Dustin Hoffman used to take himself very seriously indeed. There are a couple of stories in screenwriter William Goldman's classic book Adventures in the Screen Trade about the way Hoffman behaved on the set of Marathon Man which are the stuff of showbiz legend.
The more notorious of the two involves his treatment of Sir Laurence Olivier, who was nearly 70 at the time, and recuperating from a serious illness. The way Goldman describes it, during an early rehearsal Hoffman suggested they get up and improvise through a scene, walk it around a little.
Olivier wasn't keen. Coming from the British theatre tradition he preferred to read the lines on the page. More than that, he was so weak he could barely walk. But Hoffman insisted, and as he was the star of the show (this was 1976), up Olivier gets and they improvise, and they walk, and they walk and they improvise, and Olivier's ankles swell, and they bulge, and they keep right on going.
The other story also comes from the rehearsal period, and it involves Hoffman refusing point blank to go through with a scene because he couldn't accept his character would have a torch beside his bed. A point he argued for a full hour while his co-star Roy Scheider stood by quietly and watched. As Goldman surmises, it may be that Hoffman had some sort of imaginative block - or then again, 'maybe he didn't want the flashlight because he was afraid his fans would think him chicken.'
These are stories about 'perfectionism' covering ego and insecurity, and there are plenty more. At one point Hoffman stayed up two nights to prepare for a scene of absolute physical exhaustion. Olivier remarked, 'Dear boy, why don't you just act?' It is said that Elmore Leonard based the title role in Get Shorty on Hoffman after dealing with the diminutive star's prevarications for a year or two on a movie that never got off the ground (in Barry Sonnenfeld's film Chili Palmer - John Travolta - toys with holding a gun to Danny De Vito's head until he signs on the dotted line).
But if he was difficult, demanding and insecure, Hoffman was also brilliant, an endlessly versatile and challenging actor who helped smack some reality into American movies. He was also, incidentally, a far more accomplished, organic screen actor than Olivier ever was.
Hoffman was a major, major star in the 1970s, and it was on the back of his talent, not his looks. For 12 years as an actor he struggled. For a spell he roomed with Gene Hackman, another unglamorous character actor who would become a star in the 70s. Hoffman was 30-years-old when Mike Nichols cast him as 20-year-old Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate, a character where Ryan O'Neal might have been a no-brainer.
Nichols saw something he wanted - 'a pole-axed quality' - and moviegoers recognized it too. Here was someone who seemed to reflect the bewilderment of those times.
Two years later, 1969, Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy proved he was a real actor, too good to be pigeonholed. It earned him a second Oscar nomination. He aged over 100 years in Little Big Man, went through the grinder for Peckinpah in Straw Dogs, played a brilliant, tortured Lenny Bruce for Bob Fosse, and Carl Bernstein to Redford's Bob Woodward in All the President's Men. Throw in Papillon and Straight Time, that's a considerable body of work before he turned 40.
He got divorced, and then won the Oscar that had eluded him playing a divorced dad in Kramer vs Kramer in 1979, a funny, touching, much more straightforward performance… and whether it was the Oscar, or his personal life, or his age, Hoffman seemed to mellow overnight. He's wonderful in Tootsie (1982), and it's pretty clear that the talented, impossibly demanding out of work actor Michael Dorsey is one some level a self-parody.
He only made four more films in the 80s. Ishtar, was a terrible flop, though it now has a cult following. He won a second Oscar for his accurate account of autism in a cute and shallow, very popular film, Rain Man. For the most part he coasted through the 90s and though some of his choices had potential (Outbreak; Mad City) the results were mostly disappointing.
But what a pleasure it is watching him these days! At 69 he seems to be having the time of his life. He's playful and open, transparently happy to lark about with his peers: Hackman in Runaway Jury; Streep in Lemony Snicket; Streisand and De Niro in Meet the Fockers; Lily Tomlin in I Heart Huckabees - his most eccentric recent role, and maybe his best.
He was a wonderful foil for Johnny Depp in Finding Neverland, and in Stranger Than Fiction he kicks off his shoes and makes free with poor non-plussed Harold Crick (Will Ferrell), cranking up the movie at just the right point.
Hoffman's not likely to get many more leading roles in his lifetime, but if anything he seems liberated to be back in what the Americans call 'character parts'. A line from Huckabees seems to sum up where he is coming from. He's explaining the universe to Jason Schwartzman (the nearest thing we have to the young Dustin) by asking him to zip himself up in a blanket: 'When you get the blanket thing, you can relax,' he says. 'Because everything you could ever want or be, you already have and are.'
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