By John H. Foote
Tootsie is, to me, the greatest American comedy ever made, a farce brimming with intelligence and sharp writing, brilliant direction and performances as well as insight into one of the most mysterious art forms known to man. Directed by Sydney Pollack, so much more gifted than he was ever given credit for being, the film contains one of the most astonishing transformations by an actor you will ever encounter onscreen. It builds to this transformation, but when it happens, when she has overtaken him, it is truly a performance of beauty and purity. After seeing the film many times since that first time on a Saturday afternoon in 1982, I still get tears eyed at the sheer magnificence of the performance. What makes it even more remarkable is that we are in on the joke, the deception from the beginning!
Dustin Hoffman is Michael Dorsey, an out of work New York actor who waits tables to pay the rent. In between nights at the restaurant he teaches acting classes and coaches actors, all learning from his substantial gifts. There is no question of his greatness, an opening montage shows us that, just as there is no question to his unbending integrity as an actor, he will do nothing that is not true to the character, he will walk out of a paying job if the director bullies or forces him to do something. His frustration builds to the point of exploding because his roommate Jeff (Bill Murray) has written a play Michael wants to produce and act in, but he cannot get work to raise the money. His much put upon agent George makes it known he cannot put him up for a dog food commercial because no one will hire Michael.
Finding out he has lost another audition but is aware of one upcoming, he dresses as a woman and heads out to read for the popular daytime drama.
And gets the part.
No one suspects he is a man because he is so dedicated to his art he perfectly captures the woman, Dorothy Michaels. Though his harried agent George (Pollack) is writhing in fear of being found out, and believes his client needs therapy, the ruse is pulled off, Dorothy becomes a huge hit on the show. As her celebrity grows, her fan mail increases and soon she is the topic of front page features in major magazines and an acting coach to the rest of the actors on the show, which angers the director.
It does not help that she becomes friends with Julie (Jessica Lange), the sexpot of the show, who claims Dorothy as her best friend. Angered at how her boyfriend treats Julie, Dorothy speaks out, realizing he is love with her but can say nothing.
This is where the transformation into Dorothy becomes complete. Earlier in the film Michael proved very uninterested in children, he was not comfortable around them. While at Julie’s father’s farm, Julie hands her baby to Dorothy, and there is no discomfort, no fear, she holds the child close and nuzzles her, Michael has become Dorothy and is a nurturer. And he is in big trouble. The network wants to sign her for another year and Michael wants out, but to get out he will have to make known his betrayal and hurt many friends. How can he do it when one of those friends is Les (Charles Durning), father to Julie who has in turn fallen in love with Dorothy.
Being a farce the action moves fast and furious, with many near discoveries and disasters but not once is it not entirely believable, and perfect.
At the centre of this masterpiece is Dustin Hoffman who gives one of the screen’s greatest performances as Michael/ Dorothy. Where Michael is angry and sharp, Dorothy is patient, calm and kind, they are complete opposites bonded by a love of acting. Hoffman is usually at his best when his character has an edge, even a mean streak, which Michael does, but not Dorothy and the fact he brings this absolute decency to her is a miracle of acting. Great acting is truth, I was taught that and have practiced that when I direct for the stage. What Hoffman does here is truly miraculous. How he lost the Academy Award he was nominated for I am still trying to figure out.
Bill Murray improvised nearly all of his dialogue as Jeff, the gloomy roommate who wants people to see his plays after a rain. Like Michael he is committed to art, but equally like his friend, in the extreme.
Jessica Lange portrays Julie, the dream girl and she does so with a breezy bit of beauty and an edge that suggests she has been hurt and does not care to be again. Lange had a breakthrough year in 1982, with this and her ferocious performance in Frances (1982) as troubled actress Frances Farmer. Nominated twice for Oscars, she would win for Tootsie for Best Supporting Actress just six years after King Kong (1976).
Sydney Pollack is wonderful as George, and Teri Garr outstanding as Michaels’ best friend, Sandy, an actress given to fits of hysteria, needing much reassurance.
Everyone in the cast is utter perfection and Pollack guides them as the maestro guides his orchestra. The film is utterly flawless, and bitingly funny.
But I urge you to look beyond the story and see the study of acting as an art form we are given. The scene study classes, the busting to get a role right, and best of all, that spectacular encounter between Michael and George, his agent, when Michael realizes how untouchable he has become, how his search for truth has ruined him. Yet phoenix-like he rises, saving his career from the ashes by his belief in himself and the fact he busts his butt to get the part right.
Listen to the longing in Julie’s voice as she tells Michael, “I miss Dorothy” and we just begin to understand the depth of love the people around him/her have for her. She touched them all, and Michael admits being Dorothy has made him a better man.
Nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, twice for Best Supporting Actress and Best Screenplay, only Lange won an Oscar for the film. Hoffman won awards for Best Actor from the National Society of Film Critics and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, as well as the Golden Globe for Comedy or Musical. The Oscar should have been his, this was the best performance of the decade.
Like me, I suspect you might be smiling through the tears, but they are good tears, happy tears.
The finest American comedy ever made.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.