September 25, 2018

Hoffman on Hollywood, Judaism and the Holocaust

What moviegoer can forget the scene: a graduation party around a Beverly Hills swimming pool, where a callow, young graduate named Benjamin Braddock gets a little career advice — one word: “Plastics.”

Plastics have done pretty well, and the young graduate (circa 1967) even better. So well, in fact, that Dustin Hoffman — no longer callow — has joined such film legends as Elizabeth Taylor, Orson Welles, John Wayne, John Huston in receiving the American Film Institute’s prestigious Life Achievement Award.

This one is well deserved. It is difficult to think of another actor who, in one compact package, so well articulates on film the complicated, angst-ridden, ego-driven, urban, late-20th-century man. He didn’t invent the antihero, but he sure refocused him for our times.

Tom Pollock, AFI board chairman, puts it this way: “His versatility, range and uncanny ability to embody the characters he plays has amazed audiences across the globe since his arrival on the scene more than 30 years ago. Time and again, he has displayed seemingly limitless talents by taking on roles that are more challenging and distinct than the last.”

The son of a West Los Angeles furniture salesman, Hoffman was the younger brother of a good-looking, athletic, A student. (“The first time I saw ‘Death of a Salesman,'” he said, “I thought they were invading my family’s privacy.”) He dropped out of Santa Monica City College, aged 19, to attend the Pasadena Playhouse. He dumped plans to be a concert pianist and made the inevitable pilgrimage to New York, paying the rent with jobs in a mental hospital, as a waiter, dishwasher — even a janitor.

As it turned out, it was a comedy, “Eh,” in the mid-1960s that changed his fortunes forever. Mike Nichols had strolled in to see the play one night at the Circle in the Square, remembered Hoffman, and screen-tested him for “The Graduate,” a part originally written for a blond WASP. Their first call had been to Robert Redford.