One passage-of-time notion perhaps even more sobering than the prospect of the counter-culture classic The Graduate (1967) celebrating its 50th anniversary later this year is that its highly unlikely leading man, the always surprising two-time Academy Award® winner Dustin Hoffman, turns 80 today. Across a half-century of acclaimed performances and occasional misfires, he has become one of the most treasured chameleon/mensch artists to become an American Film Institute Life Achievement Award winner – and yet, as a vestige of his struggling early years as a “New York actor” or a “character juvenile” (Hoffman’s oft-remarked code for “short Jew”), always felt like an outsider who would never work again after every project ended. His particular affinity for characters on the edges of society were well showcased in two screen roles that, had fate been slightly tweaked, might have gone to a fellow struggling actor also crossing into the spotlight of stardom toward the end of the 1960s. As Douglas Brode recounted in The Films of Dustin Hoffman about Lenny (1974), the film translation of Julian Barry’s hit play about the short, turbulent career of the troubled and trouble-making comedian Lenny Bruce: “Director Bob Fosse wanted Dustin desperately, so much so that at parties he would make a scene by half-jokingly falling to his knees, crawling to Dustin with his arms out, in the style of Jolson singing, begging the actor to take the part. Then, talk began to circulate that if Dustin didn’t do it, his lookalike Al Pacino would.” After initial resistance, Hoffman picked up the gauntlet and ran headlong with it to capture the truth of the comedian’s crusade to explore, as Hoffman thought: “Why can’t we use the same language on stage that we use in our daily lives?” Brode continued: “The film works as a personal expression for Hoffman as well as a created characterization, for there are some striking similarities between the two men [Hoffman and Bruce]: the offbeat sense of humor, the insecurity despite the enormous talent, the obsessive observation of people in order to create art that mirrors life, the please of being a provocateur, the ability to seduce women without being particularly handsome, the almost crippling fear of eventual failure.” It would prove tough-going for the perfectionist actor and the controlling director, but as shot in startlingly effective black-and-white by cinematographer Bruce Surtees and smartly edited by three-time Fosse collaborator Alan Heim (who would win an Oscar® for Fosse’s 1979 All That Jazz), it’s a mesmerizing cautionary tale illuminated by two courageous central performances by Hoffman and co-star Valerie Perrine as the comedian’s showgirl wife Honey. Hoffman recalls the production in conversation with Alec Baldwin after a March 27, 2015 TCM Classic Film Festival screening on the WNYC Here’s the Thing podcast found here: http://www.wnyc.org/story/dustin-hoffman-htt/.
Twenty-two years later, another stage-to-screen lead that might have been claimed by Pacino, who assayed the juicy part to critical and box-office acclaim off-Broadway, on Broadway and in London between 1980 and 1984, was offered to Hoffman when Pacino could not commit. Although it’s not placed in the top tier of his movie performances, the character of the slimy, heist-plotting petty criminal Teach in director Michael Corrente’s film of David Mamet’s acclaimed play American Buffalo (1996), whose profanely manipulative (if somewhat fractured) skills with words and schemes rivaled those of the driven and daring Bruce, although it’s perhaps inevitable that it also evokes, as resident TT essayist Julie Kirgo notes, “absolutely a Ratso Rizzo decades down the line. Pacino – who this writer was privileged to see in the role in New York in the early 1980s – was a highly strung, spitting, whirling-dervish dynamo who nevertheless retained a certain mannered beauty. Hoffman, admirably, goes to Teach’s grungy heart, giving us a deluded, motor-mouthed scuzzball who thinks of himself, in gloriously highfalutin’ terms, as a ‘businessman.’ Never mind the pasty face, the greasy slabs of hair, the nervously slitted eyes: Hoffman’s Teach dignifies himself even when no one else will, spouting half-baked words of wisdom at a mile-a-minute pace.” Indeed, as Robert Faires of The Austin Chronicle adds: “Hoffman leads the way with an aggressively kinetic performance; his Teach is perpetually on the move: pacing, sitting, standing, gesturing, picking things up, setting them down. He has to have a hand in everything, a piece of everybody's action. It’s showy stuff, but Hoffman drives it with a fire of desperation that makes it work and that gives off the smoke of a loser we can smell in every frame.” While not Corrente’s initial preference for the job, Hoffman brought a scrupulous focus to this chamber piece for three virtuoso players, which also starred Dennis Franz and Sean Nelson, and was shot in the director’s hometown of Pawtucket, RI. According to online blogger Willie Waffle’s Back Shelf Beauties: Movies You Should Rent When the New Stuff Is Gone: “Even though he was the second choice, Hoffman made the project his number one priority. Not only did he take a greatly reduced salary, Hoffman also became involved in the editing process. After seeing a first cut, he praised Corrente, but had some suggestions, sitting in the editing bay and reviewing everything. Hoffman, Franz and Nelson also amazed the community with their generosity. During filming, the three actors gave a special benefit reading of the play, which raised $15,000 for the Trinity Repertory Company” in nearby Providence. Last year, Hoffman told The Guardian interviewer Alex Needham: “I have never been, I guess, a signature actor. Certain actors have a really dominant personality – we go to see Jack Nicholson and I don’t think anyone ever went to see me, they went to see me doing a part. I always wanted to be a signature actor! I’d love to be Jack Nicholson.” Fans of the 80-year-old scrappy-outsider-turned-cinematic eminence prefer the Hoffman signature as is, with Twilight Time’s hi-def Blu-rays of American Buffalo (at an attractively collectible price) and Lenny (sold here: http://www1.screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/28533/LENNY-1974/ as solid examples.