Dustin Hoffman’s 15 Best Performances of All Time

dustin hoffman best movies


9. Marathon Man (1976)

John Schlesinger’s moody thriller is best identified by the showbiz story chronicling the intriguing collaboration between old-school actor Laurence Olivier and method actor Dustin Hoffman. This is one of the thrillers where the script twisted up a rather simple story. Olivier plays Szell, a Nazi war criminal living in Argentina. The death of his brother makes Szell journey to America and retrieve the treasure. Hoffman plays Thomas Levy aka Babe, a marathon runner and a Columbia graduate student. His older brother Doc is an American agent who is on the mission to capture Szell. Doc’s murder propels Babe to get caught in the conspiracy weaved by the Nazi criminal. ‘Is it safe?’, Olivier repeatedly asks in a chilling scene while brutally torturing Hoffman. The film’s apparent weaknesses in the narrative are partly trumped by two commanding central performances.


10. Lenny (1974)

Bob Fosse’s Lenny chronicles the life and times of the misunderstood but highly innovative comic Lenny Bruce. It’s an agonizing biopic of a lost man; a man whose social crusader stance and regretful lifestyle undo his burgeoning success. The narrative structure and the performances from Hoffman and Valerie Perrine deserve special mention. The unstable nature of the character is well established through Citizen Kane-style interviews and flashbacks. The greatest parts of the film are the ones dealing with Lenny’s downward spiral, provoked by his addiction to heroin. Hoffman truly inhabited the character, perfectly following the brutal character arc. Lenny earned six Oscar nominations, but unfortunately, lost in all categories.


11. Papillon (1973)

Dustin Hoffman chose an interesting range of roles very early in his career, compared to the era’s other method actors. Despite the star-making performances in The Graduate or Little Big Man, he had never hesitated to take on second lead characters. Steve McQueen majestically played the title character in Franklin Schaffner’s harrowing prison drama. Hoffman plays the convicted forger and Papillon’s friend Louis Dega. With his haunted eyes and bespectacled looks, Hoffman brings great emotional intensity to the proceedings. He plays a more fragile, emotional person countering Papillon’s pugnacious characteristics. The moments illustrating the relationship between Papillon and Dega are the most extraordinary ones.


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12. Straw Dogs (1971)

Sam Peckinpah’s brutal drama confirmed Dustin Hoffman’s strong ability to portray any kind of character. Hoffman’s David Sumner is a repressed, cerebral personality. The pathos Hoffman brings to David is what makes the viewers accept the character’s volatile transformation. David and his wife Amy (Susan George in her career best performance) move to a small town. Amy has grown up in the town and runs into one of her old flames. The bad marriage between the young couple reaches a boiling point when David hires Amy’s old boyfriend to work on their garage. Straw Dogs is an acerbic commentary on the human savagery resting beneath superficial layers of civilization. It gets unsettling with every scene, and has us rooting for David as he is pushed to the corner.


13. Little Big Man (1970)

Arthur Penn’s epic revisionist Western tells the incredible tale of Jack Crab. The tale unfurls from the perspective of 122-year old Jack (Hoffman underwent 5-hour make up for the part), who was raised by Native Americans. The film’s biggest conflict revolves around General Custer’s decision to take over the territories of Chief Little Bighorn. Although the film, to a certain extent, overly dramatizes or trivializes Native American characters, it was lot better than the glossed over Westerns of John Wayne. The oft-repeated American history is excellently satirized through Jack’s perspective. Penn’s assured vision and Hoffman’s magnificent performance make this a brazen, bittersweet Western.


14. Midnight Cowboy (1969)

In the only X-rated movie to win an Oscar for Best Picture, Hoffman plays a small-time New York con man. Jon Voight plays Joe Buck, the film’s central character. Joe is a Texan who arrives to the city with dreams of becoming a high-end male prostitute. The fleeting visuals of the past indicate Joe’s horrific sexual experiences. In addition, the constrained worldview only propels Joe to confront more abuse. Homeless and broke, Joe and Ratso Risso (Hoffman) are the little pieces, the big city easily chews up. The friendship between these two dispossessed characters forms the essence of this brooding drama. No other actor could have perfectly nailed the character of Ratso like Hoffman. Disabled by polio and impaired by his inability to function in the society, Hoffman’s performance was a tour de force.

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15. The Graduate (1967)

A different form of cinema emerged from the Hollywood Studios in the late 1960s and throughout the 70s. Borrowing the visual style from European art cinema, these youth-oriented American movies radically pushed the cinematic boundaries of sexual depictions. Mike Nichols’ The Graduate is one of the starting points of the Hollywood Renaissance era. Dustin Hoffman plays Benjamin Braddock, a disaffected youth. He commences an affair with his mother’s sexually frustrated friend Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft). Later, he falls in love with her daughter (Katherine Ross). Hoffman’s Benjamin became the face of America’s surging counter-culture.

The alienation and nervous energy Hoffman inhabited spoke volumes to the urban young middle class Americans.  Hoffman was not the first choice to play Benjamin. The role first went to Robert Redford. But the fairly unknown 29-year old actor flawlessly encapsulated the uncertainties and ineptitude of a young man.  Moreover, the film ends with a wonderful note of ambiguity, especially for a Hollywood dramedy.

By Arun Kumar


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