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The Tomato Still Won't Sit

Last weekend, Inside the Actors Studio finally featured a nonlightweight interviewee, one with more than just a few hit films and magazine covers to his name: two-time Academy Award winner Dustin Hoffman, one of the more unusual, exciting and exasperating movie stars in Hollywood. Because of Hoffman’s wealth of experience as a near-constant challenger of accepted notions of leading men, it could have been a four-hour interview instead of a two-hour job, and I was sorry to see movies like Little Big Man and Straight Time, two of his best, and Ishtar, that fascinating flop, ignored (or perhaps edited out) by host James Lipton. But it was fun watching a mumbly, devilish Hoffman swing wildly from 40-year-veteran sentimentalist to profanely funny anecdote spinner to antsy, near-trembling and onomatopoeic advocate of his profession’s more self-involved notions. At one point the only way he could describe the thrilling truth that actors look for in any given scene was to look insane and go “Oooo! Ooo!” And while we never saw Lipton directly ask Hoffman about his notoriously argumentative nature on film sets — heaven forbid a well-placed thorn should enter these lionizing stroke fests — in a roundabout way, Hoffman did address his ceaselessly rigorous approach to character, and he gave us a little insight into his comedic skills too. He defended, and persuasively I might add, the famous tomatoes-don’t-sit stance that his difficult-actor character takes with Sydney Pollack’s flummoxed agent in Tootsie, by saying that’s what actors should do: Think about everything. Am I a beefsteak? A little cherry tomato? Maybe I could roll? In Tootsie, the scene was supposed to be a parody of Hoffman’s reputation for intransigence on actorly motivation, but on Actors Studio we learned exactly why he was so hilarious in that scene: He believed what he was saying. The mark of a great actor?

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