Dustin Lee Hoffman is one of the most iconic and versatile actors in the history of cinema. Despite the non-heroic, diminutive appearance, he infused enormous charisma into his characters. The dynamic energy he displayed and the roles he chose repeatedly defied audience expectations. Hoffman kept aside the vanity that plagues star-actors and resisted others’ impulse to pigeonhole him. For the past decade or two, his poor choice of films have veiled his undeniable charm. Yet, back in the day, Dustin Hoffman was one of the greatest performers who retooled the general limited perception on acting. Here are what I consider his 15 essential performances (in reverse chronological order):
1. Last Chance Harvey (2008)
Joel Hopkins’ tale of two shy old people falling in love saw Dustin Hoffman in the lead role after quite some time. From the early 90s, Hoffman had settled into the routine of doing light-hearted cameos or gimmicky character roles. This film allowed the great actor to dig deep into himself to play Harvey Shine, a lonely aging writer totally frustrated by life. Emma Thompson plays the other lead character Kate, a middle-aged working woman with sad eyes. In fact, the premise isn’t always believable and the script is under cooked. Yet, there are lot of small moments to treasure, thanks to delicate performances from Hoffman and Thompson.
2. Wag the Dog (1997)
Barry Levinson’s cynical, twisted political comedy has Dustin Hoffman playing Stanley Motss, a successful Hollywood producer. The President, few days before the election, is accused of molesting a girl scout visiting the White House. As a result, Conrad Brean (De Niro), the great spin doctor is brought in. His job is to engineer a big story to distract the voters’ interest in the sex scandal. Conrad’s plan is to manufacture a fake war against Albania. He and Motss spend an afternoon in a Hollywood Studio, staging news footage of refugee girl barely escaping the bombing (the whole thing is shot against a blue screen). It was exciting to see Hoffman and De Niro play against each other. To add to it, the masterful satirist David Mamet penned the script. Although few elements in the film seem absurd, the media deception portrayed here isn’t very far-fetched.
3. Rain Man (1988)
Dustin Hoffman’s incredible performance as the autistic savant Raymond Babbitt gained him the second Oscar for the best lead performance. Nevertheless, over the years, advocates from the autism community criticized the performance. Arguably, the role was accused of creating stereotypes of autism. Many of the perceptions about autism and savant syndrome in Rain Man have become obsolete. Similarly, it’s common knowledge that autism is different with every person. Not every autistic individual would have the mannerisms of Hoffman’s character.
Hoffman’s Raymond is a strange genius, who can easily count cards, but can’t connect his perception to a set of emotions. He is kidnapped from the care home by his younger brother Charlie (Tom Cruise). Charlie has only recently learned of Raymond’s existence and doesn’t have good intentions behind this kidnapping. Hoffman’s performance had me transfixed. But I developed more appreciation for his portrayal after getting to know and meeting different individuals on the autistic spectrum.
4. Death of a Salesman (1985)
German filmmaker Volker Schlondorff’s adaptation of Arthur Miller’s seminal play is considered the most definitive on-screen version. Prior to the adaptation, the play was mounted on Broadway in 1984 and became a sensational hit (played 97 performances at New York’s Broadhurst Theater). The then 48-year old Dustin Hoffman played a 63-year old Wily Loman. Wily is a frustrated elderly salesman obsessed with the American Dream. He is pushed into the thorny path to reflect on his own existence at face value. John Malkovich played the role of Wily’s elder son Biff. In my opinion, the scenes involving both the talented actors highly demand our attention. Hoffman’s performance is utterly devoid of pretense or sentimentality. Despite being too young to play Wily, Hoffman brings out his character’s frailties with empathy and clarity.
5. Tootsie (1982)
The premise of Sydney Pollack’s comedy seems silly, but its overt message on gender inequality still remains relevant. Dustin Hoffman plays an out-of-work actor Michael who masquerades himself as Dorothy Michaels. The change fares better as Michael/Dorothy gets a juicy role in a popular soap opera. Michael, the former ladies-man, now literally puts himself in the women’s shoes to empathize with precepts of feminism. The notion of feminism depicted in Tootsie has its own set of problems, but that doesn’t take away from Hoffman’s performance. His physical transformation is believable and doesn’t look like a man dressed in drag. He effectively toggles between two polarizing personalities without faltering to win viewers’ empathy.
6. Kramer vs Kramer (1979)
Dustin Hoffman is popular for his notorious method acting techniques. In fact, it was the cause for numerous controversies surrounding his acting career. Meryl Streep and Hoffman’s off-screen rivalry is presumably discussed more than the brilliantly presented on-screen rivalry between Mr. and Mrs. Kramer. The controversy surrounding this particular film is that Hoffman taunted Streep to extract the emotional intensity required for the face-off between Ted and Joanna Kramer. The unauthorized biography of Meryl Streep reports Hoffman really slapped Streep during an on-screen fight scene.
The film tells the tale of Ted Kramer, who rediscovers the bond with his little son Billy. Joanna finds motherhood boring and marriage superficial. But after leaving Ted, she commences a custody battle over Billy. Kramer Vs Kramer is a gut-wrenching study of the ugly realities behind divorce procedures. Joanna’s character was said to be rightly altered in the movie version to dilute the novel character’s vindictiveness. It helps provide a more emotionally balanced conflict between Mr. and Mrs. Kramer. Both the great actors, despite their off-screen differences, won an academy award for their performances.
7. Straight Time (1978)
In Ulu Grosbard’s Straight Time, Dustin Hoffman plays Max Dembo, a small-time ex-con whose efforts to redeem his life only leads to tragic consequences. [Hoffman was to direct the film, but opted out four days into the shoot]. As Max, Hoffman (with a handle-bar mustache) turns in one of his most deeply felt and under-appreciated performances. The authentic criminal underworld developed for the narrative makes Max’s descent more tragic. The narrative never explains why Max chose the life of crime or justifies his action. It states that’s the way he has always been. But Hoffman perfectly humanizes the otherwise unlikable character to induce our empathy.
8. All the President’s Men (1976)
Nixon era’s Watergate scandal gained American’s full attention and stripped their trust in the government. Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein first uncovered this scandal, that eventually toppled the administrators. They became the poster boys for investigative journalism. After the release of their best-selling book, director Alan Pakula was roped in to make it into a film. Dustin Hoffman played Carl Bernstein and Redford took on the role of Bob Woodward. To prepare for the role, Hoffman closely followed Bernstein for months and thoroughly studied the process of news-gathering. Both the actors worked as close as possible to give us the feeling of watching real reporters. Of course, Hoffman brings enough wit and charm to what otherwise might have been a plain dogged character.