Can an unemployed actor find his true calling in a slip and red sequin gown? According to director, Sydney Pollack, the answer in Tootsie (1982) is a most emphatic ‘yes’. Tootsie is a rare flower, indeed. Like Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959) it uses the proverbial ‘fish out of water’ premise of a man in drag merely as its crutch rather than the crux of its' story. Therein lays the movie’s great sincerity and its enduring legacy as a truly remarkable piece of cinema: also in Dustin Hoffman’s monumental performance – playing it ‘straight’ as it were - as the guy who reaffirms his manhood by getting in touch with his feminine side…literally!
Hoffman, who has proven his chameleon’s skin on numerous occasions and has had one of the most enviable careers in Hollywood, delivers us a bungler of life, inadequate, inept and grotesquely awkward in his own sex, yet effortlessly liberated and fortified each time he straps on the war paint and brassier. It’s a delicious transgression; the strong-minded woman who comes to understand not only the power of the feminine mystique but can also admire what it means to be a woman in the proverbial man’s world from the male point of view; Hoffman realigning this convoluted quagmire of sexual politics as witnessed from both sides of the looking glass and coming away with a far richer appreciation.
Tootsie is so rife with moments of sheer comedic brilliance and self-revelation that it catches the viewer almost by surprise. Oh sure, we’re expecting a comedy. And Larry Gelbart and Murray Schisgal’s screenplay never disappoints. But the origin of our laughs derives from the most unlikely places, rather than periodically escaping from under the wig and girdle. Tootsie strikes at the heart of virtually all male/female relationships, while tapping into our hero’s awkward desperation to fit in and grapple to understand the opposite sex on their terms. Hoffman’s struggling actor, Michael Dorsey (a.k.a. Dorothy Michaels) says it best when, in the film’s penultimate confession to costar, Jessica Lange’s Julie Nichols, he astutely points out, “I was a better man with you as a woman than I ever was as a man. I just got to learn to do it without the dress.” Therein the lesson and/or message behind Tootsie remains, remarkably hitting home for Dustin Hoffman too.
What is quite miraculous about Tootsie is Hoffman’s ability to so completely immerse us in his alter ego that somewhere along the way we can still forget this is Hoffman playing a part. George Masters’ impressive makeup can only take the actor so far. The rest of the assimilation comes entirely from within, Hoffman’s ability to get inside Dorothy Michaels transferring the best elements of his own star presence and actor’s acumen into a re-conceptualized sense of self as the unattractive female most men would find threatening to their own fragile sense of masculinity.
The die is cast early on in the Schisgal/Gelbart screenplay when Michael - as Dorothy - auditions for the part of the new hospital administrator on the popular daytime soap opera, ‘South West General’. Given the briefest and most dismissive once over by the program’s chauvinistic director, Ron Carlisle (Dabney Coleman), Hoffman's Dorothy challenges this judgment call at its face value. “Yes,” Dorothy defiantly tells Ron, “I think I know what you all want. Some gross caricature of a woman…to prove some idiotic point. Like power makes women masculine. Or masculine women are ugly. Well, shame on you and any woman that lets you do that. Shame on you – you macho shithead!”
Throughout the movie, the Schisgal/Gelbart screenplay repeatedly informs and reinforces its pro-feminist agenda, yet never becomes preachy or detracts from Tootsie’s innate entertainment value. The film's best moments help establish something greater than just another man in drag farce and confront us with our own perceptions about female attractiveness. Consider the moment from a scene within a scene, supposedly taking place on the South West General set. Dorothy deviates from the teleprompted script to respond to a battered woman's pleas. Wielding a flower pot at the wall to reference her response to any man who would raise his hands to her, Dorothy informs Ron that to tell any woman with children, no money and a ‘bashed in face’ to seek counseling is a lot of “horse shit”. In another of the film's most fondly recalled moments, Hoffman brilliantly articulates to his roommate, Jeff (Bill Murray), “I think Dorothy’s smarter than me”, catching himself in this self-revelation before falling back on “It also happens to be one of the great acting challenges of any career.”
