Ready for My deMille: Profiles in Excellence -Dustin Hoffman, 1997

by Philip Berk March 9, 2020
Actor Dustin Hoffman, Golden Globe winner and Cecil B. deMille recipient

hfpa archives

Beginning in 1952 when the Cecil B. deMille Award was presented to its namesake visionary director, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association has awarded its most prestigious prize 66 times. From Walt Disney to Bette Davis, Elizabeth Taylor to Steven Spielberg and 62 others, the deMille has gone to luminaries – actors, directors, producers – who have left an indelible mark on Hollywood. Sometimes mistaken with a career achievement award, per HFPA statute, the deMille is more precisely bestowed for “outstanding contributions to the world of entertainment”. In this series, HFPA cognoscente and former president Philip Berk profiles deMille laureates through the years.

He may well be the most successful character actor of all time, and a superstar to boot, but Dustin Hoffman has always been a worrier.

He worries about his career even though he has appeared in as many great movies — The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy, Little Big Man, Lenny, Marathon Man, All the President's Men, Kramer vs. Kramer, Tootsie, Rain Man, and Wag the Dog — as any actor alive.

At the same time, he’s had run-ins with many people he’s worked with, starting with former friend director Ulu Grosbard (whom he fired during the making of their film Straight Time) all the way through Sydney Pollack (they came to blows on the set of Tootsie.) Dustin has fought with so many of his directors it’s hard to keep count. Let’s just say he’s a perfectionist.

Yet, when Hoffman was presented with the Cecil B. deMille lifetime achievement award in 1997 he was succinct, to say the least. After a heartfelt tribute from friend and costar Tom Cruise, he accepted the award with two words, “thank you,” and left the stage.

Over the years he has mellowed. When asked his favorite movie he was reluctant to name one, but he did single out Mike Nichols’ The Graduate as the best-directed movie he ever appeared in.

Yet he never made another film with Nichols! Of course, The Graduate was the film that made him an overnight sensation. Before that the had done some acting on Broadway (in New York he shared an apartment with fellow aspiring actors Gene Hackman and Robert Duvall) but it was his audition for the musical The Apple Tree (a role that went to Alan Alda) that inspired Nichols to give him the role of Benjamin Braddock that the producers had envisioned for someone like Robert Redford.

It landed him a Golden Globe as Most Promising Actor and both Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations as best actor in a comedy. 

He was nominated twice the next year in both the drama and comedy categories, first for a leading man role opposite Mia Farrow in John and Mary, and secondly for playing a gimpy misfit in the Golden Globe and Oscar-winning Midnight Cowboy, which convinced him his future lay in movies, not in the theater.

Even though he had broken the mold of the traditional romantic lead, his follow-up roles were all character parts. He played a 121-year-old man in Little Big Man, a critical success but not an award grabber. But from then on for the next 20 years, he was the most versatile superstar the screen has ever known. He tried off-beat humor with Who Is Harry Kellerman And Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? , which earned fellow Broadway actress Barbara Harris an Oscar nomination.

His two next films, working with Sam Peckinpah on Straw Dogs and Franklin J. Schaffner on Papillon, were box office successes but Lenny for which he earned his fourth Golden Globe and third Oscar nomination failed to connect with the public. Maybe the public wasn’t ready for a film about iconoclast Lenny Bruce, but Lenny was a tour de force for director Bob Fosse and received numerous Golden Globes and Oscar nominations.

He followed that acting triumph with the Watergate drama All the President’s Men, arguably the greatest political film of all-time, although neither he nor costar Robert Redford were nominated for either a Golden Globe or the Oscar. Marathon Man afforded him a chance to work with Laurence Olivier; it was a box office winner and earned him his fifth Golden Globe nomination.

Two ambitious disappointments, the aforementioned Straight Time, and Agatha with Vanessa Redgrave followed, but then he did Kramer vs Kramer, his biggest box office and critical success, which made Meryl Streep a star. Both he and Meryl won Golden Globes and Oscars for their performances and the film won every award that year as the year’s best picture.

After a three year break, he came back with another Golden Globe winner Tootsie, for which he won his first Golden Globe in the comedy category. The film went on to win major awards and is acknowledged today as a classic. As a follow-up, he chose to play Willie Loman in the TV version of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, not a congenial collaboration, but nonetheless, it won him a Golden Globe and the Emmy as best actor in a TV film.

He joined Warren Beatty and Elaine May in the costly failure Ishtar, which he still happens to love, but few agree with him. His follow up role in Rain Man earned him his second Golden Globe as best actor in a drama and the Oscar as well. It was a huge box office success thanks in part to his costar Tom Cruise.

After that triumph, there was a lull. He enjoyed working with Sean Connery on Sidney Lumet’s Family Business; he did a comic turn for his Ishtar costar (and director) Warren Beatty in Dick Tracy. He worked again with Robert Benton on Billy Bathgate but it was no Kramer. Steven Spielberg’Hook and Stephen Frears’ Hero were no better.

Outbreak, Sleepers, American Buffalo and Mad City came and went, and all seemed lost until Barry Levinson teamed him with Robert De Niro in Wag the Dog, one of the screen’s greatest political satires, for which he was again nominated for both a Golden Globe and an Oscar.

He worked less successfully with Levinson on Sphere, and then did what were essentially guest appearances on such forgettable films as Luc Besson’s The Messenger, Moonlight Mile, and Confidence.

Supporting roles in Runaway Jury and Finding Neverland were better received, and then he gained a second wind with David O. Russell’s I Heart Huckabees and Tom Tykwer’s Perfume, the latter introduced Ben Whishaw to international audiences.

Since then he’s done voice work for the Kung Fu Panda animated movies, directed a polished TV movie, Quartet, won his final and 13th Golden Globe nomination so far, for Last Chance Harvey, was rediscovered by Noah Baumbach, who wrote The Meyerowitz Stories for him, and for which he got superb reviews but no nominations.