By Mark Rowland
"Dustin Hoffman! May I have your autograph?" Her hands furrow the bag for pen and pad, somehow without losing eye contact. Hoffman is smiling his famous half-smile, the one that acknowledges the absurdity of existence without passing judgment. He scribbles an inscription. "I can't believe it," the woman goes on. "This is so exciting. I love your films. I think . . . I really think," she searches for the right accolade, "I think you are the best young actor in Hollywood. "
Dustin Hoffman, 51, doesn't miss a beat. "Yeah," he says. "Young is the best part."
In some of the finest American films of the past two decades, Dustin Hoffman has metamorphosed from dying bum to ace reporter, college kid to flinty criminal, comedic genius to hack songwriter, divorced man to single woman. But for all that he also remains forever Ben, contemplating Mrs. Robinson and a career in plastics to the music of Simon and Garfunkel. THE GRADUATE (1967) launched Hoffman's career; for film fans of a certain age, something about that movie, or about Hoffman in that movie, refuses to fade with time. It is an image so inextricably linked with the youth of baby-boomers that it is as difficult for them to imagine Hoffman aging as it is to see themselves grow older. In other words, the woman in yellow has a point.
Time, however, has a way of marching on. And these days, few appear more attentive to its demands than Hoffman himself.
"There's two sides to that," says Hoffman, now sitting in a suite 12 floors above the Marquis lobby. "Yes, I try to get older as slowly as possible. If you don't smoke, if you keep your weight down, that's a big part. My father's 81 and looks good, so I hope I have good genes." He hefts a half-empty Amstel Light by way of apology. "And this is supposed to loosen me up for an interview."
But, he allows, looking young also has its liabilities. "Before I did 'Death of a Salesman' a few years ago, my friend [playwright] Murray Schisgal said to me, 'The problem you're going to have with Salesman is, you're not the father. You're the son.' I think that's true. And it's harder as an actor to be taken seriously critically when you're the 'son.' People say, 'He doesn't have the weight.' It's a reason I liked doing Salesman and STRAIGHT TIME (1978). I want to move in that direction."
There is a touch of gray on his temples, but he looks fit, his muscles tautmuch like his manner. Hoffman can be funny, knows jokes as old as the Catskills, but he's almost never flip. He speaks in a low monotone, with a near-palpable intensity more commonly associated with the raft of characters he's portrayed on-screen. These characters Hoffman chooses to inhabit exist either completely outside "conventional" society (Lenny Bruce, MIDNIGHT COWBOY's Ratso Rizzo, STRAIGHT TIME's Max Dembo) or sharply at odds with social convention (Ben, Tootsie, Kramer), and RAIN MAN is a case in point.
One result is that Hoffman, a generally loquacious presence, doesn't talk a whole lot in Rain Man, particularly in comparison with Cruise. "When they sent me the script," he says "they took it for granted I'd want the Cruise part. But I've never played someone who was legally termed 'mentally ill,' and I guess I've had a fascination with that. When I first came to New York in 1958 to study acting, I got a job at the Psychiatric Institute in New York as an attendant. I was reading One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and thinking, 'This is exactly what I'm experiencing.' I was living with [Robert] Duvall in those days, and we used to 'hold court,' that was what Bobby called it, six of us in the living room of this walk-up on 109th Street. We'd share and do impressions of our experiencesand some of those people I had down.
"Though this character isn't like any of them, it's still a chance to go back and do something familiar to me. Maybe it's like . . . you don't want to waste time. You hope that somehow before you die," he emphasizes," you can put your experiences on the canvas."
This is not very likely to happen, not at the rate Dustin Hoffman currently makes films. In the decade following THE GRADUATE, he starred or costarred in more than a dozen movies, but in the past decade he's appeared in only four, counting RAIN MAN. This figure, Hoffman points out, is a bit misleading, since he also spent two years as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman on Broadway and for video. "But I do know there's something wrong," he admits. "These next 10 years are critical. If I could do 30 pictures, I'd be very happy."
There were extending circumstances, of course: lawsuits and legal problems, film projects that never quite jelled (a cop story co-starring Sean Penn) or the ones with which he parted ways (BLADE RUNNER) over the usual 'creative differences.' "That's the way it is, you put in months on a project and nobody even hears about it." What Hoffman hears about instead is his reputation for worrying over details, arguing with directors and dragging along projects for years on end . . . for being a "perfectionist."
"I don't understand what that means," he responds with obvious exasperation.
"They never call a cameraman or a soundman a perfectionist. It's inherentyou better be or you're fired. I mean, it's like you're on the operating table and they say, 'You're gonna love this surgeonhe's a nice guy and he's not a perfectionist.' " Hoffman laughs sharply. "Well, gee, can I have a perfectionist?