Little Big Man

As the seething center of HBO’s Luck, Dustin Hoffman has made a career of unlikely wagers

Illustration by Andre Carrilho

I shrunk,” Dustin Hoffman announces in the opening episode of Luck, which is concluding its first season on HBO. Out of prison after three years and putting on a tie for the first time since, Chester Bern-stein notices that now his collars are too loose. Bernstein is called “Ace,” presumably because he gives the impression of having one up his sleeve; the less he says, the more authority he exudes and the more inexorable his machinations feel, even as we have little idea what they are other than that they involve avenging the fall he took on his way to jail. Only the curl of a smile and the wheels turning in his eyes seem to separate Ace from Hoffman’s autistic savant in 1988’s Rain Man. Ace walks with the same determined shuffle as Raymond, driven by a purpose we don’t yet know, but whereas Raymond is a mass of behavioral idiosyncrasies, Ace is a man of banked secrets whose revelations startle us. We’re well into Luck before he has a conversation with his parole officer about seeing Miles Davis perform in 1958 and what it meant to him; we haven’t heard a note of music in Ace’s hotel suite or on the car radio. In another show this might be a flaw of the writing, but Hoffman is good enough to convince us Ace’s passions really are that private, or that he’s read the parole officer so astutely as to have found his private passion.

For most of Luck Hoffman plays to his size, his actions and responses and gestures as small as he is. This is particularly noticeable in someone whose performances have been larger than life from the beginning, even when he was one of life’s discards in Midnight Cowboy or the socially inept virgin with the useless college degree in The Graduate. A barely known off-Broadway actor in 1967, Hoffman was cast as Benjamin Braddock when director Mike Nichols decided his other candidates, Warren Beatty and Robert Redford, were incapable of conveying insecurity about the opposite sex; Hoffman’s fumbling audition with love interest Katharine Ross was exactly what nailed the role. If the nouvelle vague camerawork and Simon & Garfunkel soundtrack of The Graduate hinted to the ’60s generation that this was the first Hollywood movie for them, Hoffman’s awkward, alienated hero confirmed it. The impact of The Graduate—as totemic to its decade as Rebel Without a Cause was to the decade before—is almost impossible to overstate, and by the lights of Hollywood, Hoffman’s subsequent stardom was no less radical, upending audiences’ notions of what a romantic lead could be. By comparison, the once unconventional Humphrey Bogart looked like Cary Grant.

If you’re someone for whom The Graduate meant so much on its release and you haven’t seen it since, you might want to leave it that way. The film now appears dated and smug, and Hoffman’s career—marked by performances that hover between constricted anxiety and explosive release—is the only thing that’s lived up to the movie’s mythos. Hoffman was one of the three American male stars to define the ’70s, and while his résumé is bereft of a single portrait that casts over film history the long shadow of Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone, and though his screen personality didn’t imprint itself on the culture like Jack Nicholson’s, Hoffman proved the most versatile of the trio, burning through the decade to nearly grandstanding effect in Little Big Man, Straw Dogs, Lenny, All the President’s Men, Marathon Man, and Kramer vs. Kramer. As Nicholson and Pacino ran out of steam in the ’80s, Hoffman hit his stride with an acclaimed reinvention of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman; Rain Man, in which he was overrated enough (Tom Cruise is better) to win a second Academy Award; and his screwball masterpiece, Tootsie. Hoffman’s turn in that film is one of the classic comedic performances: He took his biggest risks, satirized his own neuroticism as a Method actor (“I was a stand-up tomato….! I did the best tomato, the best cucumber—I did an endive salad that knocked the critics on their ass!”), and gave every indication of surprising himself by what he learned.

/ / / /

Hoffman never expected to be a star. He aspired to be the working character actor that he is in Luck. What Vanity Fair would have been if Thackeray had written about a racetrack, Luck and its sprawling tableau are the creation of David Milch, who also wrote Deadwood. The series is a slow burner, its fuse winding along so leisurely through the milieu of trainers and jockeys and gamblers that by the time it reaches its end, you may not be certain anything actually blew up. With Milch writing and Michael Mann (Heat, The Insider, The Last of the Mohicans) directing, the combined temperament and ego are nearly more than Santa Anita can contain without even taking into account Hoffman, whose own perfectionism is such the irresistible stuff of legend that everyone would love to believe it even if it weren’t true. Doing his best work in 30 years, Hoffman in Luck recalls the great lost Dustin Hoffman performance in Straight Time, a small and forgotten late-’70s picture that begins just as Luck does, with Hoffman’s release from jail. Straight Time is Hoffman’s scariest performance, more convincing in its lurking murderousness than you ever thought Hoffman capable of; Straight Time’s young con has a hair-trigger rage that coexists with the same inscrutability of Ace Bernstein. It’s not hard to imagine that, three-and-a-half decades ago, Ace had the same rage and that it’s now only a trigger with the safety on.

With hindsight what’s clear is how much of Hoffman’s DNA as an actor already was on display in his breakthrough 45 years ago. The last few moments of The Graduate are the movie’s most interesting: In an exhilarating outburst, Hoffman has abducted Katharine Ross from her wedding no sooner than she’s said “I do.” At the back of their getaway bus, however, exhilaration dissipates and a stunned dismay seeps into the scene. What happens in the days, weeks, months, years after a movie’s happy ending? These final seconds in The Graduate weren’t planned; rather, director Nichols happened to leave the camera running without calling “Cut!,” then decided to leave in the film what the camera caught: the future. This couple is going to get as far as the end of the bus line and then get off, look at each other, and realize there’s no “I do” for them because they’ve already thrown all of life’s I-do’s into question. Just as Benjamin’s rebellion distilled the spirit of the time, Hoffman’s existential sense of failure as an actor anticipated what would come later; Hoffman’s performances have not only chronicled the life of a generation but anticipated its empty aftermath. Ace Bernstein is at the end of his line, too, and making the best of it by virtue of style, meticulousness, and a code we wouldn’t know he has if he didn’t openly regret having gotten someone killed that he never meant to. Not all of the subplots in Luck are created equal, and when the others exhaust themselves Hoffman is left commanding the screen even when he’s not on it. He may have changed what a movie star can be, but stars remain stars for a reason, including the accidental ones.