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Kennedy Center Honors Highlights 2012
(Actor and director; born August 8, 1937, in Los Angeles, California)
If a visitor from another planet were to stumble on a trove of American movies, he might wonder at the tireless troupe of actors who have portrayed a full spectrum of humanity including everything from a pathetic homeless bum to a dashing Manhattan single, a popular soap opera diva on television and a down-on-his-luck singer in Ishtar, an innocent named Benjamin just out of college and about to be seduced, a 121-year-old Native American about to die, a young divorced parent, an autistic savant, a Washington Post reporter going after the Watergate cover-up story, and a Columbia graduate student with the Nazis after him, Meyer Lansky, Lenny Bruce, Willy Lohman and even Shakespeare's Shylock, plus Captain Hook, and the voice of Shifu in the Kung Fu Panda films for good measure. The idea that a single person could portray all these roles is of course too much. Yet that is only a fraction of Dustin Hoffman's body of work. Perhaps the most versatile, iconoclastic, and surprising of American actors, Dustin Hoffman's commitment to the roles he plays makes him a Hollywood powerhouse.
"I grew up thinking a movie star had to be like Rock Hudson or Tab Hunter," recalled Hoffman, "certainly nobody in any way like me." The thing was, there was nobody like him. There never will be. From the moment he both exploded and embodied 1960s consciousness as Benjamin Braddock in Mike Nichols' The Graduate, Dustin Hoffman has never, ever taken the obvious path. Think of the progression of his early career alone, from the melancholy alienation of The Graduate and the desperate sadness of Midnight Cowboy, the existential tension of the everyday in the underrated John and Mary, the decrepit hero of Little Big Man, the doomed prisoner in Papillon and the fast-talking proto-Lothario in the loopy and wonderful Alfredo Alfredo--could any one of these roles have hinted at the next?
What followed was, if anything, more dazzling. Of course Hoffman seemed wrong, too young, to star on Broadway in either Death of a Salesman or The Merchant of Venice. But he conquered both, adding to our collective cultural knowledge of two of drama's immortal creations and expanding the possibilities of theater itself. On screen, it would have seemed madness to put this man in comedies. And yet, the peals of laughter in Alfredo Alfredo, Hook, Meet the Fockers, and I Heart Huckabees linger long after the lights come up.
Dustin Lee Hoffman was born in Los Angeles in 1937. His mother, Lillian Gold, was a jazz pianist. His father, Harry Hoffman, was a props supervisor and set decorator at Columbia Pictures. He did not exactly excel in his studies at the Pasadena Playhouse, where he and his friend Gene Hackman jointly were voted "Least Likely to Succeed." He followed Hackman to New York, rooming with him and later with another aspiring actor, Robert Duvall, taking odd jobs that included coat-check clerk, fragrance tester, and typist for the Yellow Pages directory. Rounds of auditions were followed by small roles, a Volkswagen commercial that has now become legend, bit parts and walk-ons in the theater. Getting serious, he joined the Actors Studio and found his calling as a method actor.
The training and tenacity soon paid off, with television roles in Naked City, Hallmark Hall of Fame,and The Defenders, then with his first feature film The Tiger Makes Out in 1967 opposite Eli Wallach. In 1967, just as Hoffman was set to appear as the Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind in his neighbor Mel Brooks' first feature, The Producers, something happened that changed the course of the young actor's life. Mike Nichols, fresh off the monumental success of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was casting the role of the WASPy virgin dreamboat Benjamin Braddock in a film adaptation of Charles Webb's novel The Graduate. Warren Beatty, then Robert Redford were considered but Hoffman, cast spectacularly against type, got the role. It earned him his first Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.
More roles quickly followed. Hoffman's Actors Studio Strasberg training was perhaps best put to the test as the young actor moved from the irresistibly clean-cut Benjamin to the sickly, crippled Ratso in Midnight Cowboy, opposite Jon Voight, directed by John Schlesinger.
He got to play his age and even his looks, for once, starring opposite Mia Farrow in the misunderstood John and Mary, a 1969 picture that had more in common with the work of Antonioni or even Truffaut than anything else going on in Hollywood at the time. In 1970, Hoffman entered not just Hollywood history but also the Guinness Book of World Records by playing the widest range of any actor in history in Arthur Penn's Little Big Man. After going from playing late teens to 121 years of age, the rest was no less demanding: the ultraviolent Straw Dogs, the hilarious experimental Alfredo Alfredo, as well as Papillon, Lenny, and All the President's Men. The pairing of Hoffman with Sir Laurence Olivier in Schlesinger's Marathon Man made for not only one of the most enduring thrillers of all time but also for one of the most telling object lessons in contrasting acting styles between the emotional American method and the meticulous British technique.
From naturalism to outrageousness, whatever works and works well, that is the variety that informs this extraordinary career. In Kramer vs. Kramer, Hoffman explored the meaning of modern manhood, and received both the Oscar and the Golden Globe for his troubles. Then he challenged the borders of that manhood and the meaning of humanity in the comedy Tootsie, copping another Golden Globe. Rain Man, where he played an autistic brother to Tom Cruise in his own finest role, brought Hoffman both the Oscar and the Golden Globe. In 1999, the American Film Institute gave Dustin Hoffman its Life Achievement Award.
"I don't like the fact that I have to get older so fast," Hoffman has said. "But I like the fact that I'm aging so well." With more than 50 movies and counting, the man and his work are aging very, very well.