Some like it Hoff
He spent some time at the Pasadena Playhouse and eventually met a teacher whom “everybody thought was a communist because he taught Stanislavski”. Unsurprisingly, the rebellious young man was impressed and took his mentor’s advice to move to New York, where he ended up rooming with lifetime pals Robert Duvall and Gene Hackman.
“We were very haughty in the early days,” he says. “I hung out with Bob and Gene and we were very serious about what we did. We looked at British actors and we thought they were very technical, but they had no emotion. That came from our training.”
Dustin had to drive cabs and toil in bars for 10 years before he got his big break. Ever the purist, he tried to talk Mike Nichols out of casting him in The Graduate in 1967. Now nearly 30, he was, surely, too old to play a recent graduate. He was too Jewish to convince as a preppy Wasp. Happily, Nichols rejected his advice and the movie became a smash.
Did it all go to his head?
“The truth is really the opposite,” he says. “I really should have revelled in it a bit more. But I denied it to myself. I felt badly that I didn’t deserve it. That’s why I didn’t do another movie for a year. I didn’t like movies. You don’t get to rehearse as you do in the theatre. After The Graduate, I was sent all this stuff in my age range and it wasn’t very good. So, I just focused on theatre until Midnight Cowboy came along. I’d be a bit better about that now.”
Hoffman now seems to look back on his early abrasiveness with a mixture of regret and amusement. Long in therapy, he doesn’t exactly endorse the young Hoffman’s attitudes, but he doesn’t quite reject them either. So, what about those fights with directors? It can’t have been much fun wielding a megaphone at the young Hoffman.
“It was annoying because, if I look back now, I was trying engage my skills into film-making. It’s like trying to paint a canvas on a train track. You are trying to get the painting done and the train is coming closer. You eventually have to pull the painting away before the train hits. That’s what making a movie is like. They can’t wait for you to get it right. It’s all about money.”
At any rate, Hoffman prospered in the fecund hothouse that was 1970s Hollywood. He excelled as Lenny Bruce in Lenny and as Carl Bernstein in All the President’s Men. This was a time when slightly difficult actors such as Hoffman or Hackman – men who did not look like matinee idols – could headline mainstream movies. In 1979, Kramer vs Kramer managed the unusual feat – now only accomplished by huge event pictures such as The Lord of the Rings – of winning the Best-Picture Oscar and becoming the most financially lucrative film of the year. Accepting his first Oscar for best actor, Dustin whinged about the competitive nature of the event.
“I have been critical of the Academy and with reason,” he said. “I refuse to believe that I beat Jack Lemmon, that I beat Al Pacino that I beat Peter Sellers.”
Has he softened or does he stand by those views?
“Both. I don’t think art is competitive,” he says. “That doesn’t mean we’re not competitive as people. There’s nothing wrong with that. I want to be better than the next person. In sports, somebody come in first. That shouldn’t be true in the arts. I don’t thing there’s an absolute ‘best’ in that world.”