Dustin Hoffman would later acknowledge a divining force in making Tootsie. In an interview conducted for the AFI, the actor confessed his bias to women he had found physically unappealing, a realization spoken with humility, crystalized when he first saw himself in drag. "I wouldn't date me…and I started to wonder why?" Hoffman reasoned, before adding, “That was never a comedy for me.” Indeed, Tootsie aims at loftier ambitions; its social critique of men who judge women as sex objects is fueled by Hoffman’s inspired ‘take charge’ gal with an agenda. The screenplay touches off a powder keg of issues: gender inequality, mixed messages about basic human attraction, a near rape situation, transgender confusion, and, transsexualism; hardly the expected fodder for a frothy ‘light’ romantic/comedy. At the heart of these probative explorations is Dustin Hoffman’s potent morphing into the title role. Not only does his conversion from starving actor, Michael Dorsey to popular television personality, Dorothy Michaels serve as the crux of the comedy, it also explores social issues in a palpably engaging, educational, but ultimately, entertaining way; a fascinating tightrope never breached under Sidney Pollack’s masterful direction.
Some thirty plus years after its debut, Tootsie remains as fresh and unvarnished as ever. Part of the reason is the Schisgal/Gelbart screenplay never strains for laughs. Tootsie isn’t a movie looking to fabricate ‘funny situations’ but rather unearth something quite ironic and ‘sadly’ humorous about the state of the sexes in the contemporary every day. Finding the perfect outfit to wear with an imperfect body concealed underneath, or balancing on a set of high heels is good for the thirty second chuckle. But when Dorothy speaks, her words have a naked authority that never stoops to patronize either sex. The complications arising from Dorothy really being a man in love with a woman he’s only met socially as a woman are, decidedly, the cream of the jest. Yet, the movie’s great strength lies in Dorothy’s unapologetic delivery of these more deeply felt truths, disseminated from a national platform as the new cast member of the movie’s fictional soap to her millions of adoring TV fans; also, by way of Tootsie’s potentially sobering voice for changing social mores.
Somewhere along the way, Hoffman's transformation becomes so believable we easily forget Dorothy is actually a guy wearing a push up and heavy foundation. In fact, it’s almost as shocking to the movie viewer when Hoffman’s supreme queen lets down his wig in front of South West General’s principle cast to a live TV audience no less; unraveling his hoax with a desperate confession. It’s Tootsie’s pièce de résistance, culling together all of the parallels between Hoffman's character on the soap and the part he has been forced to play in life, most detrimentally deceiving Julie and her father, Les (Charles Durning), who has come to have affections for Dorothy too. Hoffman draws on some inner intuitiveness and makes this revelation genuinely heartfelt. We feel Michael's angst and can empathize with his predicament.
We can sense his desperation at having to dissolve all the good his personal growth has achieved along the way because it has been predicated on a grand deception that cannot be allowed to go on. And we cry out to the object of Michael's affections – Julie – praying she can see through his masquerade. What began as a cruel joke for personal gain is now the greatest of sacrifices made by one man for the only person he truly loves better than himself. The old cliché, that if you can fake sincerity you have it made, resonates with renewed redemptive qualities. We understand just how awkward and awful Michael Dorsey’s life has been, prior to his assimilation into womanhood. He was a frustrated, compassion-less actor with an ax to grind and a general contempt for human frailty beyond what it could do for him. Now he is someone who has found himself, albeit in the unlikeliest of places. Tootsie continues to work its magic because it forces the audience to question many personal failings, opinions and attitudes. It isn’t often movies can make us look inside ourselves; even more uncommon when they do without being preachy diatribes, beating us over the head with their ‘message’. But Tootsie neither shrinks from making its points, nor does it indoctrinate us with them and that’s refreshing.
Our story begins in earnest with harried actor Michael Dorsey (Hoffman) unable to find suitable employment in his chosen profession. Nevertheless, he’s a brilliant layman who breathes the craft by day, holding workshops in the loft he shares with roommate, Jeff (the sublime Bill Murray) while the two work diligently to craft a play they hope to independently produce and co-star in, along with their good friend, Sandy Lester (the hilarious, Terry Garr). Michael loves to act. But he’s also fed up with taking direction from talent he perceives as less than his own. His lack of pliability has branded the scarlet letter of ‘D’ for ‘difficult’ across his forehead; something Michael refuses to accept until his agent George Fields (Sydney Pollack) points out that he can’t even set Michael up for a commercial. “Do you mean to tell me nobody in New York will work with me?” Michael asks. “That’s too limiting,” George replies, “No one in Hollywood wants to work with you either!”
