News and Commentary – Dustin Hoffman, The New Hollywood Years

Dustin Hoffman, one of the signature actors of the New Hollywood, turns eighty on August 8, 2017. Faithful readers of Mid Century Cinema might have noticed we have a certain fondness for this period, and Hoffman’s extraordinary run during this era neatly summarizes many of the reasons why. Hoffman appeared in a dozen films from 1967 to 1976, and those choices speak volumes about the actor and those times. First thing to notice here is that an actor acts. Hoffman was busy this period (and remained so throughout his career). Moreover, the parts he played are notable for their differences, not their similarities. Even though Hoffman was typically in the leading role in these movies, his approach was, invariably and insistently, that of a character actor (an attribute shared with his friend and fellow New Hollywood Hall-of-Famer Gene Hackman). And those performances are not only different from one another, they were ambitious. Hoffman sought out challenging parts, was eager to work with ambitious collaborators, and unafraid to take chances.  

These attributes are on display in four early films. After his enormous, unexpected success with Mike Nichol’s The Graduate (1968) –the landmark New Hollywood movie we have discussed here and here – Hoffman took his newfound movie star status . . . and sought out the role of the unwashed, sexually-ambiguous, tubercular street grifter in Midnight Cowboy (1969)—not a part, to say the least, that a typical movie star would touch; certainly not one looking to secure his place in the ranks of Hollywood’s leading men. (And he had to lobby for the role—director John Schlesinger did not see how The Graduate’s Benjamin Braddock could possibly become Ratso Rizzo. Schlesinger reluctantly agreed to a take a meeting, and was won over when a disheveled Hoffman turned up in character and took the director on a walking tour of Times Square and Hell’s Kitchen.) In Arthur Penn’s revisionist western Little Big Man (1970), Hoffman’s nineteenth century orphan-raised-by-Indians played witness to history as his character aged from 17 to 121; the following year he starred in Sam Pekinpah’s Straw Dogs, a contemporary tale of a timid American mathematician who had retreated to the English countryside with his wife (Susan George).  

Any discussion of Straw Dogs is obliged to address the question of its morality; my own view is that Straw Dogs is a deeply immoral film—something I do not say lightly. It is a film that elicited some strong reactions. For Roger Ebert, “the most offensive thing about the movie is its hypocrisy; it is totally committed to the pornography of violence, but lays on the moral outrage with a shovel”; Pauline Kael famously described it as “the first American film that is a fascist work of Art.” And we haven’t even talked about Straw Dogs' attitude towards women. (Oy, let’s not.) To take this back to Hoffman, however, his willingness to play the weak, pathetic, compromised David Sumner not only further displays his remarkable range, it illustrates that desire to embrace risk, seek new ground, and see how far out on a limb one can crawl. And if you are going to do that, sometimes you are going to go too far. Which we have to accept as the price for such daring—a touchstone of the seventies film, less in favor today, when those seeking a mass audience shy away from the slightest prospect of giving offense.   

From these early years, also worth noting are Peter Yates’ John and Mary (1969), a minor key rumination on the challenges of forging relationships in world where social conventions have radically changed (sex first, talk later), and the fascinating if ragged Who is Harry Kellerman and Why is he Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? (1971), a loose, somewhat experimental film with some fine moments and marvelous Big Apple location work in which Hoffman plays a self-loathing rock star. Moving later into the New Hollywood years, as Hoffman was more prominent, certainly the pictures became larger as well—but the diversity of the performances continued: opposite Steve McQueen in Papillion (1973), channeling Lenny Bruce in Lenny (1974), indelibly Carl Bernstein in All the President’s Men (1976), and re-teaming with director Schlesinger alongside Laurence Olivier and seventies stalwart Roy Scheider for Marathon Man (1976).  Of these, the daring Lenny (directed by Bob Fosse and shot by Bruce Surtees) and Pakula’s inspired President’s Men (produced by co-star Redford and shot by Gordon Willis) remain essential.

So let’s dust off Hoffman’s chair for his place in the New Hollywood pantheon. And with distinction, for passing the Neil Young test of what one does with fame. (After Harvest became a mega-hit Young followed up with the willfully non-commercial music-to-slit-your-wrists-by masterpieces On the Beach and Tonight’s the Night.) In a similar spirit, Hoffman had no film credits in 1975. Instead, on top of the movie world, he developed and then directed the Broadway production of All Over Town, which played for seven months at the Booth Theater.

 

The Graduate

The Graduate

 

Cowboy

Midnight Cowboy

 

Harry

Who is Harry Kellerman . . . ?

 

Lenny

Lenny

 

ATPM

 All the President's Men