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. He was one of the most dynamic actors in Hollywood in his heyday, one of the kings of method acting.
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 changed 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 frustrated by life. Emma Thompson plays Kate, a middle-aged working woman with sad eyes.
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. Wag the Dog happens to be one of Hoffman’ and De Niro’s most overlooked projects.
3. Rain Man (1988)
Hoffman’s incredible performance as the autistic savant Raymond Babbitt won him the second Oscar for the best male lead. 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. It is also noted that Rain Man is used as a popular analogy today for anything related to mental defects.
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 learnt 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 play is considered one of the finest on-screen versions. 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. Hoffman and Malkovich‘s scenes together demand our attention. Hoffman’s performance is devoid of pretense or sentimentality. Despite the age difference, 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 while winning 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. A bit too much method maybe?
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 the Kramers. Both the great actors, despite their off-screen differences, won Academy Awards 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 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.
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. Director Alan Pakula was roped in to make the subsequent bestselling book into a film. Dustin Hoffman played Carl Bernstein and Redford took up the role of Bob Woodward. To prepare for the role, Hoffman closely followed Bernstein for months and thoroughly studied the process of news-gathering. He brings enough wit and charm to what otherwise might have been a plain dogged character.
Fun fact: the reason people use the suffix ‘gate’ for certain scandals, like Slapgate, and so on, is because of this. The Watergate scandal shook the American Government to its very foundations. People never viewed the Government in the same light ever again. This article may be about Dustin Hoffman, but you simply cannot overlook the exemplary performance of his co-star, Robert Redford. You just can’t get enough of them.
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 gets Babe caught in the conspiracy weaved by the Nazi criminal. ‘Is it safe?’, Olivier repeatedly asks in a chilling scene while brutally torturing Hoffman. The two commanding central performances help camouflage apparent weaknesses in the narrative.
Marathon Man is a movie that showcases Dustin Hoffman’s talent and dedication to the acting craft. He went full-on method. He stayed up for three days and three nights in order to create a rugged, panicked, sleep-driven look of a man who’s pushed to the brink of madness. Few actors could beat him at this.
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.
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 hidden beneath the superficial veneer 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 story unfurls from the perspective of 122-year old Jack, 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. And no, it’s not a typo. He actually played a 122-year old. Hoffman underwent 5-hour make up for the part.
Although the film, to a certain extent, overly dramatizes or trivializes Native American characters, it’s 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, his 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.
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 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.
What are your favorite Dustin Hoffman films? Do you agree with my ranking? Tell me in the comments below.
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