After Michael’s surprise birthday party, Sandy confides her anxiety over an early morning audition for the soap opera, South West General. Michael runs Sandy’s lines for her all night to prepare for the audition. Alas, only a few moments at the studio Sandy is rejected and Michael inadvertently discovers one of the show’s major stars, Terry Bishop, has since departed to do a revival of The Iceman Cometh on Broadway – the role Michael was supposed to be up for. Meanwhile, Jeff’s new play – Return to Love Canal – has hit a funding snag. To kill two birds with one stone, Michael decides to disguise himself as a woman and try out for the part on the soap. After an initial confrontation between Michael and the show’s director, Ron Carlisle (Dabney Coleman) Michael is signed as the forthright, if matronly, Dorothy Michaels; the hospital’s new administrator. As the latest addition to the venerable cast, Dorothy will find – true, pure and haplessly misguided love thrice; first, with Ron’s playmate, Julie Nichols(Jessica Lange), cast as the hospital slut, Nurse Charles; love unwillingly reciprocated from Julie’s amorous widower/dad, Les (Charles Durning) who thinks Dorothy is the right kind of woman he could settle down with and marry, and, sexism exploited to the point of near rape by John Van Horn (George Gaynes), the wily, womanizing ham who also stars on the soap as the frisky and ferocious chief of staff, Dr. Melville ‘the tongue’ Brewster.
The sexual relationship that blossoms between Sandy and Michael stems from a misunderstanding Michael is unwilling to admit, further fueled by Sandy’s neuroses best left untapped, but probably stemming from her general mistrust of all men. This relationship is played strictly for laughs. Still, the tenderness in Michael’s appreciation for Sandy’s insecurities is oddly touching and sincere. Meanwhile, Michael transforms himself into a crusading feminist/actress on the show; the delightfully opinionated Dorothy Michaels. No one, least of all George can understand Dorothy’s appeal. But Michael’s proactive Dorothy is an instant hit with female viewers, even if Michael (as Dorothy) repeatedly runs into conflict with the show’s chauvinistic director. As Michael begins to fall for Julie, Les starts to have feelings for Michael’s Dorothy. Of course, no one knows Dorothy is really a he, resulting in all sorts of riotous confusion after Michael (as Dorothy) spends the weekend with Les and Julie at Les’ upstate farmhouse. Michael is proposed to by Les, and later, forgets himself by attempting to kiss Julie (still, as Dorothy) to prove his love for her. Julie mistakes Dorothy to be a lesbian. Michael reveals to George he is distraught. His love life is a shambles. There’s only one way out: quit the show. Too bad for Michael, it’s a one way contract with the option defaulting to the producer, Rita (Doris Belack). Dorothy is a rating’s bonanza. Her contract is renewed. Michael is trapped.
Unable to get out from under his ironclad contract, Michael makes a fateful decision; to reveal his true identity during a live broadcast of South West General – thereby forcing its producers to fire him. Julie is incensed and punches Michael in the stomach before storming off. But Les is more understanding. Try as he might, he cannot bring himself to hate this man he once thought he could not live without as a woman. Waiting for Julie – as himself – outside the studio, Michael is momentarily disturbed when Julie simply ignores him and hurries off down the sidewalk in the opposite direction. But as Michael pursues he quickly discovers Julie is more wounded than mad. “I miss Dorothy,” Julie confesses. “You don’t have to,” Michael explains, “She’s right here.”
Tootsie is self-effacing, probative entertainment; its cerebral debates brought to the forefront by the genius of its comedy. Everyone in the cast is given their moment to shine and each is playing their scenes ‘for real’ rather than for the perceived comedic value. As such, the comedy seems neither canned nor rehearsed. Reportedly, Sydney Pollack had cast an actor to play Michael's agent, George Fields when Dustin Hoffman suggested the director play the part himself instead. Pollack resisted. Hoffman insisted and the results clicked with antagonistically genuine camaraderie; the only real buddy/buddy friendship featured in the film. Two scenes exemplify Michael and George’s strained, but ultimately devoted friendship. The first is George’s initial surprise introduction to Dorothy inside New York’s famed Russian Tea Room (without George first let in on the masquerade).
