Hoffman redefined role of leading man
LOS ANGELES — Dustin Hoffman is sitting alone in the sunny corner of a restaurant in Brentwood, looking as though he’s deep in prayer. Soon after his lunch companion arrives, the object of his worship rings with the lilting notes “Are You Havin’ Any Fun?,” a jazz standard that figures prominently in his new movie, “Quartet.”
Hoffman apologizes, then takes the call. It turns out that “Quartet,” which marks the actor’s directorial debut, has been the subject of a ratings kerfuffle at the Motion Picture Association of America. The film takes a playful, poignant look at aging through the stories of four characters living in a home for retired musicians in England. “Quartet,” which stars Maggie Smith, Pauline Collins, Billy Connolly and Tom Courtenay, possesses sweetness, pluck and charm — but also a few cheerfully delivered four-letter words.
“For a PG release, they give you two,” Hoffman explains in his hoarse, slightly melancholy drawl, the same cadence that makes everyone think he’s from New York (he’s a California native). He is dressed comfortably in gray corduroys and a blue sports shirt, his hair a thick salt-and-pepper mane, his face often seeming to split in two by a ready V-shaped grin. “And if there’s more than that, they give you an R. And there are three that I wanted.” The call on his iPhone was to inform him that his solution — to have a sound effect strategically inserted to muffle an offending expletive — has been accepted by the arbiters of all that is decent and good in American cinema. “The compromise worked.”
“Compromise” isn’t a word that has often been associated with Hoffman over the course of his 45-year career, to which he will add another accolade with Sunday’s Kennedy Center Honors. During his early days as a stage actor in New York — where he moved from California in the 1950s, rooming with young guns named Gene Hackman and Robert Duvall — he was known for walking off plays, refusing to conform to conventional notions of careerism and fame. When director Mike Nichols offered him the role of Benjamin Braddock in the 1967 film “The Graduate,” he initially turned it down, convinced that he was all wrong for a role that called for a tall, blond, WASP-y jock. “The name of the game is compromise, once you’re successful,” Hoffman recalls. He’s ordered a bowl of lentil soup and a salad, and insists on splitting a mozzarella sandwich spiked with Swiss chard and fennel. “And compromise is not only compromising with someone else, there’s a compromising with yourself, because you cannot stay inviolate. Somehow, as hard as you can, you’re resisting giving the public what it wants.”
That helps explain why, once “The Graduate” had catapulted Hoffman to a stardom that he never expected, he chose “Midnight Cowboy” as his next film, a scruffy New York buddy flick in which he played the sickly Times Square hustler Ratso Rizzo. For a young actor who had become the cultural representative of a baby-boom generation disaffected with suburban mores and middle-class hypocrisies, submerging his newly minted identity as a sex symbol into a seedy, physically diminished street person could be read as counterintuitive or, less generously, self-sabotaging. “When I did ‘Cowboy,’ Nichols called and said, ‘What are you doing?’ “ Hoffman recalls, noting that he was 29 when he got “The Graduate,” after spending 10 years as a mostly out-of-work actor confident that if he were going to fail, it would be on his terms.
“I got in right underneath the circus tent,” he says. “By the time I’m 30, I’m suddenly a movie star. It didn’t matter. Thirty felt horrendous to me. I was still so committed to being a failure that when it happened, I compartmentalized it.”
But “Midnight Cowboy” turned out to be another hit, earning Hoffman his second Oscar nomination and cementing his status as a bona fide movie star, one who virtually single-handedly redefined what a leading man in the movies could look and sound like.
The film industry “wouldn’t have looked at someone like Dustin Hoffman before ‘The Graduate,’ and they would have come up with a dozen ways of saying he’s too Jewish without saying the word Jewish,” says Mark Harris, who chronicled the production of “The Graduate” in his book “Pictures at a Revolution.”
When Hoffman was coming up, Harris notes, it was “all-American”-type actors such as Robert Redford or George Peppard who were being groomed for stardom. “The revolutionary thing about Hoffman in that movie isn’t that a guy who didn’t look like a movie star could give that performance and the movie could be a hit, but the fact that everybody was wrong. He was sexy after all. He was hot in that movie.” When Hoffman became a star, Harris adds, the studios realized that actors heretofore relegated to character roles could be stars as well, making it possible for actors such as Al Pacino and Robert De Niro to have careers as leading men. “America was way ahead of Hollywood,” he says.
Hoffman stayed in step with that same America, choosing roles that have made him an avatar of the social and cultural changes that shaped the country over some of its most tumultuous decades. In “Midnight Cowboy” he played a homeless man before “homelessness” became a metonym for a failed social safety net; as Ted in “Kramer vs. Kramer,” he won an Academy Award for playing a divorced father drawn reluctantly into questioning traditional gender roles. In “Tootsie,” he pushed that consciousness one step higher by becoming a woman, as an actor playing an actress named Dorothy Michaels. As Raymond in “Rain Man,” he gave autism its most famous and most accessible face, winning his second Oscar in the process. It wouldn’t be an overtstatement to suggest that Hoffman didn’t just redefine male stardom, but manhood itself, making sensitivity and empathy safe for a generation of men raised on icons of macho swagger.
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