When young Dustin Hoffman took off for Manhattan to become an actor in the 1960s, he crashed at the broken-down, bathtub-in-the-kitchen apartment of his buddy Gene Hackman. They botched a few auditions, palled around with Bobby Duvall, and then became two of the most respected actors of their generation. In 40 years of work, the friends have never shared screen time. That is, until ”Runaway Jury,” based on a John Grisham courtroom drama about a slippery duo (John Cusack and Rachel Weisz) who try to rig the outcome of a case. Hoffman’s a moral lawyer desperate to win; Hackman’s the one out to gut him. On set in the heart of New Orleans, the two-time Oscar winners swap laughs as they ready for their top-dog/underdog face-off at a urinal. (The back-and-forth was added after it was realized that they didn’t share a scene in the original script.) Which reminds Hoffman – dapper in legal tweeds, distracter of cast and crew – of a good story: The Time Gene Got Fired From ”The Graduate” (though only seven years older than Hoffman, he was to play Mr. Robinson). ”We were rehearsing, and we went to the bathroom – there were, like, 12 urinals. We were both peeing and he looked at me and said, ‘I’m getting fired today.’ I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ He said, ‘I’m getting fired today, I know it.’ And he did. And Warren Beatty found out and hired him for ‘Bonnie and Clyde.’ Made his career.” They’ve both been doing just fine ever since. Here Hackman, 73, picks his five favorite Hoffman performances, and Hoffman, 66, returns the favor.
HACKMAN ON HOFFMAN
MIDNIGHT COWBOY (1969)
Hoffman’s second Oscar nomination (after ”The Graduate”); he played hobbled, decaying Ratso Rizzo, who befriends wannabe hustler Joe Buck (Jon Voight) on the cold Manhattan streets.
”I suppose because of Dusty’s ‘aura’ or whatever, or his physique and the way he looks, he was able to take on these very broad characters that people just weren’t doing. Dusty could make it believable and yet almost bigger than life. I don’t know if we’d ever seen anybody like that in the streets of New York – that bold and that nasty-looking. I liked the ”I’m WALKING here!” moment. That really struck home, because New Yorkers are kind of like that: ‘Hey, this is my property as long as I’m walking on it here.’ That picture [could have been] written for him.”
Hoffman’s portrayal of incendiary ’60s comic Lenny Bruce won another nomination.
”Early on, when Dusty and I were together in New York, I always thought that his genius lay in comedy. Although he hasn’t done a lot of comedies, he has a real comic humor. I mean hostile – really biting – but very, very funny.”
KRAMER VS. KRAMER (1979)
Hoffman plays a freshly divorced man who must learn to care for his son – and later fight for custody of him with wife Meryl Streep; the role got him his first Oscar.
”I like the sensitivities that he had with the kid. The scene with the little boy when he’s cooking him breakfast is just kind of wonderful. A lot of good scenes of him with Streep, of the terrible thing that some of us have been through, separation and all that. I think it’s fairly close to who Dusty is. Smart, smart guy. Caring. When you think of ‘Kramer vs. Kramer’ and ‘Midnight Cowboy,’ the difference in those two characters is amazing.”
Hoffman tweaks his persnickety persona as an actor who dodges his perfectionist rep by going drag – landing a female role on a soap opera. The result: another nomination.
”Who else could have done that? I was talking to him the other day about ‘Tootsie.’ What a brave thing it was to do. He says, ‘Aw, you could have done that.’ No. There’s no way in the world I would have touched that character. Yeah, I love ‘Tootsie.’ I watch it every year and a half or two years. Knowing Dusty, he was very involved in everything. He doesn’t leave anything to chance. Early days in New York, he’d memorize whole comedy albums to do when we were having little Greenwich Village parties. [With characters he’d get] totally engrossed. Unlivable with.”
RAIN MAN (1988)
Hoffman won his second Oscar as the autistic, ”People’s Court”-loving brother of Tom Cruise.
”He could have been totally disgraced with that. A lot of times the reason people fail when they do a broad character is they’re afraid of it and don’t commit to it. In ‘Rain Man,’ he totally committed and you absolutely believed it. It’s supported very well by Tom, too. I’m sure Tom would not like to think of himself as supporting, but in effect I think he was. I was really pleased that Dusty won the Oscar for that. I was sitting right across the aisle from him; I’d been nominated for ‘Mississippi Burning.’ I knew he was going to win it.”