Whenever an older, revered icon of the film industry dies, there are plenty of testimonials and remembrances written about that person. But it’s sad that we only take the time to fully appreciate these people’s brilliance after their passing. Hence, The Greats, a biweekly column that celebrates cinema’s living legends.
I suspect that for many people who love Dustin Hoffman, it’s not just the work they admire. It’s Hoffman himself. By the standards of Hollywood beauty, he should never have been a star, and yet he seemingly willed himself to be one through talent and relentless drive. And if that negative appraisal of his looks seems cruel, Hoffman is just as dismissive of them.
“You can say it, I’m ugly, I’m ugly!” he told a British GQ reporter in 2013. “I always joke, they’ll have the sexiest man in the world or whatever on the cover of People, and I’ll say, ‘Sorry, honey, never gonna make this cover!’ And I never have, because I figure, well, yeah, you’ve gotta be handsome.”
Moviegoers love Hoffman in some of the same ways that music fans adore Bruce Springsteen. There’s a regular-guy ordinariness to them, which inspires a bond between an artist and the public: Hey, he’s just like me. It’s not an insult to say that Hoffman is a monstrously gifted actor who, at the same time, seems to have overachieved. He’s the scrappy athlete who the coaches thought was never strong enough or fast enough to make the team. He’s inspiring because his success is due solely to his talent, and shouldn’t that be more important than anything else?
Born in the summer of 1937, Hoffman grew up in Los Angeles. He was athletic, part of his high school’s tennis and track teams, but from an early age he was self-conscious about his looks, once describing himself as “a kid who was always too short, wore braces on his teeth, and had one of the worst cases of acne in California.” After flirting with the idea of becoming a pianist, he studied acting at the Pasadena Playhouse, eventually moving to New York to find work as a character actor. He studied method acting at the Actors Studio, becoming a lifelong disciple of the technique, even if he took it a little too far at times. “You have a scene where you’re pretending to be a tomato,” he once recalled, “and they say, ‘You didn’t even move!’ and I said, ‘That’s right, a tomato doesn’t have legs!’”
Early in his career, he got work on the stage and on television. And then director Mike Nichols, who had won great acclaim for his feature directorial debut, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, decided he wanted to cast Hoffman in his follow-up film. The Graduate, based on the Charles Webb novel, starred Hoffman as Ben Braddock, a directionless young man who has to decide what his adult life will look like. Though Ben takes Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) to bed, Hoffman was less of a Casanova in the film than he was an existential crisis in nebbish slow-motion, articulating the anomie that became a generational statement when the film opened in December 1967. Hoffman received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, and he became a star. Not bad for a guy who was described by costar Katharine Ross in these unflattering terms after their Graduate audition: “He looks about three feet tall, so dead serious, so humorless, so unkempt. This is going to be a disaster.”
Hoffman was off from there, starring alongside Jon Voight in the Best Picture-winning Midnight Cowboy. Beyond the film’s accolades, though, Hoffman further boosted his actor’s-actor credentials with his infamous “I’m walkin’ here!” improv when a taxi unexpectedly zoomed into the crosswalk. (“We didn’t have any permits or anything, so we were shooting with a hidden camera in a van across the street,” Hoffman later recalled. The scene “took us like 10-15 takes, and we were always messing up the timing. And then finally we get it right, and we’re walking across the street … and this cab runs the red light. My brain is yelling, ‘Hey, I’m acting here,’ because it was messing up the take, but I can’t do that, ’cause we’re still shooting, so my mouth translates that as, ‘Hey, I’m walking here.’ And so it worked. But that cab still almost hit us.”)
