Dustin Hoffman turns eighty on 8 August and the BFI Southbank is marking the birthday of one of America’s finest actors with a glorious retrospective throughout June and July. This Summer marks a double celebration, as The Graduate – directed by Mike Nichols and starring Hoffman in his breakthrough role – was first released in 1967. The fiftieth anniversary brings a new 4K restoration by Studio Canal, screening for two weeks from 23 June, followed by release on DVD, Blu-ray and digital download on 24 July.
In The Graduate, Hoffman forged an unforgettable new vision of the leading man in American cinema. Benjamin Braddock is a young college graduate adrift in Los Angeles suburban luxury, willingly seduced by Mrs Robinson (Anne Bancroft) and besotted with her daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross). Hoffman and director Nichols showed the world that this unconventional-looking, intense and immensely talented actor could beguile and enthral on-screen love-interests and audiences alike. It was Nichols who persuaded a doubtful Hoffman that he was a good fit to play Benjamin (a role for which Robert Redford was also considered, being tall and blond like the character in the original book by Charles Webb), by suggesting to the California-born Hoffman that perhaps Benjamin was ‘Jewish on the inside’.
Raised in a secular family, Hoffman was not brought up as Jewish and moved home frequently due to his father’s job as a furniture salesman (proving a useful reference point for the actor’s 1985 performance as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman). He became more aware of his Jewish identity as he grew up and was on the receiving end of antisemitic slurs. Members of Hoffman’s family derided his decision to become an actor, telling him he was too ugly and he would never make a success of it. And so we can perhaps understand why Hoffman has called the screen-test for The Graduate ‘a Jewish nightmare’, for he could not fathom that Nichols would connect him with someone as beautiful as co-star Katharine Ross. The casting choice was followed by hours spent in hair and make-up, shading, plucking and dressing the 30-year-old actor into a more conventionally handsome figure. But Hoffman as Benjamin was a hit, and buoyed by the soundtrack by Simon and Garfunkel, The Graduate captured the spirit of the late 1960s and was an instant classic.
The success of The Graduate was a surprise most of all to Hoffman himself, who describes how he ‘plummeted to stardom’: he felt unease at being thrown into the spotlight in Hollywood, a world away from the stage in New York where he had made his home as a struggling actor. When Hoffman cut his teeth on the stage, he was placed squarely in the ‘ethnic’ and ‘character’ categories by casting agents, and once in demand after The Graduate, he was determined not to be pigeon-holed. He refused to sign a six-picture studio contract and continued to choose roles carefully, relishing the challenges which enable him to develop his craft.
Highlights of the programme at the BFI Southbank demonstrate the actor’s staggering versatility. He followed up The Graduate with Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger, 1969), playing Enrico “Ratso” Rizzo, a seedy, limping hustler working the streets of New York, paired with Jon Voight (who stands almost a foot taller than diminutive Hoffman). Midnight Cowboy’s most memorable line sprung from a moment of inspired ad-libbing: “I’m walking here!” shouts Rizzo to a cab driver who dares attempt to cross his path; an unplanned interruption which reveals Hoffman’s talent for improvisation.
Hoffman was acclaimed for his embodiment of the strung-out, chaotic comedian Lenny Bruce in biopic Lenny (Bob Fosse, 1974). All the President’s Men (Alan Pakula, 1976) brought Hoffman together with Robert Redford in the adaptation of the Watergate scandal, playing the journalists at the Washington Post who broke the story. Here too, Hoffman’s knack for improvisation brings vitality and excitement, contributing to the film’s status as a classic American political thriller.
Hoffman again worked with Schlesinger in the disturbing Marathon Man (1976), in the role of an athletic graduate embroiled in a Nazi hunt opposite Lawrence Oliver. In Kramer vs Kramer (Robert Benton, 1979), Hoffman’s performance as overwrought, loving father, and husband to Meryl Streep’s Joanna earned him an Academy Award. The 1980s saw further success with the ground-breaking comedy Tootsie (Sydney Pollack, 1982); and Rain Man (Barry Levinson, 1988), which brought Hoffman his second Academy Award for his portrayal of an autistic man, alongside Tom Cruise. More recently, Hoffman has directed Quartet (2012) starring Maggie Smith, Billy Connolly and Michael Gambon.
While his turn as Bernie Focker (alongside Barbara Streisand as his sex-therapist wife and Ben Stiller as his son) in the outlandish Meet the Fockers (Jay Loach, 2004) has not made it in to the BFI’s retrospective, it is worth noting his aptitude for comedy and willingness in the latter stages of his career to embrace such a stereotypical Jewish character.
Justin Johnson, lead programmer of the BFI Dustin Hoffman season, acknowledges the impact which Hoffman has had on film culture, saying ‘he’s a master at displaying vulnerability on screen and for playing a kind of anti-hero, subverting the leading man role of the 1950’s and most of the ‘60’s’. Furthermore, considering Hoffman’s contribution to Jewish culture, as a lead actor working often with Jewish directors (such as Nichols, Schlesinger, Pakula, Pollack and Levinson), he has been instrumental in challenging and broadening notions of Jewish masculinity on screen. Certainly cause for celebration.
All The President’s Men, 1976 (BFI Southbank)
Lenny, 1974 (BFI Southbank)
Midnight Cowboy, 1969 (BFI Southbank)
Papillon, 1973 (BFI Southbank)
Straw Dogs, 1971 (BFI Southbank)
The Graduate, 1968 (BFI Southbank)