The mel­low­ing of Dustin Hoff­man

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - DAVID ROB­SON PRO­FILE

NO­BODY HAD ever seen Dustin Hoff­man be­fore he played The Grad­u­ate. He was an off-Broad­way stage ac­tor. Then sud­denly, age 30, he was fa­mous be­yond be­lief. The film wasn’t sim­ply a suc­cess it was, ac­cord­ing to the New Yorker, “the big­gest suc­cess in the his­tory of movies.” A woman see­ing Hoff­man and his wife creep­ing out of a cin­ema af­ter the ec­static au­di­ence left, said to him “Life is never go­ing to be the same from this mo­ment on.” That was 50 years ago and it was of course true but not per­haps in the way she would have pre­dicted.

He wasn’t des­tined to be­come a con­ven­tional film star. Un­like his fel­low 80-year-olds Jack Ni­chol­son and War­ren Beatty — equally im­por­tant fig­ures in the new sort of films that trans­formed Hol­ly­wood in the 1970s — he does not have a se­duc­tive pres­ence or men-want-to-be-him-women-wantto-be-with-him al­lure. You don’t go to the cin­ema to see a “Dustin Hoff­man film” in the way you go to see a “Jack Ni­chol­son film.” You go to see a Dustin Hoff­man per­for­mance.

And what per­for­mances! What do you do as a young lead­ing man who’s taken Amer­ica by storm? Hoff­man’s next two roles were the limp­ing, dy­ing New York scum­bag Ratso Rizzo in Mid­night Cow­boy then a 121-year-old in Lit­tle Big Man — mag­nif­i­cent but hardly the ob­vi­ous thing to do.

Very lit­tle about Hoff­man’s ca­reer has been the ob­vi­ous thing to do.

In his time, he has turned down dozens of parts, in­clud­ing of­fers from Steven Spiel­berg sev­eral times, among them Close En­coun­ters of the Third Kind and Schindler’s List. He has also re­jected Woody Allen, Bergman and Fellini. Some of th­ese he re­grets. “Self­s­ab­o­tage?” he was asked in a 2014 in­ter­view. “I would say there was an el­e­ment off self-sab­o­tage in me ever since I was born,” he replied.

He has al­ways ag­o­nised and has ob­vi­ously been agony to oth­ers. Kramer v Kramer, the 1979 film about a bit­ter di­vorce and cus­tody strug­gle, co­in­cided with his own di­vorce from his first wife. He was in­volved in writ­ing the script, con­stantly es­ca­lat­ing the pain level and pro­vok­ing his co-star Meryl Streep, whose part­ner had re­cently died, to tears and ex­tremes of dis­tress. He made it har­row­ing for ev­ery­body in­volved. He also made it great. For

Hoff­man act­ing was des­per­ately se­ri­ous

and some­times just des­per­ate — in Toot­sie, which is hard to for­get, a peren­ni­ally re­jected ac­tor is forced to pre­tend to be a woman to get work, a sit­u­a­tion he felt he knew well.

The 1970s was his golden decade, ex­tra­or­di­nary for va­ri­ety and qual­ity. He was the un­likely hero of the bru­tal Straw Dogs and the un­wit­ting hero of Marathon Man. He was Lenny Bruce. In All The Pres­i­dent’s Men (1976), the story of how two Wash­ing­ton Post re­porters un­cov­ered the Water­gate scan­dal, he played the in­tense, flammable Carl Bern­stein; Robert Red­ford was his more mea­sured part­ner Bob Woodward. It was a poignant part­ner­ship — the script of The Grad­u­ate had been writ­ten with Red­ford in mind un­til it was de­cided he was too good­look­ing, an epoch-mak­ing de­ci­sion. Hoff­man has been nom­i­nated seven times for the best ac­tor Os­car and won twice, for Kramer v Kramer and, 1989, for his role as the autis­tic ge­nius Ray­mond Bab­bitt in Rain Man. In his first ac­cep­tance speech he spoke at length and with great feel­ing about his fights with the Academy, the fra­ter­nity of ac­tors and how this was an award for every­one in­volved in mak­ing movies.

Like so much of Hoff­man, it was pow­er­ful, mov­ing — and a kvetch. In his se­cond ac­cep­tance, 18 years later, he talked mov­ingly of his father who had re­cently be­come in­firm and had moved to a home. He spoke halt­ingly, al­most over­come. Even by the stan­dards of Os­car speeches it was a sobfest.

In char­ac­ter or as him­self, he im­poses an emo­tional hold on an au­di­ence as few can (of­ten, it must be said, tee­ter­ing on the brink of go­ing over the top).

In the years since, he has been in many films and, if in­ter­views are any­thing to go by, he is ma­turely re­flec­tive and seems to have mel­lowed. And he is in the Kung Fu Panda films, the voice of Master Shifu who has cer­tainly found calm and karma, though among the the oohs and ahs ac­com­pa­ny­ing his mar­tial moves he does insert an “oy” and a “vey”.


His roles have been many and var­ied, from Mid­night Cow­boy to Toot­sie and Billy Bath­gate

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