Michael as Dorothy attempts to pick up George, silencing his worrisome objections by grabbing his scrotum and then by dropping the gentile falsetto from his charade. “Oh God,” George exclaims in a state of complete shock, “I begged you to get therapy. You’re insane!” to which Michael as Dorothy coyly replies, “No, I’m not. I’m employed!” The other bromantic between George and Michael comes late in the movie, the pair debating Dorothy’s future on South West General; the disguise having outlived its usefulness and begun to grate on Michael’s sanity and sexual frustrations. In this latter scene the two old friends debate Dorothy/Michael’s sexual confusion. Sandy thinks Michael’s lack of renewed affection after their initial flagrante delicto means he is gay. Julie thinks Dorothy is a lesbian. Yet, Julie is strangely attracted to Dorothy on some maternal level. Finally, Michael desperately wants Julie as a man. After Michael’s live confession to the world reveals Dorothy’s true self to the world, Dr. Brewster has the penultimate ‘last laugh’, quietly exclaiming, “Does Jeff now?”
It really is difficult to objectively critique a film as well-rounded as Tootsie. It's as real and as perfect as movies get. Owen Roizman's cinematography captures the grit and glory of New York City circa 1982. Dave Grusin's original score, and Stephen Bishop’s Oscar-nominated, 'It Might Be You' add another layer of poignancy to a movie already brimming with an embarrassment of riches: heart, class and something meaningful to say. Comedies tend to date. But Tootsie remains the gold star standard bearer by which most any other before or since can or ought to be judged.
Criterion Home Entertainment’s Blu-ray appears to be the same hi-def transfer Sony is peddling in Europe with minor additional clean-up performed somewhere along the way. The Sony/German ‘region free’ Blu-ray release of Tootsie was fairly impressive with minor caveats; mostly an exaggerated grain structure during the optically printed montage sequences depicting Dorothy’s rise to prominence on the cover of various magazines. The pluses on this Criterion disc are a sparkling 1080p transfer with some gorgeous color and a stunning amount of fine detail evident in both close-ups and long shots. Truly, you won’t be disappointed.
At some level, however, this hi-def transfer is at the mercy of less than stellar existing film elements. The color, processed at MGM’s labs, occasionally fluctuates from vibrant to less so. While some scenes exhibit very fine tonality, contrast and a good solid smattering of film grain accurately rendered, others suffer from wan colors and heavier than usual grain. Age-related artifacts are a non-issue. Montages suffer from weak contrast brought on by inferior optical printing methods. Sony could have gone back to the drawing board from original elements for a re-composite as they have done on their Bye Bye Birdie (1963) Blu-ray (available through Twilight Time). Regrettably, they didn’t spend the extra coin. Criterion gives us a monaural PCM audio; the German Blu-ray contains a 5.0 stereo track.
Criterion carries over an audio commentary recorded by the late Sydney Pollack from their ancient 1991 laserdisc. It’s to Pollack’s credit time has not diminished his introspective reflections on the film. They hold up very well and are definitely worth a listen. Criterion has sweetened the pot with nearly forty minutes of new interviews featuring Dustin Hoffman and comedy writer, Phil Rosenthal. The 5 minute deleted ‘interview’ between Dorothy and Gene Shalit is cloying and silly. But Criterion also gives us a half hour vintage ‘making of’ as well as A Better Man: The Making of Tootsie. This latter effort is more comprehensive and was part of Sony’s 2007 25th Anniversary DVD edition. There's a lot of overlap in coverage between the aforementioned 3 featurettes; Hoffman more introspective - and emotional - in his new interview. Extras round out with 6 minutes of screen and wardrobe tests done for Hal Ashby, initially approached by Dustin Hoffman to direct the picture. We also get nine deleted scenes, three trailers and a critical essay by Michael Sragow.
Bottom line: Tootsie is a seminal comedic gem. It remains head and shoulders better than your average ‘romantic comedy’ and a superior example of the sort of genius Hollywood used to foster: low brow humor made palpably highbrow and extremely clever. Hey, Tootsie – it might as well be you! Very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)