Today is the 77th birthday of actor Dustin Hoffman. In terms of great American actors, I would consider him to be one of the greats. The only strange issue is that in the echelon of great performers, I feel like he gets overshadowed by Robert De Niro and Al Pacino despite being always on par with their craft. Maybe it was because his work was more nuanced and his character tics were often subtle. Nonetheless, he holds a rare feat of not only winning three Oscars, but also starring in THREE Best Picture winners as the lead (Midnight Cowboy, Kramer vs. Kramer, and Rain Man) in three different decades. That is a feat that very few performers have achieved. Say what you will, but I want to give recognition to him on his birthday for an impressive body of work and his continuing ability to make thought provoking films.
I will admit that Hoffman is something of a strange giant in ways that De Niro or Pacino never could get. Did he make bad films? Only if you count Ishtar or Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium. Even then, he brings a delightful dedication to craft in them and is never too far from turning in something like Finding Neverland or Stranger Than Fiction alongside his role on the TV series Luck. He is an everyday American embodied perfectly on screen in ways that few performers could ever do. While others were intense, he seemed casual and able to go from character to character with ease.
I also want to believe that in contemporary Oscar culture, he is the greatest actor with a whopping seven nominations and six of them ended up in the Best Picture race. Sure, Daniel Day Lewis may be more noticeable, but throughout history, I don't feel like any actor has held up as well as Hoffman. It takes skill to go from The Graduate to Lenny to Rain Man and still get that recognition. He has the prestige of a golden era actor, but with the talents and chameleon tactics necessary to compete in modern film.
The following is a look at five of my favorite films that I feel define Hoffman and should be seen to best understand why he is such an important figure not only in acting, but as one of Oscar's biggest champions.
The Graduate (1967)
It is the film that helped to launch his career. In this film that popularized Simon and Garfunkel while also helping to pave the way for the New Hollywood of the 70's, this film has a bleak yet insightful look into a generation who was lost and without focus. With countless iconic scenes and a stellar performance by Anne Bancroft, it is a film that holds up and serves as an encapsulation of trying to figure out life only to realize that you'll never be satisfied. It is slight, dramatic, and proof that Hoffman was bound for great things in his career from the moment that he banged on the window in the church.
Midnight Cowboy (1969)
It was his first foray into the Best Picture race and a film that is full of surprising life and more bleakness than the average Oscar winner. The film already is in a striking area based on the fact that it is about a prostitute and his pimp going through a dirtier version of New York. Hoffman as Rizzo is a fantastic performance full of cocky cheer. The film itself reflects what poverty and economics were like in a bygone era, even if they still feel relevant to this date for lower class citizens who don't have great things. Even the idea of the film diving into implicit homosexuality feels way more progressive than a lot of the films coming out in the 60's.
There is a lot of peculiar things about Lenny, including most specifically why director Bob Fosse would do it despite being predominantly known for musicals. Nonetheless, this is a touchstone of Hoffman's trailblazing career of films dealing with social commentary. This hidden gem in his catalog is a must for those who not only like the defamed comedian Lenny Bruce, but also want to explore what censorship is like and how a few dirty jokes could cost you your life. It is a wonderfully deep film with one of Hoffman's best performances that frankly should be seen by more people, especially in honor of its 40th anniversary.
Kramer vs. Kramer (1980)
As Hoffman began to age, he took on some more mature subjects. The most relevant is this film that looks at a family in the middle of a divorce. The film itself is a crucial look at a changing climate and how families were forced to reconsider what their meaning meant. With great performances, the show is mostly a Hoffman extravaganza as he goes from one set piece to the next trying to find the best way to raise his kid. It is heartbreaking and interesting while also creating arguably one of his most timeless and intriguing characters.
Rain Man (1989)
Ending out an impressive three decades of nonstop Best Picture nominees is probably his most familiar role. Not only is it renowned for his depiction of mentally handicapped people, but it is full of life, humor, and manages to make it seem accessible. Maybe the film gets a little too sentimental at times, but in a career known for pushing boundaries and making everyday people into exciting protagonists, this was uncharted territory, and done with such precision that its predating of Forrest Gump is in many ways better than the 90's counterpart. There's heart, charm, and a lot to still enjoy about his last foray in the Best Picture winners circle. Here's hoping that he'll surprise again.
For those wondering, this is a list of five of my favorite Dustin Hoffman films. With that said, I haven't seen all of them nor do I prefer all of the obvious favorites. I also realize that I didn't include anything from the past 24 years. This was unintentional and I apologize. However, I will say that I acknowledge the benefits of his catalog and while All the Presidents Men and Tootsie were important films, I personally don't enjoy them as much as these. With that said, what is your favorite Hoffman performance?