For some reason, Judge Erich Asperschlager isn't here this week. Taking his place is the lovely (and mysterious) Judge Erica Appleblossom.
"You've got to listen to me, Michael. There are no other women
like you. You're a man!"
Tootsie—the comedy classic about a struggling actor who pretends to be a woman to get a job—is now 25 years young. Sure, the film's early-'80s style is as dated as Dustin Hoffman's shoulder pads, but what it lacks in currency it makes up for in longevity.
Facts of the Case
Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman, The Graduate) is a struggling method actor and teacher, whose abrasive personality has made him the least marketable commodity in the New York theatrical world. So when he needs work to finance a play written by his roommate Jeff (Bill Murray, Rushmore), he decides his only option is to audition as a woman named Dorothy Michaels. His/her performance so impresses the producer of "daytime drama" Southwest General she asks the sassy Southerner to join the cast. As Dorothy, Michael must learn to live in a woman's world—dealing with a lecherous costar (George Gaynes, Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment), a sexist director (Dabney Coleman, WarGames), and a terrifying array of undergarments.
Problems arise when he falls for a pretty actress named Julie (Jessica Lange, Big Fish), who sees him more as "girlfriend" than girlfriend. As Dorothy's popularity increases, has Michael's moneymaking stunt gotten too big for him to ever wear britches again?
It's been a while since I last saw Tootsie. I forgot how funny and moving it is. As a film about looking past outward appearance, Tootsie dares its audience to look past the cheap gag of Hoffman in drag to find the touching story of self-discovery beneath. On the surface, the story sounds pretty simple: dude looks like a lady and falls for a woman who doesn't know the lady is a dude. In less competent hands, it could have been a predictable one-note comedy, chock full of clothes-changing close calls and an ending where Hoffman somehow ends up on a double date with himself.
What keeps Tootsie from being an outdated drag comedy is its sparkling script, which is funny precisely because everyone plays it straight. Hoffman's struggle with maintaining his feminine identity is less about making sure his wig stays put than it is about the real-life problems women face in the workplace and in society. Though there's no danger of anyone mistaking Tootsie for a documentary, the film's core is genuine, and its characters have emotional depth.
The film's main story arc may be about a man learning how to become a better person, but Tootsie is also very much about what it means to be an actor. Drawing from personal experience, Hoffman (who worked on the story with writers Don McGuire, Larry Gelbart, and Murray Schisgal, director Sydney Pollack, and the brilliant Elaine May) uses Michael to show what it takes to survive in the harsh world of professional acting. Michael, like Hoffman, comes from a method acting background. In between (mostly disastrous) auditions, he teaches a class of young actors and works as a waiter to pay the bills. His commitment to the emotional "truth" of the characters he plays gets him in trouble, but he can't help himself. The character bears such a close resemblance to the famously committed Hoffman, it's hard at times to separate the two.
Perhaps the film's biggest strength is its seemingly bottomless well of talent in front of, and behind, the camera. Of course, Tootsie wouldn't be Tootsie without Hoffman's ability to transform into Dorothy. Though the film wants you to remember who's behind the makeup, it's just as easy to forget. In stark contrast to the shrill farce of Mrs. Doubtfire, Dorothy Michaels is as fully fleshed-out a character as her male alter ego.
Though his onscreen role as Michael's agent is small, director Sydney Pollack (Eyes Wide Shut) is arguably as important as Dustin Hoffman in making Tootsie work. Hand-picked by Hoffman, his sensitivity to character and willingness to defer to those with more comedic experience made him the perfect choice to helm this collaborative project.
The supporting cast is just as impressive. Comic actress Teri Garr (Young Frankenstein) plays Sandy, Michael's friend, student, and one-time lover. She's also the woman he ends up treating badly, even as he's learning how badly women are often treated. As Michael's playwright roommate, Bill Murray is (as always) great fun to watch. While it would be tempting to wish he had more screen time, the film has a careful balance of comedy and drama his trademark "Murray-ness" would likely have upset. Still, his inclusion is worth it for Jeff's fake-pretentious artspeak at Michael's birthday party.
The Southwest General cast features many famous faces. In one of her earliest film roles, Jessica Lange has the tough job of playing one of the few non-comedic characters. Julie is a single mom who drinks too much and has bad taste in men. Not exactly a formula for comedy gold. But her performance helps ground the story, and her scenes with Dorothy are some of the most touching in the film. On the masculine side, Dabney Coleman and George Gaynes are as delightfully brutish in their sexism as Charles Durning (The Muppet Movie)—as Julie's father, Les—is charming and sincere. Special note should be made of a certain young model's film debut (hired because she was tall enough for her breasts to be at Dustin Hoffman's eye level): Geena Davis. Oh, and a personal tip of the cap goes to my wife's uncle, Dick Wirth, who not only worked as the film's technical director, but also played the part of "Mel," Southwest General's technical director (he's the mustachioed man sitting next to Dabney Coleman in the control room).
While the acting and story remain fresh, the early-'80s fashion and music make it painfully obvious that Tootsie is a quarter-century old. Despite a certain softness and light film grain, there's not much to complain about the 2.40:1 widescreen video transfer. Colors are vibrant, with a nice tonal range. The 5.0 mix (for those playing at home, that's .1 less than most releases these days) is passable; the music is not. I'm sure the Steven Bishop hits "Tootsie" and "It Might Be You" (which get special mention in the opening credits) were cutting-edge light pop in their day, but they're pretty hard to stomach now. As in so many '80s movies, the music is more hurdle than help.
Looking at the back of the box, you'd be forgiven for thinking a mere three bonus features sounds pretty bare-bones for a 25th Anniversary release. And while the deleted scenes and Dustin Hoffman test footage are interesting, they only add up to about 10 minutes of content. Fortunately, the main extra is meaty enough to carry the set. At 68 minutes, the making-of documentary "A Better Man" takes an in-depth look at the Tootsie's collaborative production, through interviews with almost all of the principal players, and on-set footage. Hoffman and Pollack dominate the feature, eloquently describing the process of creating the characters (especially Dorothy) and script, their acting philosophies, and the film's unique approach to comedy. Garr, Lange, and Coleman all share their recollections. Bill Murray is notably absent, though Hoffman spends a good amount of time recounting how Murray got involved and what he was like on set. Sure, a commentary track would have been nice, but the documentary is so thorough it's hard to imagine what more there is to say.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Besides the dated feel of the film's presentation, Tootsie's biggest problem is in the story. For all the focus on the "truthfulness" of the characters, you can't help but ask the same question raised by other movies about men pretending to be women: No one notices? Really? Hoffman does a far better job of selling the sex change than most, yet the suspension of disbelief is somehow more noticeable because of the film's natural approach.
Tootsie's other problem is one of politics. For going out of its way to empower the female characters, Tootsie's most sensitive, strong, and empowered woman is still a guy. Not exactly a compelling argument on behalf of Women's Lib.
Tootsie is a gem of a movie that deserves to be seen by a new audience. Uniformly strong performances (including one of Dustin Hoffman's best), capable direction, and a smart script add up to a film far sweeter and funnier than its plot summary would suggest. Look past the cheesy synth-pop, America. Let Tootsie make you a better man by making you a woman who betters herself as a man. Or something like that.
Gotta go with my woman's intuition on this one: Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
• "A Better Man: The Making of Tootsie"
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