“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 standing as a bona fide movie star, one who virtually single-handedly redefined what a leading man in the movies could look and sound like.
(AP/AP) - Dustin Hoffman, left, and Justin Henry appear in a scene from the 1979 film “Kramer vs. Kramer.”
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 have defined the country’s changes. 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.
He has taken more conventional roles along the way — from Washington Post Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein in “All the President's Men” and Lenny Bruce in “Lenny” to his daffy hipster granddad in the “Meet the Fockers” franchise and turns in “I ♥ Huckabees,” “Last Chance Harvey” and HBO’s “Luck” that proved he has lost nothing by way of flawless timing, pathos and restraint over nearly half a decade.
He has a self-deprecating laugh at the directors he turned down, from Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini to Samuel Beckett, whom he stood up at a Paris bistro while he walked around the block, ruminating. He has the singular distinction of saying no to Steven Spielberg for “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “Schindler’s List,” but saying yes to “Hook.”