From a lost graduate to an autistic savant to a crossdressing man, Dustin Hoffman has shown to be one of Hollywood’s most versatile actors emerging from the Golden Age of American cinema. Last week the American actor celebrated his 80th birthday and with a career that spans 5 decades, it’s hard to believe he once imagined he might be a classical pianist instead. In celebration of the star’s birthday, here are five excellent performances from some of his lesser known films:
1. Little Big Man (1970)
Although Little Big Man is often criticised for its unabated portrayal of brutality and maladroit in the vast area of ground it attempts to cover, the film deserves credit for its observation on Native American genocide, an area director Arthur Penn wasn’t afraid of addressing. Furthermore, Hoffman should get recognition alone for successfully portraying the enormous age span of 17 to 121. The story begins as Jack Crabbe (Hoffman) aged 121 tells the story of his life as the only survivor of Custer’s Last Stand including his upbringing in a Cheyenne Indian community to how he ended up befriending Wild Bill Hickok. Crabbe gets his nickname as he is small in stature but brave. He’s an anti-hero, unfortunate, clumsy and awkward but he’s resilient in nature. Hoffman’s range of versatility from an energetic youngster to a reflective old man is impressive and realistic. An unlikely star but a sure one.
2. I <3 Huckabees (2004)
American director David O’Russell‘s philosophical comedy film stars Hoffman opposite Lily Tomlin as a pair of married existential detectives. Hoffman and Tomlin take on environmentalist, Jason Schwartzman’s case in an attempt to find the reason behind his frustration and angst. The pairs’ methods of investigation differentiate with Bernard’s approach being concentrated on Albert’s “perception of reality” which is demonstrated through bizarre meditative practices. Hoffman and Tomlin are very enjoyable to watch as a couple, the perfect remedy to each other’s grievances. Hoffman’s sharp wit is counteracted with a concerned parental nature at times. Hoffman is fun in this role, laid back but all-knowing.
3. Wag The Dog (1997)
Eerily relevant to today’s world, Wag the Dog tells the tale of a fraudulent mission to re-elect the American President who has just been accused of molesting a teenage girl. Spin doctor, Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro) enlists the help of showbiz producer Stanley Motts (Dustin Hoffman) to fabricate a war with Albania in order to divert the public’s fixation on the scandal. De Niro’s insider knowledge and Hoffman’s flare for drama make a deadly pair. Fond of veggie shakes and kittens, Stanley Motts is a man who knows what must be done in order to give the public what they need. As a producer he faces the strife of being undervalued in one of the hardest positions in film production and this “war” is no exception. Hoffman’s obstinate nature is evidently both his strength and weakness engaging in dicey territory. Hoffman is excellent at playing the acute creative and is hilarious in his constant appraisal of his own abilities and knack for great ideas.
4. Moonlight Mile (2002)
Few movies manage to capture the undeniable awkwardness that comes with being a grieving family in the public eye of neighbours that never seem to say the right thing. Moonlight Mile does it well bringing a touch of humour and realism to the difficult topic. Ben (Hoffman) and Jojo Floss (Susan Sarandon) have just lost their daughter Diana in a tragic restaurant shooting. She is survived by her fiancé Joe Nast (Jake Gyllenhaal) who was just becoming part of the family. Unbeknownst to Ben and Jojo, Joe had actually broken up with Diana 3 days before her death.
Hoffman’s performance is moving as we recognise the familiar patterns that often materialise in the lives of those affected by grief. His solution to dealing with the death of his daughter is to keep busy and dangerously replace his daughter with Joe as a kind of surrogate son. Hoffman is incredibly vulnerable and it’s hard to watch juxtaposed with Gyllenhaal’s indifference to the subject and Sarandon’s hostility to everyone around them. A smart observation on grief and an excellent cast to support it.
5. Straw Dogs (1971)
Received with controversy in 1971, Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs was an incredibly violent film for its time. David (Hoffman) and Amy Sumner (Susan George) make the move to Amy’s hometown near Cornwall. David is a mathematician and welcomes the remote surroundings as a peaceful environment for his work. Amy’s ex boyfriend, Charlie is not too pleased at the sight of the pair and is extremely hateful towards David’s presence in the town.
What ensues is a terrifying chain of events including an array of gritty rape and murder scenes. Hoffman is unsettling in his transformation to a man that finally has the courage to stand up for himself and his wife as he declares the famous words: “This is where I live. This is me! I will not allow violence against this house!” Hoffman’s journey to manhood is fast in the last 30 minutes but a necessary reaction due to his submissive behaviour in the build up.
With Hoffman’s performance in Noah Baumbach’s latest release The Meyerowitz Stories: New and Selected being met with praise it’s obvious we haven’t heard the last from the Hollywood legend. Hoffman continues to grace our cinema screens playing multifaceted characters that frustrate, delight and hook audiences in all ways.