Tootsie: One Great Dame

On Film / Essays — Dec 17, 2014
Tootsie Current Essay

Tootsie is a marvel of big-studio moviemaking from an era when such a thing was no longer considered possible. It went through multiple writers and producers even before it landed at Columbia Pictures. Once it did, in 1980, the company that had made some of the best golden age comedies, like Howard Hawks’s Twentieth Century and Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night and Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth, funded and developed it with a moxie that had mostly vanished from the majors when movies ceded ground to television and studios got sucked into conglomerates.

Executives had good reason to be confident: Dustin Hoffman had signed on to play the lead. He’d just earned a best actor Oscar for Kramer vs. Kramer, the studio’s 1979 prestige hit. Hoffman immediately brought in his playwright friend Murray Schisgal to redo the script, about a starving actor who finally scores playing a female role. Schisgal changed the setting from “the Coast” to the New York theater scene and molded the lead character’s story around Hoffman’s own hustling days off-Broadway. But the studio turned to the creator of TV’s M*A*S*H, Larry Gelbart, for a shooting script that would be, as Gelbart put it, “credible, comical, and commercial.” Hoffman now had the clout to have a say on every scene, so Columbia honchos knew they needed a director like Sydney Pollack, who’d collaborated superbly with the likes of Burt Lancaster, Jane Fonda, Barbra Streisand, and Robert Redford. Pollack hammered out a solid structure with Hoffman and Gelbart, and would hire four more writers to tweak scenes and seal gaps in the script. Hoffman brought back Schisgal to suggest rewrites of the rewrites. Like Hawks, Capra, and McCarey at their best, Pollack also supported improvisation on the set. In the end, thanks to a filmmaker averse to panic and a studio backing his instincts, a movie that began as a creative battle royal ended as a king—better make that queen—of comedy.

Tootsie is so deft, confident, rich, and rounded that it plays just as well today as it did when it became the runaway comedy smash of the 1982 Christmas season. It’s not that it hasn’t aged; it has aged beautifully. Anything dated about the background or the story actually adds to its evocation of New York in the Ed Koch era, when Evita was advertised on buses and a poor actor would weigh the choice between getting mugged on a walk home or waiting for a pricey cab that might not show. This movie created the pop-culture archetype of the driven, idealistic stage artist known as “the New York actor.” In most people’s minds, that phrase will always mean Dustin Hoffman as Michael Dorsey, who is still waiting tables to make money when he invents a female alter ego, character actress Dorothy Michaels, and auditions for—and gets!—a regular role on a daytime soap opera: Emily Kimberly, tough new hospital administrator on Southwest General.

In the course of the movie, Dorothy becomes a soap sensation and a pop feminist icon; a role model for and best friend to costar Julie Nichols (Jessica Lange); a thorn in the side of Julie’s macho lover, director Ron Carlisle (Dabney Coleman); and the love object of both Julie’s father, Les (Charles Durning), and the soap’s aging lothario John Van Horn (George Gaynes). Dorothy’s salary as a soap star enables Michael to bankroll the new work of his playwright roommate, Jeff Slater (Bill Murray)—Return to the Love Canal. But Michael is also a cad to his friend and protégée Sandy Lester (Teri Garr) and a never-ending source of anger and befuddlement for his agent, George Fields (played by Pollack). “Nobody wants to pay twenty dollars to watch people living next to chemical waste!” George says of Love Canal. “They can see that in New Jersey!”

In the 1980s, even a performer like Dorothy, who is breaking new ground for strong women on TV, would proudly call herself an “actress,” not an “actor.” Tootsie revels in the confusions that followed the women’s liberation movement. In this film, women want to change behavior in the workplace, in media, and in the bedroom, but they don’t know how to do it—or at least how to do it and be happy. Sandy goes after the role of Emily first, but is so perplexed about life in general that, when Michael asks her why she thinks she’s wrong for the part, she sighs and says it’s because the role is for “a woman.” Julie is equally bewildered. She looks like a model for the era’s Virginia Slims ads—the ones that proclaimed, “You’ve come a long way, baby.” She has a career, a child, and a dapper and successful lover. Julie, though, is the one who asks Dorothy, “Don’t you find being a woman in the eighties complicated?” And she continually pulls back from her own best instincts. Aside from Dorothy, the only female who doesn’t hesitate to flex her muscles on Southwest General is the producer, Rita Marshall (Doris Belack), the most potent person on the set. Rita senses that Dorothy’s rendering of Emily will energize her show and hand it a feminist breakthrough.