In the ’70s, he wasn’t afraid to play consciously unlikable characters who were proud to be themselves: Ratso in Midnight Cowboy, Lenny Bruce in Lenny, Carl Bernstein in All the President’s Men. (In Alan Pakula’s real-life crime story, Carl’s habit of stubbornly refusing to let a source go until he’s gotten all the information he needs is a repeated pleasure. Hoffman made unapologetic doggedness heroic.) But he also brought everyman credibility to thrillers like Marathon Man and domestic dramas such as Kramer Vs. Kramer, in its own way a generational statement. If ’67’s The Graduate celebrated baby boomers’ awkward, jubilant stumbles into adulthood, then Kramer Vs. Kramer took a look at what had become of them as they got divorced and tried to pick up the pieces. As usual, Hoffman (who won Best Actor) took the role of Ted Kramer deeply seriously, identifying with the character in painful ways. “I was getting divorced. I’d been partying with drugs and it depleted me in every way,” he said in 2012. He initially rejected writer-director Robert Benton’s screenplay—“Your script has no feeling of what I’m going through,” he told the filmmaker—but the two men spent three months fine-tuning it, resulting in a movie that won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actress for Meryl Streep.
The acclaim hasn’t come without a price. He developed a reputation for being intense and difficult. Hoffman has said that Streep remains mad at him for throwing a glass during one of their scenes in Kramer Vs. Kramer that was unscripted. (According to Streep, he was angry at her during the filming, projecting his unhappiness with his ex-wife onto her.) Hoffman’s prickly side became infamous on Tootsie, one of the great ’80s comedies and one of the most colorful behind-the-scenes tales of a successful film. Hoffman and director Sydney Pollack feuded constantly over the direction of Hoffman’s struggling-actor character Michael. (The fact that Michael could be an incredibly pain-in-the-ass perfectionist was not lost on anyone who saw Hoffman’s performance as a sort of confession.)
“There are directors I’ve fought with where the film has turned out to be very, very good,” Hoffman acknowledged to The Guardian in 2012. “Basically, Sydney was not a collaborative director. He was a very good director, but he was the arsonist and the fire chief, and only he knew how to put out the fire.” But while he knows he’s been stuck with the “difficult” label, he doesn’t take kindly to it. “I live in a community where there are much more objectionable things being done than disagreeing with a director,” he said in the same Guardian profile. “I mean, Jack Nicholson threw a television set at Roman Polanski, Bill Murray picked up the producer and threw her in the water, and Gene Hackman would throw a director from one end of the room to another, and I always thought, why have I got this reputation…”
Still, he insists that the perfectionism comes from perpetual self-doubt. He’s considered quitting acting on a couple different occasions, and even pondered walking off of Rain Man (which earned him his second Oscar) a couple weeks into filming when he was convinced he stunk. And so he keeps digging into a role until he’s happy with where he’s landed. “I don’t ever think there is just one way to do a scene,” he has said. But he admits, “There’s nothing more insulting to a director than for them to be satisfied and want to move on, and for you to say, ‘No, it’s not good enough; we can do better.’”
Maybe it’s that anguish that Hoffman puts himself through that eventually took its toll. The last few decades haven’t been as stellar for him. That’s not to say it’s been completely arid, though. He’s played memorable caricatures in Dick Tracy and Hook. His channeling of legendary film producer Robert Evans in his Wag the Dog performance is a hoot. He was spot-on as Lisa’s supportive, short-lived teacher in an early, poignant episode of The Simpsons. And when the material called for it, like in the underrated drama Moonlight Mile or the experimental comedy-drama I Heart Huckabees, Hoffman could still be affecting. But the memory of the Meet the Parents sequels, so popular and so astoundingly crass and witless, tends to overshadow everything else.
He’s perhaps challenged himself less as he’s gotten older—although, by finally directing his first film, Quartet, in 2012, he could reasonably argue that he hasn’t stopped taking risks. Nonetheless, that regular-guy quality remains. He’s still sorta one of us, except now he’s the kindly grandfather or (in the case of the Kung Fu Panda films) the wise old sage. When Hoffman was 36, he told Rolling Stone, “One’s own feelings about oneself—the barometer—don’t change because of external changes. If you become successful, become a star, it doesn’t matter. I’ve been a star for about six years. But my feelings about myself and my work are based on the first 30 years. The feelings I had when I couldn’t get a job, the way people treated me then.” Hoffman has expected a lot out of himself. At his best, he more than delivered.
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.