He has stated that he doesn’t feel like he belongs in the world of Hollywood glamour, and yet he’s one of the great stars of the screen. Instantly recognisable by his face or his voice, enjoyable in all his film incarnations, Dustin Hoffman has made a lot of great movies, and his best roles centre on the struggle to understand identity.
Maybe it springs from that first major film performance as Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate, a role that was meant to go to some conventionally handsome actor such as Robert Redford or Warren Beatty. But the awkwardness of Hoffman made that film. It’s his sense of inner desperation at his own inability to fit in that lifts it to comedic brilliance. The strong point of his talent as an actor is that we continue to believe this idea – that Hoffman is the round peg in the square hole – even after a career spanning 43 years and two Academy Awards. How does he persuade us all that he doesn’t quite fit in, when the praise and the accolades say otherwise?
Here are three Dustin Hoffman films that incorporate the idea of the struggle to reconcile individuality with the demands of society. Personality doesn’t spring from your religion, your background, your family tree or your financial status in these films. There’s an indefinable inner quality that makes you what you are. Hoffman can either try to fit in with the status quo or joyously discard the rules, but he’s never mediocre. Nobody can make us buy the struggle to reconcile with your own unique identity as well as him because there’s no other actor quite like him.
Little Big Man (1970)
From age 10 to age 121, Jack Crabb (Hoffman) is a great character; he changes as the situation demands it, but is never less than recognisable, or less than a failure. From a hospital ward he recounts his life experiences to a recording machine, starting with the death of his parents at the hands of Pawnee Indians, and his subsequent adoption by Cheyenne. He then becomes a religious zealot, a gunslinger, a family man, a medicine man, even a mule skinner, and meets famous figures in the Wild West from Custer to Wild Bill Hickok. It wouldn’t work if Hoffman wasn’t so recognisable, and so likeable, as an actor.
Little Big Man gives us a fresh perspective on history. Everyone, not just Jack Crabb, is incompetent. Faye Dunaway plays a sex-obsessed preacher’s wife who falls into prostitution and finds having to perform every night too demanding. Crabb’s sister is mistaken for a man and can’t be taken seriously. Custer is a vainglorious idiot. And it doesn’t fall into sentimentality or tragedy about the past.
Director Arthur Penn does a great job of letting the comedy of the demands of life shine through, from all points of view. It’s a film that’s often called a revisionist Western, but it’s also a classic story of a man’s search for his place in the world. And it doesn’t offer any easy solutions as to what that place might be. Even at age 121, Crabb doesn’t know if he was white-skinned, red-skinned, missionary, or mule-skinner. He only knows that he lived a bizarre, incredible, confused life. It’s great to have him take us along for the ride.
If you can’t succeed in life as the person you are, is it possible to change? Michael Dorsey (Hoffman) is an actor who can’t get a job. He has the reputation of being too difficult to work with, so he decides to leave that reputation behind and start again – as a woman. He doesn’t make a conventionally attractive woman, but the traits Michael brings to the role he plays in a long-running soap opera as a strong, driven personality, make the character of Dorothy Michaels more of a success than Michael Dorsey ever was.
As with Little Big Man, the comedy here (and it is a very funny film) comes from the juxtaposition of expectation with reality. The director, Sydney Pollack, makes an appearance as Michael’s agent, at the end of his tether with a client who takes himself far too seriously, and it’s the seriousness on Hoffman’s face that sells Tootsie. He is so determined to work as an actor that he attempts to change himself entirely. At the end of the film we’re asked to believe that his experience of living as a woman has taught him to walk a middle ground – to incorporate characteristics of Dorothy and Michael – but I’ve always found this hard to believe.
There’s a core of stubbornness to the character that doesn’t fit either as a popular heroine or as a romantic male figure. So, like in Little Big Man, there isn’t really a resolution. Michael Dorsey is the same man underneath that dress, and that’s what I love about him. In the end, his individuality is neither male nor female. He doesn’t fit in either world. But maybe that’s okay too.
Mr Magorium’s Wonder Emporium (2007)
Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman) is stuck. She is writing a piano concerto that she can’t finish, and she works in a magical toy shop owned by Mr Magorium (Hoffman) that brings her pleasure, but doesn’t really help her to feel that she’s realising her potential. There’s not much more to the film than that – it’s a gentle exploration of how difficult it is to find your way in a world that doesn’t believe in you. Why are you special? It’s a very difficult thing to answer that question. This is a children’s film, but it deals with a really big theme in a very engaging way.
As usual with Hoffman films, age is no barrier to idiosyncrasy. The very young and very old can be fully formed personalities, and it has taken Magorium 243 years of living in exactly the way he wants to before he’s ready to die. There’s an inner contentment in his face as he tells Mahoney that her life is an occasion to which she must rise. So this time it’s not Hoffman’s character who needs to struggle to come to terms with his individuality. Mahoney must fight to find her own way of running the show.
The script is a bit confused at times, but there’s a beautiful score by Alexandre Desplat and Aaron Zigman, and some warm performances by Hoffman, Portman, and Jason Bateman in particular. It wasn’t well received critically (perhaps it’s just too childlike to appeal to everyone) but it is, at heart, a reflection on what it means to grow up and discover yourself. And that’s the greatest trial of your individuality – to be true, as an adult, to the child you once were. Mr Magorium manages this so well that he inspires and entertains us both.
It’s fascinating that Dustin Hoffman has shown viewers an arc of acceptance of individuality in his roles. From The Graduate to Kung Fu Panda, with Midnight Cowboy, Straw Dogs, Last Chance Harvey and a hundred other performances along the way, he has made films that are as uniquely interesting as he is. It’s something to do with the way he manages to put across the fact that his character might be funny to us, but is deadly serious to himself. He can be challenging and charming, belligerent and blind, and I can’t think of a better tragicomic actor for our times.
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