Still, the film’s unifying theme goes beyond sexual politics. Tootsie isn’t merely about men and women grappling with volatile gender identities. It’s about the unpredictable power that acting—taking on new roles—can have in people’s lives. Unlike Sandy, Michael taps into the personal and professional frustration and anger that fuel Emily’s quest for respect. Dorothy’s emergence as the leader of a soap-opera sisterhood is possible only because of Michael’s intimate identification with her as a consummate performer, striving for success on her own terms.

This movie’s sense of female solidarity is unerring and unsentimental, but also full of emotion. Dorothy can be brash—she knees the condescending Carlisle for thinking a polite southern character actress could never play a take-charge hospital manager. But she can be delicate too: she’s both sly and touching when she instantly wags a finger at Julie for describing her own role on the soap as “hospital slut.” In front of the camera, Dorothy pours everything Michael has created for her backstory—pride in acting, combative idealism, and weariness of rejection—into Emily’s identity as an independent woman and hands-on administrator. Each scene Dorothy plays with would-be lover boy Van Horn as her opposite number, Dr. Brewster, is a gem. Van Horn’s overriding goal is to kiss every woman on set. He wields breath spray like a six-shooter. Since his energy goes into contact rather than acting, he always looks at cue cards. But Dorothy keeps grabbing his face and holding it between her palms so he must look at her rather than stare at his lines. It’s a piece of physical comedy with uproarious psychological and sexual-political impact.

Maybe this film needed all its writers to come up with wisecracks, twists, and subplots that are so sharp, chipper, and revelatory. (They spring out like the knives in a multiblade switchblade.) It definitely took an inspired director to make the patchwork script play as if it were cut from whole cloth. “We’re getting into a weird area here,” says Jeff when Michael asks seriously whether an outfit cuts across Dorothy’s bust and exaggerates her hips. The movie’s love for this kind of weirdness in everyday experience makes it amusing and affecting. Even when the plot scales peaks of screwball absurdity, Pollack keeps it real. He lays the tracks for Michael’s transformations in comic loop-the-loops that take in all the textures of an actor’s life.

Pollack himself began his career as an actor and acting teacher in New York and a dialogue director in Hollywood. He attacks the New York actor’s life with affection, starting with the opening shots of Hoffman applying makeup with more obsessive precision than a pageant contestant. If you haven’t seen the film but know the premise, you might think, for a moment, that he’s playing a bearded lady. Actually, at this point, he’s auditioning for a male role, in an exhilarating sequence that underscores Michael’s aesthetic drive and his life of rejection and disappointment—the combination that enables him to understand an unknown trouper like Dorothy. The syncopated editing punctuates Michael’s rousing teaching at an acting class with a string of humiliating auditions and his fight with a British twit director. Michael prizes his ability to transform into any size, shape, or age that a director or producer wants. But he teaches his students that an actor must also make a part his or her own, melding with the role and understanding it from the inside out. The conflict between his need to get a job and his intractable integrity is the movie’s core and its richest source of comedy.

Hoffman had already made headlong intensity a specialty, whether as the self-destructive comic Lenny Bruce or the crusading journalist Carl Bernstein. But in the late seventies, he displayed a deepening ability to get at the roots of a character’s vehemence or distress. He made you experience alienation viscerally as the crook in Straight Time (1978), and he was devastatingly effective as the adman in Kramer vs. Kramer because his gentleness as a parent contrasted starkly with his hard-driving careerism. Tootsie is his most entertaining and self-revealing performance. Though aching for work, Michael gives his directors no mercy when they make stupid decisions. You can see that his sound artistic instincts are coiled up with his mulish masculine ego.

Michael has Hoffman’s nasal voice, but what comes out of Dorothy’s mouth is miraculously mellifluous. She’s able to connect with colleagues and fans without the burdens of Michael’s exaggerated pride and ambition. She drops all of Michael’s porcupine spikes. She gets things done her way because, as a woman, she isn’t afraid to apologize. And because Dorothy is a fictional creation, she can speak her mind about feminism with less fear than someone who has to inhabit a female identity all day long.

Hoffman’s acting is full of marvelous moments. Michael keeps surprising you when he stays in character as Dorothy and when he breaks out of it, especially when he’s with Julie. Hoffman’s great triumph is that, at the end, he makes you feel that both parts have merged. He had delivered a classic seriocomic rendering of adolescent romantic love in The Graduate (1967) and a superb tragic embodiment of an arrested adolescent caught in a loveless marriage in Straw Dogs (1971). But in Tootsie, working with Lange, Hoffman displays ripening tenderness and passion. He plays an adult romantic, and his feelings never turn to self-pitying anger or mush.

