in the pen at a moment’s notice, Dembo's desire to stay on the straight and narrow is severely tested every second of his newfound freedom. While he meets and woos a young girl (Russell) while job hunting and wants to start something anew with her, Dembo eventually snaps when the officer tries to pin a bullshit drug charge on him, realizing he’s simply never going to catch a break. The inevitable happens, and Dembo returns to a life of crime, eventually planning a big jewel heist with some old accomplices. Throughout, Hoffman embodies this gentle ex-con with a short fuse with effortless realism; if you didn’t know better at the time, you’d have thought the actor was simply playing himself, his natural cool and confidence is so in the pocket. There’s a lot of nice atypical texture for a convict; Dembo is a charmer, soft-spoken, empathetic, tense and nervy when crimes are going down. Simply put, “Straight Time” is criminally undervalued in every way.
"American Buffalo" (1996)
In the short history of the conversion of David Mamet's plays to films, "American Buffalo" (one of the writer's earliest works, produced shortly after "Sexual Perversity In Chicago") doesn't exactly sit at the top of the tree with "Glengarry Glen Ross." Revolving around junk-shop owner Donny (Dennis Franz), aspiring thief Teach (Hoffman) and a young kid (Sean Nelson) who conspire to rob a rare coin collection, it's a low-key, stagy picture that doesn't manage to translate to film nearly as well as James Foley's take on 'Glengarry' did. But Hoffman as Teach (a part played by Al Pacino in a 1983 Broadway version, and originally intended for him in the film) is absolutely terrific. Like a version of Ratso Rizzo from "Midnight Cowboy" had he survived, Teach is a sleazy scavenger of society, so full of nervous energy he feels ready to burst. Given that he'd not had much experience with Mamet's rat-a-tat dialog before (they'd reunite the next year for "Wag The Dog," which won the actor an Oscar nomination), Hoffman takes to it like a fish to water, displaying tremendous chemistry with Franz (even if third wheel Nelson can't match them). You come away from the film wishing you'd seen Hoffman do it on stage too, but you're still glad you saw him do it at all.
"Moonlight Mile" (2002)
Almost totally unseen at the time, and swiftly forgotten since, "Moonlight Mile" isn't just somewhat underrated, but also features one of Hoffman's very best latter-day performances. Based on writer-director Brad Silberling's own experiences (his girlfriend, sitcom actress Rebecca Schaeffer, was murdered by an obsessive fan in 1989), the film is set in 1973, and follows Joe (Jake Gyllenhaal), who's living with the parents of his late fiancee (Dustin Hoffman and Susan Sarandon), who was killed in a robbery of a restaurant, and who he actually had broken up with three days before she was killed. It's a modest, and sometimes overly sentimental film, hobbled a little by a wall-to-wall Cameron Crowe-style soundtrack, but it's also unexpectedly honest, grown up and emotionally complex for much of the running time, and the performances across the board are excellent. Not least Hoffman, a man desperately trying to keep as busy as possible, especially with his new real estate dream, in order to avoid having to deal with the aftermath of his daughter's death. It's a desperately sad performance, but one, like the film, that isn't afraid to bring warmth and humor in as well, and more than anything else in the last couple of decades, it feels like Hoffman is playing a real, living, breathing person. Not quite a hidden gem, but certainly a jewel among the actor's recent performances.
“I Heart Huckabees” (2004)
Nearly eight years on, and with David O. Russell now an Oscar nominee, it's still hard to believe that "I Heart Huckabees" ever got made. A bizarre, Godard-ian comedy taking in both high-minded philosophical ideas and low-brow laughs, it's one of the boldest and strangest films ever to get made by a studio subsidiary, and even if it only works some of the time, it's still something of a wonder. Not least because of its performances: from Jude Law's unraveling yuppie to Mark Wahlberg's adrift fireman, they're all terrific, and Hoffman is right there in the midst of it all. As one-half of a sort of cosmic Nick & Norah partnership with wife Lily Tomlin, the two playing "existential detectives" Bernard and Vivian Jaffe, Hoffman's having the most fun he's had in years. Decked out in a Beatles-style bowl cut, and taking immense glee both in the secrets of existence, and in his wife, it's a joyful, very funny performance (that belies the tempestuous nature of some of the filming), but also a soulful, almost paternal one. Lord knows if Hoffman would ever work with Russell again, but we certainly hope they consider it.
Honorable Mentions: A couple of performances that we remember being strong, but hadn’t seen recently enough to consider writing about in full are “Ishtar” and “Hero.” The former’s much-maligned as one of the biggest disasters in history, but that’s rather unfair; it’s scrappy, but there’s a lot of fun to be had in the Hope & Crosby-style interplay between Hoffman and Warren Beatty, as a pair of Simon & Garfunkel-esque songwriters caught up in Middle East intrigue.
As for “Hero,” Stephen Frears’ comic morality play, it’s another film that doesn’t quite work; too tonally inconsistent and uneven, with Frears too busy emulating Frank Capra to make the film work on its own terms. But Hoffman is, again, excellent, as a no-good thief who saves people from a plane crash, only to see a homeless drifter (Andy Garcia) take the credit. If memory serves, his scene with his wife, played by Joan Cusack, was a particular highlight. Any unsung Hoffman performances you’re fans of that we didn't mention? Let us know in the comments section below.