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Dustin Hoffman at 80: from flammable to mellow

Dustin Hoffman turns 80 on August 8. David Robson celebrates his career.

    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-want-to-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. “Self-sabotage?” 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 good-looking, 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”.

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