“I feel as if my reputation has been turned … to positive,” Dustin Hoffman said as he accepted the American Film Institute’s 27th Life Achievement Award on Thursday evening.
Though others attested to the “difficult” Dusty (and the honoree blew the whistle on himself), the palpable display of affection toward the Oscar-winning actor was the most genuine and consistent for any AFI tribute of recent note. A warm insider’s portrait of Hoffman included his tales of largesse both on and off screen, his playful sense of humor, his sincere joy for the craft and co-workers and his devotion to friends and family.
Kudo for Mimi Leder
Prior to the main attraction, both AFI director Jean Firstenberg and chairman Tom Pollock gave gung ho speeches about the organization’s activities and upcoming television special on the American actor. Filmmaker Mimi Leder was honored with the Franklin Schaffner Award presented annually to a grad of the Institute’s film school or workshops.
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There was a clear effort to make the program less solemn and put a pin in any potential pomposity for both the sake of the honoree and the crowd. Cuba Gooding, who appeared with Hoffman in “Outbreak,” brought down the house with a graphically profane and untelevisable allusion to the indigestible lengths he’d go to work with the actor again. Kathy Bates, talking of her screen debut in “Straight Time,” spoke of how she could gauge her performance by the elation on Hoffman’s face when they worked together.
Edward Norton went off script to relate a tale of meeting the actor on the set of “American Buffalo” when Norton was in L.A. to test for his first film, “Primal Fear.” “For me it was a disastrous audition,” said Norton. “He listened and asked, ‘Did they pluck the hair between your eyes to make you look prettier?’ They did! Not a good sign Hoffman replied, they did that to me on ‘The Graduate.’|” Norton went on to thank the honoree for paving the way for Norton’s generation of performers in his daring choices and in rising to the top on merit, not movie star looks.
The evening’s festivities — to be broadcast in the late spring on ABC — marked the first at-bat for vet producer George Schlatter, who managed to successfully tweak a seemingly rigid format with musical interludes, humorous bits, home movies, a no-host structure and the absence of taped testimonies from associates unable to attend. Still, the arc of the presentation was erratic, the comedy leaned inappropriately on the banal and vulgar and the myriad film clips chosen proved to be more TV friendly than appropriate for a live event.
The bumps were largely smoothed by the testimonials that were highlighted by insightful anecdotes and observations from one-time neighbor Goldie Hawn, “Midnight Cowboy” co-star Jon Voight and a hilarious recitation of a note from Meryl Streep delivered by former winner Jack Nicholson, who presented the award.
The evening was jammed with an A-list crowd repping the full compliment of Hollywood power players, unlike last year’s tribute to Robert Wise. And despite its three-hour duration, there remained a strong sense that some area of the actor’s life didn’t receive full voice, particularly from his peer performers and the directors who guided some of his most memorable work.
Hoffman accepted the prize, fumbling through thank-yous before getting into his emotional speech. He talked of his youthful anxiety and how acting erased his loneliness. He lamented hurting “the few people I have” in pursuit of the work he had done. Invoking poet Emily Dickinson, he said, “Not knowing when the dawn will come, I open the door.”
Hoffman, who received Oscars for his work on “Rain Man” and “Kramer vs. Kramer,” finished on an upbeat note, relating a story of how “Straw Dogs” screenwriter David Z. Goodman pleaded with Nobel-winning writer Isaac Singer to adapt one of his stories. Singer listened carefully and said, “You should do it. I’m a hit now!”