Tootsie (1982) dir. Sydney Pollack
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Jessica Lange, Teri Garr, Bill Murray, Dabney Coleman
“Tootsie” is one of the all-time great comedies – a high concept comedy that only uses it’s gimmick to grab our attention. After we’re hooked the film becomes a fascinating and hilarious character-piece about gender relations. As well, we’re given an accurate glance at the absurdity and high-pressure world of daytime television.
Dustin Hoffman plays Michael Dorsey, a struggling actor whose talent is preceded by his reputation for being difficult. He puts the art of acting above his needs to eat and survive. When he absolutely can’t get a job anywhere he seizes an opportunity to audition in drag for a soap opera. Under heavy makeup, tweezed eyebrows and a frumpy dress Dorsey creates Dorothy Michaels – an ideal of independent female empowerment – the exact personality the producers of the show were looking for. He gets the job, without realizing the commitment and potential dangers of his deception.
He falls in love with his co-star Julie (a most gorgeous and young Jessica Lange) and is then courted by her father (Charles Durning). Dorsey’s has to continue the rouse in his home life as well, because he got the part over his colleague/girlfriend Sandy (Teri Garr). During this time Dorothy’s liberating and sometimes improvisational performance makes her/him a national sensation. But with the lies compounding Dorsey has to make a decision to continue with the deception or not. The result is one of all-time great filmed climaxes.
Dustin disappears into Dorothy Michaels. The film would not work if he didn’t. Though Dorothy Michaels is not a gorgeous woman, Hoffman’s southern belle voice inflections, tippy-toe walking and dainty mannerisms sell the character. The film is not gag-heavy or laugh-out-comedy, it’s situation and character-based. It’s absurdist cinema told with straight reality.
The story is screenwriting perfection personified. It’s classic formal structure that hits the right beats and the time with maximum impact. Watch how in the final act Michaels’ plans spiral out of control. The subplots with each of the supporting character merge until his final and inspiring speech during the “live” soap episode reveals himself to everyone in the world at the same time. This scene is one of the great climax because of momentum and reaction. Pollack directs the scene so well, by placing Hoffman at the top of the staircase on the studio set and has him descend as the gradually confesses his secret. And continually cuts to everyone reactions before and after the reveal which amplifies the surprise. It’s a brilliant moment.
The film was made 1982 – and many of you may remember it as a Zeitgeist year of gender-switching films. Blake Edwards’ Victor Victoria was released that year as well. Dave Grusin’s time and place music was lively in 1982, but now is almost unbearably dated. The bouncing bass and 80’s saxophone in the “Go Tootsie Go” theme song is cringe-inducing. But look beyond these peripheral elements it’s a masterpiece underneath and will shine through.
It’s the 25th Anniversary of the film and Sony has released a new DVD. There‘s a fine near-feature lengthy documentary on the making of the film from start to finish. It’s better than your average doc because the lengthy and interviews with the actors and filmmakers examine in the depth the detailed development process of crafting the film. We see the step-by-step process of how a kernel of an idea from Dustin Hoffman grew into the screenplay and the ultimate a shot and edited film. The collaborative process should be a course in filmmaking 101 for students. I highly recommend picking this up. Enjoy.
"Tootsie: 25th Anniversary" is available on DVD from Sony Picture Home Entertainment