I was 11 years-old in 1982. During that year the main movie conversation revolved around Steven Spielberg’s intensely popular “E.T.”. A bit surprising, the second biggest movie of 1982 was “Tootsie”. Now this was prior to the advent of the PG-13 rating so my parents took me with them to see “Tootsie”. I don’t remember a single thought or impression left in my young mind, but after watching it several years later and again just recently, it is a lot easier to appreciate what “Tootsie” is going for.
I mentioned its huge box office office appeal, but “Tootsie” was generally praised by critics as well. It would go on to be nominated for a whopping 10 Academy Awards (interestingly, it would only win one – Jessica Lange, Supporting Actress). That’s a pretty big success especially for a film that went through a number of delays, director changes, and recastings.
Dustin Hoffman is the face we most associate with “Tootsie” and rightfully so, but one of the most important creative geniuses behind the film’s success was Sydney Pollack. He directed, co-produced, and gave a superb supporting performance. The script was finalized by a collective effort which featured Larry Gelbart, Murray Schisgal, and uncredited assistance from Hoffman favorite Barry Levinson and comedy great Elaine May.
But when talking about “Tootsie” you inescapably come back to Hoffman and his absurd but deeply committed two-sided performance. He plays Michael Dorsey, a talented but insufferable actor who has burned every bridge in the New York and Hollywood acting community. No one will hire him which stresses his relationship with his agent George Fields (Pollack). After months of no work and to prove his agent wrong, Michael auditions for a part in the daytime soap opera “Southwest General”. Here’s the catch – the part is for a woman.
Michael dresses up and creates the persona of Dorothy Michaels in hopes of winning the part and earning $8,000 to help finance the play of his best friend (Bill Murray). Dorothy not only wins the part but she becomes a soap opera sensation. Dabney Coleman is so good as the smug, sexist director who Dorothy constantly butts heads with. Lange plays a co-star who Michael quickly falls for, but she only knows him as Dorothy which makes for some obvious complications.
Dorothy’s popularity makes it impossible for Michael to cleanly end his charade. But at the same time Dorothy brings about some needed self-reflection. This is the heart of the story, but “Tootsie” is still a comedy. Along the the way we get all sorts of comical, pinpoint jabs at sexism particularly in show business. There is also some hilarious satire aimed at popular Soaps particularly “General Hospital”. It also gives us quirky but revealing observations on relationships. “Tootsie” is a funny movie, but its sense of humor is anchored in its surprising intelligence.
Hoffman is key. He gives 100% commitment despite the absurdity and without it the entire film would fall. He never winks at the camera. He never mugs. But the supporting cast is just as good. I mentioned Lange, Pollack, Coleman, and Murray. All are perfect fits. But I also loved George Gaynes as an air-headed veteran actor and Teri Garr is a lot of fun playing the manic and fragile Sandy. We also get good work from Charles Durning and Geena Davis in her motion picture debut.
“Tootsie” has held up surprisingly well in the 34 years since it was released. It was a tricky thing to pull off. It could have easily misfired and resulted in just another wacky comedy. But there are brains behind the film which allow it to be funny and provocative in its observations on gender roles and women’s equality. “Tootsie” manages it all very well without being too silly or too heavy-handed.