Top Picks: 5 Dustin Hoffman Movies

Dustin Hoffman turns 80 on August 8. The iconic actor is one of my very favorites, and he's still going strong. In recent years he's successfully tried his hand at directing (featuring a British cast to die for) with Quartet, and he's done memorable vocal work as a sage old Kung Fu master in the consistently excellent Kung-Fu Panda animation franchise. Meanwhile his career in front of the camera continues: we have The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) still to look forward to this year, and I, for one, can't wait. Looking back at his exceptional career, though, which movies would I most highly recommend?

For starters, let's set aside the two films that won him Oscars, Kramer vs Kramer and Rain Man. Those are obvious choices and you probably already know about them. And I already wrote about the superlative must-watch All the President's Men in a blog for co-star Robert Redford's birthday.

Let's start with his first leading role, and possibly still the best role of his career, Mike NicholsThe Graduate (1967), which earned Hoffman his first Oscar nomination. One of the most iconic movies of the 1960s and of Hoffman's career, it's a movie about a college graduate who's unsure about his next steps in life and becomes a bit lost after an affair with an older woman. (For more background on late 1960s Hollywood and this film in particular, check out the terrific book Pictures at a Revolution.)

Hoffman's next major role also earned him an Oscar nomination. He plays "Ratso" ("I'm walkin' here") Rizzo opposite Jon Voight as Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy (1969). Buck is a naive hustler who moves to New York, and Ratso is the streetwise con artist who initially fleeces him, but the two end up joining forces. Featuring one of the all-time great movie scores, it's a strange mix of sweet and sad and captures Manhattan at its very seediest.

A few years later, Hoffman was once again nominated for a biopic about groundbreaking comedian Lenny Bruce in Lenny (1974). Social critic and satirist Bruce, who died fairly young in 1966, was a cutting-edge free speech advocate who tested the bounds of censorship. He was arrested frequently for the material he presented on stage. With Bob Fosse directing, Hoffman steps seamlessly into the role. (Note to young Chicago improv comedy fans: Lenny Bruce still usually charts in the top 10 on rankings of the greatest stand-up comedians.)

Hoffman was again nominated for an Oscar (and won a Golden Globe) for his performance in Tootsie (1982). A frustrated actor, who sees his acting student go on to success while his career stalls out, resorts to disguising himself as a woman and lands a recurring role on a soap opera. While the film's script can be problematic (it sometimes seems to suggest that a man could easily solve the challenges facing women), the bold storyline tackles social issues memorably. (Pair it with Victor/Victoria for another topsy-turvy approach to sex and gender from 1982.) And young fans of American Horror Story's Jessica Lange can see her here in her early stardom.

Reviewing Hoffman's post-1980s career, I'd make a case for I [heart] Huckabees (2004). It was a little too rough-edged for mainstream audiences, but for my money it was one of the highlights of director David O. Russell's career before the Oscars started knocking on his door, and it's an example of Hoffman's risk-taking approach. Jason Schwartzman plays a poet who faces some mysteries not of the whodunnit kind but of the soul. So he enlists a husband-and-wife-pair of existential detectives (Hoffman and the wonderful Lily Tomlin). Jude Law, Mark Wahlberg, Naomi Watts and Isabella Huppert round out the exceptional cast. Weird, wacky stuff.

Of course, Hoffman has also been memorable in many other films: Dick Tracy, Finding Neverland, Marathon Man, Meet the Fockers, Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium, Stranger Than Fiction (a funny gem set in Chicago) and Wag the Dog.

And I must confess (yes, I'm duly ashamed) that there are some classic Hoffman performances I still haven't seen. Based on advice from film connoisseurs, these are at the top of my list: Death of a Salesman (TV movie), Papillon, Little Big Man, Straight Time and Straw Dogs.

What are your favorite Hoffman movies?

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