THE 28: #8, TOOTSIE
Dustin Hoffman: Michael Dorsey/Dorothy Michaels
Jessica Lange: Julie
Teri Garr: Sandy
Dabney Coleman: Ron
Charles Durning: Les
Bill Murray: Jeff
Sydney Pollack: George Fields
George Gaynes: John Van Horn
Geena Davis: April
Screenplay by Larry Gelbart & Murray Schisgal (uncredited work by Barry Levinson, Robert Garland, Elaine May)
Directed by Sydney Pollack
What must it have been like to sit in the pitch meeting where someone said, "you know how Dustin Hoffman has reputation for being difficult? What if we took that persona, only no one wants to work with him, see? Then, he dresses up like a woman to get parts." I imagine a long silence in the room as the parties all think it about it.
"Let's do it."
TOOTSIE employs a pretty ragged schtick - man has to dress as woman to pull off an elaborate rouse - and puts just enough of a unique spin on it to make it an intriguing premise. Michael Dorsey is a notoriously difficult actor to work with. No one will hire him. He takes his work very seriously and has a dream of producing his roommates play about a couple who returns to Love Canal (Google it). His manager tells him he's nuts and needs therapy. Michael decides to dress as a woman, names himself Dorothy Michaels, and wins a spot on a network soap opera. Things get crazy since this is a farce and all. Michael falls in love with Julie, the star of the soap. Julie only knows Michael as Dorothy. Also, Dorothy becomes an overnight sensation.
It's the Dustin Hoffman factor that raises TOOTSIE from a high concept comedy to a magical idea that delivers big time. Hoffman at the time did have a notorious rep and was known for his willingness to get deep into a part. He was demanding, argumentative, and egotistical all for the sake of art and getting the performance right. He was known primarily for dramatic work, so when TOOTSIE came along, it seemed like some kind of meta nirvana.
Everything about this movie works. The script, primarily written by Larry Gelbart and Murray Schisgal, is nearly flawless. Yes, it went through some ghost rewrites, but the jokes land and the plot plays itself out to logical conclusions. The main gag never wears out, which is nearly impossible with cross-dressing comedies. TOOTSIE explores misogyny and sexual harassment in the workplace, as well as what constitutes a sex symbol. Yet, it never takes that stuff so seriously that it forgets to entertain. The subplots all work. My particular favorite involves the wonderful George Gaynes as aging star John Van Horn, who falls head over heels for Dorothy. The great Teri Garr earned an Oscar nomination as Sandy, a fellow actor and would-be love interest who gets strung along by Michael. The juxtaposition of what Michael goes through as Dorothy against his treatment of Sandy is compelling, but, again, not too serious to ruin the comedy. Jessica Lange won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress as Julie. She serves as a perfect straight man for Hoffman while managing to give Julie dimension and depth.
But, it's Hoffman's picture and he delivers the goods. I think the scene that sums up the essence of TOOTSIE is the argument between Michael and his agent, George, who is played the film's director, Sydney Pollack. I imagine this scene must've served as some kind of catharsis. Yes, it's funny, but only because of the truth at the heart of the argument.
Now, compare that to the next meeting between the two when Dorothy sits down to lunch George.
I often lament comedies don't get enough respect from the Oscars. Yes, occasionally they'll throw a bone at a supporting character or give a nomination to a comedic screenplay, but great film comedies rarely get a lion's share of nominations. TOOTSIE bucked that with 10 nominations. TOOTSIE is another example of not just a very funny movie, but superb filmmaking.