Lange initially feared that her character would be “frothy” and a “ditz,” but she doesn’t play Julie that way. Her performance encompasses wild ideas and utter pragmatism. Lange also brings a touch of poetry to the film. When Julie goes to her dad’s farm for a weekend getaway with Dorothy and her baby (in a contemporary touch, we never learn the father’s identity), she brews a homey glamour out of rustic domesticity. Even that pitfall of big-star comedies the gauzy montage becomes oddly seductive. Julie glides through the family manse with timeless grace. You can’t tell whether Pollack is filming her in slow motion or whether she’s simply in her own seductive, languorous zone. (Lange won the film’s only Oscar, for best supporting actress.)

Happily, the film balances sweet with sour. In contrast to Dorothy’s tenderness toward Julie, Michael’s careless liaison with Sandy is one step up from a one-night stand. The movie is partly about how men condescend to women while they’re trying to protect them. Sandy accepts Michael’s excuses for ignoring her for way too long. Her gullibility goes with her sweetness. But Garr and the moviemakers give Sandy sparks of vitality. In a wonderful touch, she inadvertently prods Michael into unleashing Dorothy’s all-out fury by calling her version of Emily a “wimp.” Sandy’s climactic, semi-improvised howl of rage at Michael is a satisfying summary of a newly liberated woman’s one essential demand: “I don’t care about ‘I love you!’ I read The Second Sex, I read The Cinderella Complex, I’m responsible for my own orgasm. I don’t care! I just don’t like to be lied to!”

Pollack contributes cinema’s best portrait of an agent. He and Hoffman’s scenes together are more than virtuoso duets of showbiz digs—they’re “meta” long before that prefix became a stand-alone word. In their first big argument, Michael asks, “Are you saying that nobody in New York will work with me?” and George replies, “No, no, that’s too limiting. Nobody in Hollywood wants to work with you, either. I can’t even send you up for a commercial. You played a tomato for thirty seconds—they went a half a day over schedule . . .” That could be Pollack venting his frustrations over Hoffman’s parsing of the script. (Michael gets the punch line in that argument.) Their final scene is a 2:00 a.m. tête-à-tête after a night of nonstop romantic disaster revolving around Michael and Dorothy. Playing George being dazed and confused by the jagged pieces of Michael’s life could be Pollack’s catharsis after pulling together a cohesive screenplay from the script equivalent of an ultra-extreme jigsaw puzzle. When Gelbart wrote his memoir, Laughing Matters (1998), he complained that this night “would have to last a hundred hours.” Pollack later said that Elaine May, who never takes credit for script doctoring, created the part of Jeff, filled out the female characters and the soap opera behind the scenes at the soap opera (including Van Horn’s riotous shenanigans), and built up that key night so that its mounting misunderstandings would unfold as deliriously and emotionally as Shakespearean comedy. As directed by Pollack and performed by all, this night is the high point of the movie. It might have sprung full-grown from the head of Zeus—or, better yet, his daughter Thalia, the goddess muse of comedy.

Tootsie is astonishingly nimble. Pollack was never considered a visual moviemaker, but to stay on top of his complex narrative and keep his actors happy, he invented classic images, from Dorothy bobbing along in a churning Manhattan crowd to her lying splay-legged and spent on a nursery floor after a rough bout of babysitting. His timing and pacing are spot-on, his cutting at times almost subliminal—as when he edits in a scary glimpse of TV cameras swooping toward Dorothy after she drops her pages at her nerve-racking audition. Pollack’s meshing of scripted dialogue with Hoffman’s character-rooted improvs and Bill Murray’s jazzy ad libs has never been topped for bringing off-the-cuff crackle to structured theatrical artifice. Pollack’s greatest virtue, though, is an understanding of performers that translates into wisdom. In his hands, the film’s theatrical milieu clarifies rather than complicates the characters’ romantic and career ambitions. They’re constantly asking themselves what their true roles are in TV, in theater—and in life. Tootsie is both sure-footed and open-ended. In what was going to be the last speech in the movie, Michael responds to an autograph seeker who asks, “Are you anybody?” with “Am I anybody? Me? Are you kidding? I’ve been a woman, an old man, a prince of Denmark! I’ve been Romeo and Cyrano! I’ve been Willy Loman! Am I anybody? I’m everybody! I’m an actor, man!” Pollack was right to cut the speech. The movie says it all.