Tootsie’s that rare hit comedy that almost entirely justifies its high profile, which is probably why it’s that rare hit comedy that was also nominated for Best Picture Oscar. It’s also an ’80s comedy that stands the test of time – the odds of which are stacked against– even if its askance reactions to both and gender identification and equality (“Don’t you find being a woman in the ’80s so complicated?”) might now occasionally seem a little antiquated. About the only thing that really shows wear is Dave Grusin’s relentlessly tone-deaf score, but even that Go, Tootsie Go! song – and it’s terrible, let’s make no bones about it – reaches a crescendo of Stockholm Syndrome-esque cheerfulness once it has been impressed on your brain repeatedly.
Sure, you could offer the reactionary reading that Tootsie’s all about a man showing women how to become better, more successful, accomplished, and all-round more complete women, in much the way Tom Cruise later shows the Japanese how to be superior Samurai, but that’s at worst a side effect of its enthusiasm for exploring its subject matter to the full. And it’s incredible just how packed with incident and inventiveness the picture is. Tootsie keeps throwing new ideas into play; it probably had enough ideas to justify a movie half as long again.
It really ought to have been, given the number of contributors to the screenplay (apparently twenty different drafts were sent to the screenwriters’ guild for arbitration). In that broth-spoiling way, invariably the more pens scribbling a piece, the bigger the botched scrawl one should expect; Larry Gelbart and Murray Schisgal received the final credits, but notables Barry Levinson and Elaine May were also in the mix. Tootsie emerges of-a-piece from such overhauling; it feels finely honed, and never at odds with itself. Much of that is surely down to Sydney Pollack’s deceptively easy hand on the rudder. Particularly deceptively, as Dustin Hoffman reportedly drove him to distraction.
It may not remotely be key to enjoying the film, but there’s no doubt that knowing there’s more than a sliver of Dustin in obsessive, perfectionist actor Michael Dorsey, and more than a slice of Sydney Pollack (who’s hilariously droll) in his put-upon, harassed agent George Fields, adds another layer to what is already a keen juggling act of involved plotting and thematic content. Hoffman even pressed put-upon and harassed Pollack into playing the part (it was earmarked for Dabney Coleman, who winded up with the more typically Coleman role – he’d pretty much essayed it already in 9 to 5 two years earlier – of sexist soap director Ron Carlisle). It’s testament to the heightened rapport between director and star that one of the best scenes isn’t a showy Dorothy moment, but finds Michael divulging the extent of his fraught personal life (lives) to a perplexed George (“He gave you a ring? What did you say?”)
Rita: I’d like you to make her a little more attractive. How far can you pull back?
Cameraman: How do you feel about Cleveland?
Hoffman was reputedly disappointed at being unable to make Dorothy Michaels more attractive, but her frumpy homeliness is absolutely key to her appeal. One of the problems with Mrs Doubtfire is the shroud of prosthetics that removes the fact of Robin Williams from the equation (I know, I know, it was a huge hit). Here, Hoffman is right there, but such is the delirium of his performance you’re transported into the world of Dorothy, or the world of Michael Dorsey fully invested in the world of Dorothy Michaels, fully invested in the world of Emily, her soap character in Southwest General.
Michael’s ultimate pronouncement of how “I was a better man with you, as a woman… than I ever was with a woman, as a man” is both brilliant and a little too neat (not nearly as much as the freeze frame arm-around-the-girl wrap-up; Jessica Lange’s Julie is brought around a little too quickly, matters ought to have been more positively open-ended than a fait accompli), but we completely buy into his belief that “I think Dorothy’s smarter than I am” (or, as Robert Downey Jr confusedly professes in Tropic Thunder, regarding his grip on his character, “I know who I am. I’m the dude, playing the dude, disguised as another dude”).
The accordion of relationship dilemmas Michael/Dorothy get him/herself into is the stuff of high farce, from sleeping with long-time acting class protégé Sandy (Teri Garr, sublimely self-doubting and needy) in order to conceal that he’s undressed in her apartment purely to try on her outfits, to leading Julie to think Dorothy’s a lesbian when she makes a pass, to fending off the advances of lecherous aging soap star John Van Horn (George Gaynes, best known for Police Academy, and so peerlessly baffled he’d give Frank Drebin a run for his money), to trying not to lead on Julie’s dad Les (Charles Durning), who turns out to be far more understanding than Michael had any right to expect (“Truth is, you were okay company”).
Dorothy: Shame on you, you macho shithead.
It’s undoubtedly the case that Dorothy wins plaudits for foiling men where real women have been unable to, but it’s so gloriously played out – particularly in the case of Van Horn – that it avoids coming across as a backwards lesson in men doing it better. The soap scenes are something else whenever Dorothy goes off-script and has to nudge the incompetent Van Horn – or shove him – in the right direction. And the climactic reveal scene is as breathlessly fizzy as the picture gets.
Tootsie rarely stumbles with its fun, embarrassment or excruciation – the “tips/tits” scene with Geena Davis in her underwear is rather beneath it, since pretty much everything else is aiming higher and hitting its target, but Pollack, Hoffman et al keep generally finding new challenges and boiling imbroglios for Michael and Dorothy to tackle.
And Michael is undoubtedly a jerk until he becomes Dorothy, scouting the room for girls, using the exact same excuse for seeking a relationship with Julie while simultaneously seeing Sandy that Ron later uses for playing away from Julie (it’s another reason why the ending shouldn’t be quite as easily earned as it is; Michael really needs to prove himself beyond the sobering experience, while posing as Dorothy, of being relegated to the dorky best pal who can’t have the girl).
Jeff: Nowadays, when people dream, they don’t dream in their own country any more, and I think it’s SICK.
Throughout this, there’s Bill Murray as Michael’s flatmate Jeff, shamelessly improving and blending in seamlessly with the ensemble. All the while, pure gold is tripping of his tongue (“I’m just afraid you’re going to burn in hell for all this”, “You slut”, and “That is one nutty hospital”). Even he can’t beat Pollack, though, a former actor with an instinct for deadpan naturalism; “God forbid you should lose your standing as a cult failure” he mocks Michael over his actorly scruples, “You were a tomato!” (Dorsey’s failed roles were apparently all based on Hoffman’s own experiences) and “There are no other women like you. You’re a man!”
Lange credits Pollack with making Julie special in the editing room, which is very modest of her, particularly as she walked away with the one Oscar (Best Supporting Actress) out of Tootsie’s ten nominations. Hoffman certainly didn’t have easy competition in his category (I’ll hesitate to say who I’d pick for now, except that it wouldn’t be Lemmon). Dave Grusin’s miss, nominated for Best Song (It Might Be You) is less surprising. Only that he got considered in the first place. In fairness to Grusin, his score for The Fabulous Baker Boys at the end of the decade is fabulous. This: really not.
A number of critics, Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael among them, summoned memories of the finely sprung screwball comedies of the ’40s when describing the picture, and that’s rather apt. Few comedies were testing Best Picture status at this point, the occasional Woody Allen aside, and Tootsie manages to rise from the mire of being quintessentially ‘80s in form and texture to remain an extremely funny movie.