Oscar Actors: Hoffman, Dustin

Until recently, mainstream roles rooted in dominant culture had better chances to receive Academy recognition than rebellious or anti-establishment roles.

Take Dustin Hoffman’s career, with its seven nominations and two Oscars. Hoffman received his first nomination for The Graduate, as the college graduate who violates sexual mores and has simultaneous affairs with both mother and daughter, then rejects the predatory older woman and the bourgeois lifestyle of his parents.

Hoffman’s second nomination, in Midnight Cowboy, was for playing Ratso, a drifter-outcast living at the margins of society. For his portrait of Lenny Bruce, Hoffman received a third nomination, though embodying the foulmouthed comedian almost guaranteed he would not get the Oscar. Hoffman continued to play other counter-cultural roles, such as Papillon, as a prisoner on Devil’s Island, and Straw Dogs, for which he was not nominated.

It was only when Hoffman was cast in a mainstream role in Kramer vs. Kramer, as a self-absorbed executive who’s forced to learn how to become an affectionate and responsible father, that he won a long overdue Oscar.

For years, Hoffman was critical of the Oscar, which made him, along with other reasons, one of Hollywood’s enfant terrible. However, when polls predicted his likelihood to win for Kramer vs. Kramer, Hoffman mellowed his public utterances and also decided to attend the show. Gradually, Hoffman incorporated himself into–and was coopted by–mainstream Hollywood, along with other Hollywood “rebels,” such as Jane Fonda and Barbra Streisand.

Anti-Hollywood and anti-establishment players are now all good citizens, abiding by the Academy and the industry rules. Their dissenting voices seem weaker and fewer, perhaps based on the realization that “rebelliousness” might have damaging effects on their careers and on their popularity.

The 1980s and 1990s generation of stars, which includes Meryl Streep, Sissy Spacek, Sally Field, William Hurt, Tom Hanks, and Tom Cruise, have been “obedient” from the start, avoiding at all costs attacking Hollywood or the Academy. They either believe in the system or understand that to exercise power in Hollywood and win Oscars, they have to play by the rules of the game!