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The distance between Mia and Dustin was apparent during the first few days of location shooting for John & Mary. Between interminable rehearsals and takes at an East Side "singles" eatery called Maxwell's Plum, Hoffman hied himself off to mumble inconsequentially with the bit players and extras clustered around the bar. Mia sat tensely at the table that was the focus of the sequence, fiddling with a fork, making conversation with two other actors, and once breaking into a high, put-on Southern accent. The few times that Hoffman lingered at the table to make a time-killing joke, he addressed it to the table at large, not to Mia; except when the action called for it, he never even looked at her. Obviously—and very tentatively—they were getting to know each other, sizing each other up both in the plot and in reality.
Go Inside Yourself
At first, Dustin comes on all of a heap. His stance is simian, his face an objet trouvé. The hair is from a thatched roof in Cambodia, the nose and chin from a 1948 Chevrolet, the hooded eyes from a stuffed hawk. Even the voice seems assembled, an oboe with postnasal drip. It all appears a shambles—until it begins to work, stunning audiences with articulate force. His current comedy, Jimmy Shine, is a mere vaudeville of the absurd. But within it is the vortical power of Dustin, pulling in the laughs, the cast and the audience. He growls like Durante, drones like W. C. Fields, shambles like Groucho Marx, and dances like a good-natured puppy. Yet the elements are his own—so much so that other performers are already copying them.
The surprise is Hoffman's secret: it is because no one expects him to be adequate that he excels. From the beginning, he has been the Chaplinesque figure who makes progress through a series of falls. In his favorite posture, looking backward, Hoffman recalled his circular route from Los Angeles to New York in a series of interviews with TIME Reporter Carey Winfrey. Hoffman's father was a furniture designer, middle-class and Jewish. His mother was a movie fan and named him after Dustin Farnum, the silent-screen cowboy (his older brother is Ronald, for Colman). The game of the name made Hoffman a loser from childhood. "I always used to wish there was another Dustin in class," he recalls. "When you're poked fun at—they used to call me 'Dustbin'—you either go inside yourself or become a clown. In seventh grade, I played Tiny Tim because I was the shortest kid in the class. Because a ninth-grader dared me, in front of all the parents at the Christmas show, I said: 'God bless us every one, Goddammit.' I got suspended for that. In high school, the other guys had hair on their chests and played football. I played tennis, had a big nose and acne so bad my face looked like a rifle range."
It was only after a thoroughly unproductive year at Santa Monica City College that he decided to jettison ambitions to become a doctor and impulsively enrolled in an acting course at the Pasadena Playhouse. After a sketch in which he played an old man, his instructor took him aside and said, "Dusty, it may take you a long time—ten or 15 years—but you are going to have a life in the theater." Recalls Hoffman, ruefully: "He was sure right about how long it would take."