Sunday, January 14, 2007

Dustin Hoffman’s Birthday Bash 07.17.00

“Oh no, it's completely baked.”

Our Birthday Bashes put a nice spin on the whole gift-giving ritual. You walk in empty handed and leave with some of the greatest films on earth because, at our party, it's the honoree who's giving out the presents.

On top of innumerable accolades for his impressive body of work, Dustin Hoffman has been nominated seven times for the Best Actor Oscar. Of course, there’s The Graduate, Tootsie and Rain Man. You’re likely hip to Midnight Cowboy, Marathon Man and All the President’s Men. You’re even familiar with Papillon and Lenny, although it’s probably been awhile since you’ve seen them.

However, in his sixty-three years on this planet, Hoffman has also given us some quieter performances in smaller films that may have slipped through the cracks, undetected. On Hoffman’s birthday, we celebrate with a quintet of his unsung cinema.

Little Big Man (1970)
Almost two decades before Kevin Costner danced with wolves in his New Agified version of the Sioux Wars, Dustin Hoffman was raised by Indians in this hilarious -- and brutal -- Calder Willingham adaptation of Thomas Berger’s novel, directed by Arthur Penn. Hoffman is Jack Crabb, a 100-year-old former gunslinger, who tells the story, in flashback, of his life as an Indian, watching his bride slain by George Armstrong Custer and ultimately becoming a scout for the genocidal general.

Straw Dogs (1971)
The Peckinpah film that defines a Peckinpah film, Straw Dogs is a difficult, painful character study of a mild-mannered mathematician, Hoffman, whose limits are completely and utterly put to the test when he and his family are bullied by locals. Pushed to the breaking point by his wife’s rape, the pacifist snaps with horrifying violence. Simply put, “In the eyes of every coward burns a straw dog.”

Ishtar (1987)
This much-maligned comedy is the victim of an anti-hype feeding frenzy that buried the film at the box-office, railroaded Elaine May’s career for several years to come and nearly bankrupted a studio. Unfair. The camaraderie between Hoffman and Warren Beatty, two horrendous songwriters, is magical. The first forty-five minutes of Ishtar are among the funniest moments ever committed to celluloid, as funny as the Bing and Bob road movies it emulates. Sure, the film meanders after that, but it always finds its funny compass pointing north.

American Buffalo (1996)
A Big Screen adaptation of the David Mamet play, American Buffalo was released theatrically only to a few art houses before being squirreled away on video rental shelves. Indeed more of a play than cinema, this caper film nonetheless features Mamet’s electric dialogue and the powerhouse performances from Hoffman, Dennis Franz and young Sean Nelson, three lowlifes who work at a neighborhood junk store and plot the theft of a stash of buffalo nickels.

Wag the Dog (1997)
Hoffman stars as a Hollywood producer who, in cahoots with spin doctor Robert De Niro, fabricates a war to take the heat out of a presidential sex scandal. A terrific satire from director Barry Levinson, Wag the Dog eerily predates the Lewinsky scandal by a year.

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