One of my first memories of “Tootsie” was as a Best Picture Oscar nominee against “Gandhi” and the Reese’s Pieces creature, E.T. What a line-up – a cross-dresser, a pacifist activist and an alien. I was eleven. Doesn’t take a genius then to guess where I put my vote. But of all the Oscar contenders of that year, 1982, “Tootsie” is the one I still revisit each year, usually during eggnog season. The movie, like the Christmas holidays, has a way of smoothing out the edges of the male ego.
“Tootsie” is happy to incorporate a generalization or two to make that mysterious world of acting more familiar. Directors are condescending or demanding and actors some unfortunate soup of neurotic and egocentric. And struggling. Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman) admits that much himself, and delivers the hard truth to a group of acting students in an opening montage of rehearsals and auditions that could be called, “An Actor’s Life.”
“You got 90 percent – 95 percent unemployment, right? It’s never going to change. You’re an actor. You’re in New York City. There is no work. But you got to find ways to work.”
And he does, waiting tables with aspiring playwright and flatmate Jeff (a superbly droll Bill Murray). But there’s another problem. No one wants to work with Michael. He’s a good actor, maybe even great, but a frustrating stickler for his craft to the point where the employment well has run dry. His agent George Fields (a great turn by director Sydney Pollack) tells him point blank. “You got one of the worst reputations in this town, Michael. Nobody will hire you.”
So motivates the transformation into womanhood and one of the decade’s most recognized movie entrances. In big hair and big specs, stumbling in heels on that Manhattan sidewalk, Michael Dorsey has become Dorothy Michaels, a peppery-sweet character actress with a feminist tilt. As Dorothy, he lands the role of hospital administrator on a popular daytime soap opera, aided by some tough talk for the show’s chauvinist director (Dabney Coleman). Fame soon follows. But no gender-switching movie is complete without complications, not just in matters of wig setting and knowing which dress styles flatter versus “make me look too hippy,” but in love. No sooner does Michael begin a neglectful relationship with actress-friend Sandy (Teri Garr) than he falls for his television co-star Julie Nichols (Jessica Lange), is fallen in love with by Julie’s widower dad, Les (Charles Durning), and lusted after by soap veteran John Van Horn (George Gaynes). It’s a house of cards that has to fall in the end, but not without a valuable lesson for its architect.
If you have 80 minutes to spare, treat yourself to the Dustin Hoffman episode of Inside the Actors Studio. This is a cable television program where artists, actors and directors speak of their careers and craft to students of New York’s Actors Studio Drama School. To anyone who knows his reputation as an actor, you won’t be surprised to hear from the horse’s mouth that the troublesome Dorsey is a caricature of Hoffman himself, at least in regards to certain ideas about acting (he doesn’t go into detail). There’s a funny bit in the program where, after screening a clip of Michael’s confrontation with his agent (the famous “illogical tomato” scene in the film), Hoffman defends an actor’s need to ask “What kind of tomato are you?”, to get specific about one’s character before playing a role. Interesting insight into both Hoffman and Dorsey (In case of confusion, break glass…then watch the above footage.).
In its day, “Tootsie” was a bonafide critical and commercial hit. Second at the box-office only behind “E.T.”, it’s claimed acting, directing and screenwriting honors from the National Society of Film Critics and the New York Film Critics Circle, Golden Globes for Hoffman and Lange and entry into the National Film Registry. More importantly, there was no Burger King spin-offs, Tootsie-fries or whatnot. To account for the film’s success though is to congratulate every part of the production, from pitch-perfect supporting performances and the chart-topping single “It Might Be You” to Larry Gelbart (TVs “M*A*S*H”) and Murray Schisgal’s (“Luv”) smart, snappy script. But I think the movie’s staying power points to a balance of emotions over just straight laughs, something that man-as-woman films such as “Mrs. Doubtfire” struggle to do. Supercharged scenes like Robin Williams tango-ing with a vacuum to Aerosmith’s “Dude Looks Like a Lady” inflate the giddyness to a point where it can’t easily pull off those tender moments, even when it wants to. Because “Tootsie” is less bombastic, it makes for a more even shift from comedy to light drama. Dorothy and Julie need these softer moments to develop their friendship and Michael needs them to fall in love. The scene where Dorothy spends the weekend at the Nichols family ranch helps flavor both.
Hoffman of course, is the standout in the film. It’s Michael/Dorothy’s story after all and one of them appears in every scene, Michael lying to protect his secret and Dorothy championing more self-dignified behavior. As actors sometimes do, Michael is eventually influenced by the character he plays, but it might be too late. Deception has a way of burning bridges. My favorite “Tootsie” moment, and line, comes in the final scene. The charade ended (and rather publically), Michael finally comes clean about his feelings for Julie. More subtle than Jerry Maguire’s heart-thumping all-eggs-in-one-basket approach, still, it resonates.
“I was a better man with you as a woman than I ever was with a woman as a man,” he tells her.
Way to go Michael. You may get the girl yet.
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