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5 Of Dustin Hoffman's Most Underrated Performances

by Oliver Lyttelton
August 9, 2012 10:01 AM
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Dustin Hoffman 1969

There’s a certain generation of male stars who emerged in the 1960s and 1970s who signify that golden age of American cinema, starring in some of the most acclaimed films of that era while also maintaining long careers as box office draws that continue to this day. Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Robert Redford, Warren Beatty -- a line-up of actors that, for the most part, puts today’s A-listers to shame. And the unlikeliest of them all is Dustin Hoffman.

In no way a traditional-looking leading man, Hoffman broke out with “The Graduate” in 1967, and went on to star in a string of classics and fondly remembered films like “Midnight Cowboy,” “Little Big Man,” “Lenny,” “Straw Dogs,” “All The President’s Men,” “Marathon Man,” “Kramer Vs. Kramer,” “Tootsie” and “Rain Man” among others. There were a few disappointments along the way, and like some of his contemporaries, Hoffman’s edge has come off a little in more recent years -- although arguably less so than someone like De Niro or Pacino. But still, it’s hard to think of a better sort of career to have.

Hoffman turned 75 years old yesterday, an impressive milestone for a man about to make his full directorial debut on “Quartet.” Everyone has their own favorite Hoffman performance -- Ratso Rizzo, Lenny Bruce, Carl Bernstein, Tootsie, Raymond Babbitt. But to honor his birthday, we wanted to pick out a few turns that are perhaps less widely celebrated, but are just as impressive as the achievements on his more lauded work (as we did for Jack Nicholson when he reached the same milestone a few months back) Read on for our five picks.  

"Papillon" (1973)
For the most part, Dustin Hoffman has had a career that's been atypically free of ego, in terms of the choices he's made. Ok, he's had his star-driven moments (the legendarily contentious production of "Ishtar" among them), but Hoffman's always shown a willingness to play second fiddle, from following up his star-making performance in "The Graduate" with the second lead in "Midnight Cowboy" to being just one cog in an expansive ensemble like "Luck"). And one of the more undervalued examples of that is his turn in Franklin J. Schaffner's "Papillon." The title character in this case goes to Steve McQueen, in one of his best performances, as a French criminal wrongly convicted of murder, and sent to the notorious prison colony Devil's Island. There, he becomes the friend and protector of forger Louis Dega (Hoffman), and the two plan their escape together. It's admittedly old fashioned stuff ("Patton" and "Planet Of The Apes" director Schaffner was one of Hollywood's last classicists), and decidedly overlong at nearly 150 minutes, but McQueen is terrific, and Hoffman, as the tragic, bottle-glassed Dega, even better, simultaneously generously enabling his co-star, and quietly half-inching scenes away from him.

Straight Time
“Straight Time” (1978)
Based on Eddie Bunker's novel “No Beast So Fierce,” an ex-con turned crime fiction author and occasional actor (he played Mr. Blue in “Reservoir Dogs”) in many circles of cinephelia, “Straight Time” is an uncrowned jewel that doesn’t get enough love. Originally meant to be Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut, after several weeks of shooting, Hoffman realized he was in over his head by starring and directing in the same movie and he asked his friend, Belgian-born filmmaker Ulu Grosbard, to take over the movie (they met when Grosbard was directing an off-Broadway revival of Arthur Miller’s “A View from the Bridge,” and Hoffman served as stage manager and assistant director). While it nearly cost them their friendship (and did for several years), “Straight Time” is a somber, gritty and vastly underestimated thriller. Featuring an excellent supporting cast including Theresa Russell, Gary Busey, Harry Dean Stanton, M. Emmet Walsh, and Kathy Bates, Hoffman stars as Max Dembo, a lifelong thief just paroled after six long years, who's hoping to go straight, play by the rules and get a regular job. But hounded by a manipulative asshole parole officer (Walsh) who’s more than happy to throw him back in the pen at a moment’s notice, Dembo's desire to stay on the straight and narrow is severely tested every second of his newfound freedom. While he meets and woos a young girl (Russell) while job hunting and wants to start something anew with her, Dembo eventually snaps when the officer tries to pin a bullshit drug charge on him, realizing he’s simply never going to catch a break. The inevitable happens, and Dembo returns to a life of crime, eventually planning a big jewel heist with some old accomplices. Throughout, Hoffman embodies this gentle ex-con with a short fuse with effortless realism; if you didn’t know better at the time, you’d have thought the actor was simply playing himself, his natural cool and confidence is so in the pocket. There’s a lot of nice atypical texture for a convict; Dembo is a charmer, soft-spoken, empathetic, tense and nervy when crimes are going down. Simply put, “Straight Time” is criminally undervalued in every way.

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  • Margo | August 18, 2012 8:15 PMReply

    Most definitely Hook!!

  • snapinturtle | August 10, 2012 11:08 AMReply


  • RE | August 10, 2012 1:24 AMReply

    Among underrated performances I'd include DH as gangster Dutch Schultz in the film version of the EL Doctorow novel Billy Bathgate.

  • triguous | August 9, 2012 10:12 PMReply


  • Tom | August 9, 2012 5:36 PMReply

    Straight Time is an excellent film.

  • Gary | August 9, 2012 5:26 PMReply

    Papillon, All The President's Men, Straw Dogs...those are my 1...2...3

  • Fred | August 9, 2012 4:27 PMReply

    Papillon is "decidedly overlong at nearly 150 minutes" only when the deciders are those who think all films should last 90 minutes or under.

  • Scott Mendelson | August 9, 2012 2:37 PMReply

    I'd argue that Moonlight Mile is one of Hoffman's best performances of the last 15 years, period. Glad to see it made the list. Also, he is flat-out superb in the first Kung Fu Panda film. He gets an emotionally powerful arc, one that makes the film more than just terrific action sequences and suprisingly decent Jack Black comic setpieces. It's one of my favorite 'big movie star does voice over' turns in recent years. Had it not been in an animated film, the performance likely would have gotten the huzzahs it deserved.

  • Daniel | August 9, 2012 2:19 PMReply

    Also, Outbreak, Dick Tracy and Stranger than Fiction.

  • jimmiescoffee | August 9, 2012 11:13 AMReply

    'moonlight mile' disappointed me immensely when it was first released. 'i heart huckabees' and 'american buffalo' both awesome.

  • rich | August 9, 2012 11:07 AMReply

    Oh, and ALL the films you mentioned in the second paragraph.

  • rich | August 9, 2012 11:05 AMReply

    Hook. I said it too.

  • A-maN | August 9, 2012 10:46 AMReply


    'Nuff said.

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