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Just yesterday, the Kennedy Center announced that Dustin Hoffman would be one of this year’s honorees for his contribution to the arts. And over the course of forty-five years, the double Oscar-winner has crafted some of the most memorable performances in the history of film. Below, the top ten performances of Hoffman’s storied career:
10. Kramer vs. Kramer
Hoffman won his first Oscar for his portrayal of a man forced to pick up the pieces when his unhappy wife (Meryl Streep) abandons him and his young son. The film is episodic and melodramatic by today’s standards, but Hoffman’s genius lies in his most passionate scenes – at first, when he unleashes an angry torrent at the AWOL Joanna, and then when she comes back to claim custody for the son he’s only just bonded with. Watching him, you know exactly what he’s fighting for.
9. Wag the Dog
Barry Levinson’s send-up of Hollywood and politics as bedfellows features a comedic central performance from a big-haired, bespectacled Hoffman, supposedly summoning famous producer Robert Evans. As the man who uses all resources, above-board and below, to create a fake war and distract from a real crisis, Hoffman’s Stanley Motss is part superego, part insecure wreck. But he’s 100 percent hilarious.
Bob Fosse’s Lenny Bruce biopic is raw and, at times, a little too rough for its own good. Again, the meat of the movie and of Hoffman’s performance comes out of his character’s most outraged scenes. Defeated but not done, his Bruce rails against the establishment by creating a nightclub act that recited his court records. And yet oddly, he even found a way to make that material incendiary.
7. Rain Man
This is another Levinson outing, and, I won’t lie, a personal favorite in every possible way. For me, it’s Tom Cruise who carries the film as a yuppie who discovers an autistic brother who had been sent away from him as a child. But Hoffman, in his second Oscar-winning role, never shies away from his character, Raymond’s physicality, which includes an extreme aversion to intimacy. It’s frustrating how Raymond never makes eye contact or touches. And it’s fascinating the way Hoffman makes you understand just how close he has gotten to his brother over the course of the movie without ever showing it.
6. All the President’s Men
Hollywood lore has it that Mike Nichols turned down Robert Redford for a role that went to Hoffman in The Graduate. But the two got to team up in this true account of journalists Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s investigation into the Watergate break-in. (Hoffman plays the former.) And their tunnel-vision quest for answers makes objects like typewriters and rotary phones look downright aphrodisiacal.
5. Death of a Salesman
Among the great actors of his generation – Nicholson, Duvall, Hackman, De Niro – only Hoffman and Al Pacino have routinely returned to the stage, with the Tony Awards to show for it. Hoffman recorded his Willy Loman for the small screen as well, with a supporting cast that included Stephen Lang, John Malkovich, and Kate Reid, and got an Emmy for it as well. Catch the DVD to see for yourself why this performance may be the definitive rendering of Arthur Miller’s tragic American hero.
4. Midnight Cowboy
John Schlesinger’s ode to the decaying urban jungle of 1960s New York made history as the first X-rated Best Picture winner, but there is little here more exposed than Hoffman’s iconic, frightened Ratso Rizzo. Withering away, Hoffman’s Ratso is a slightly older and scrappier Artful Dodger, who, like many of the Times Square walkups around him, is seemingly held together only by dirt and decay. This was the first of many examples of Hoffman’s gritty intensity, which could erroneously be written off as Method shtick. It isn’t. Every choice here – including that apocryphally improvised scene yelling at a car while crossing the street – is necessary and justified. And shows shades of what’s to come in the #3 movie…
3. Straight Time
…in which Hoffman played his greatest, most underrated character – a thief re-acclimating to life outside the clink following a six-year prison sentence. It’s a stark story that indicts pretty much all aspects of the prison rehabilitation process, but Hoffman never condescends to a man with limited communication skills and even fewer options. Fun fact: you can catch Kathy Bates in an early career role here as well.
2. The Graduate
There’s much immortality here, from that image of Anne Bancroft’s Mrs. Robinson smoking and crossing her legs to the Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack to Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock asking “Are you trying to seduce me?” (And I haven’t even mentioned anything about the climactic church sequence.) But at the barbed-wire heart of Mike Nichol’s caustic comedy is the actor himself, fusing confusion, ennui and a preternatural understanding that his adult life is doomed even before it begins. It’s the humor in his performance that drew audiences in 45 years ago – but it’s the despondence that lingers.
Simply one of the greatest American movies of all time, Sydney Pollack’s showbiz comedy is a love letter to acting, to New York, and to modern romance, the way it is in the real world: full of baggage, insecurity, mixed signals and the occasional lie. Sure, Hoffman’s Michael Dorsey’s lies are bigger than the average man’s: he pretends to be a woman so he can get a part on a soap, on which he meets and falls for a luminous Jessica Lange. His performance is really a triple play: he plays the arrogant Dorsey, the feminist faux actress Dorothy Michaels, and then Dorothy’s own soap character, Emily Kimberly. And hits all of them out of the park. Improbably, he wins Lange’s love in the end. But he also wins ours