Retro Review : “Tootsie”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

No one does off-the-wall, quirky comedy like Joel and Ethan Coen and “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” is another example of that. The brothers have written and directed a wide variety of movies including crime dramas, gangster pictures, and even a remake of a John Wayne western classic. But the Coens always find their way back to their unique and peculiar brand of humor. “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” was released in 2000 and features so much of the Coen’s signature style and presentation.

The movie is a depression-era film set in rural Mississippi. It follows Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney), Pete Hogwallup (John Turturro), and Delmar O’Donnell (Tim Blake Nelson), three prisoners who escape and set out to recover a “treasure” that Everett hid after knocking off an armored car. The three come across a blind man who begins prophesying about their quest saying that they will find a fortune but not the one they seek. Pay close attention to this early scene because it does come back into play later on in the film. They take off on an adventure where they encounter backwoods relatives, a crazy sheriff, George “Babyface” Nelson, seductive river sirens, the Ku Klux Klan, and more.

This is a movie that’s truly more about the journey than the destination. There are several familiar subtext and certainly an interesting ending that deals with a couple of common Coen themes. But it’s getting to that ending that offers the most enjoyment. Also, many Coen brothers films focus on specific regions of the country as well as incorporate clever usages of language. “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” is no different. The recreation of rural Mississippi during the 1930’s is fabulous. The three travel through period-perfect small towns, swampy yet beautiful bayous, and lush green forests. The film has an amazingly authentic look to it. The heightened accents and deep south lingo help give it more of a southern tang but also injects the movie with some of it funniest moments. The brothers’ almost poetic butchering of language is such fun and is just as regionally centered as several of their other films such as “Raising Arizona”, “Fargo”, and “No Country for Old Men”.

Music plays a big role in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”. The film is filled with bluegrass, folk music, country gospel, and southern blues. One of the movies funnier turns is when the boys unwittingly create and record a smash hit song that becomes the hottest thing in the state. The song, titled “Man of Constant Sorrow”, won several awards including a Grammy. The music is spot on and adds so much to the picture. It’s clearly intended to be an important part of the storytelling and it really works regardless of whether you like that type of music or not.

The performances are strong throughout the film. Clooney really shows off his comedic side and perfectly subjects himself to the material. Nelson is great as a naive simpleton who you can’t help but love and Coen regular John Turturro is also quite good. We also get Coen favorites John Goodman as a loony one-eyed Bible salesman and Holly Hunter as Penny, Everett’s ex-wife. Ray McKinnon, one of my favorite character actors in the industry, has a small but fun role as a campaign manager and Penny’s “bona fide suitor”. Chris Thomas King, Charles Durning, Wayne Duvall, and Lee Weaver also give really good performances. The Coen’s are particular when it comes to casting and this film, like so many others, shows the benefits of that.

I’ve only scratched the surface of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”. The movie also takes humorous looks at subjects ranging from southern politics to racism. It’s sharp dialogue and wacky antics may not appeal to everyone and they do occasionally feel a little overdone. But it’s still a remarkably well-crafted and well-written film, exactly what you would expect from Joel and Ethen Coen. The film is made with the same impressive stylistic technique that we’ve seen in other Coen films yet it creates its own unique look and feel. There’s a lot going on under the surface and the movie offers plenty of laughs. Unlike most of today’s comedies, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” actually delivers.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS