Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Film #154: Tootsie

Before its tremendously successful 1982 release, the odds were against Tootsie working at all. For one thing, the project, spearheaded by its star Dustin Hoffman, had gone through an endless series of script reiterations over the previous four years. Based on a Don Maguire play called Would I Lie To You?, the original screenplay, penned in 1978, was co-authored by Charles Evans (Robert Evans’ brother and the film's eventual co-producer), director Dick Richards and screenwriter Bob Kaufman.

Then Hoffman came on-board, and handed the project off to many of the era’s sharpest comedy voices, including Larry Gelbart, Elaine May, Murray Schisgal, and Barry Levinson. By the time Hoffman and the film’s director, Sydney Pollack, were putting the pieces together, the script reportedly looked like a ragtag, mismatched pile of colored scrap paper (with even a few scenes written on napkins to complete the melange). This is rarely the optimum way for a screenplay to begin its life.
On top of this, the ultra-serious Pollack was not known for his comedy stylings, and Hoffman was, on-set (and given his deep-down connections to the material), a sometimes dictatorial presence.  Indeed, the clearly committed actor mirrored the sort of exasperating, exacting artist he plays in the film. In Tootsie, Hoffman's Michael Dorsey is a struggling, out-of-work actor who’s told by his agent George (Pollack, in a role Hoffman himself urged him to take) that he’s too difficult to work with, and that directors all across New York City are refusing his services.  He’s patently unemployable.  So, having accompanied his harried best friend Sandy (the superbly flustered Teri Garr) to an audition for a soap opera called “Southwest General”--an audition she loses immediately--Michael decides to try out for the same role, donning hair, dress and makeup, to audition as “Dorothy Michaels,” a strong-willed, Southern-accented character actress (based partially on Hoffman’s friend Polly Holliday--who memorably appeared with him in All The President's Men--and partially on Hoffman‘s aunt, who used to call him “Tootsie.”  And so we also have the film‘s title).

For me, Tootsie is one of those endlessly watchable movies, like Jaws or The Shawshank Redemption is for other movie fans. I find that the bright, perhaps dated '80s-era Dave Grusin score--studded with those Alan and Marilyn Bergman songs sung by Stephen Bishop--successfully captures a feathery light urban mood almost immediately.  So does Owen Roizman’s slightly blueish and still slightly candy-colored NYC photography. The scripting betrays no schizophrenia from the many hands that molded it, and instead feels like a work that sprang from one mind.  Pollack deftly keeps the pace very quick. Even the movie's opening illustrates Michael Dorsey’s flaws and strengths, on and off stage, before Pollack's directorial credit has faded from the screen.  The film then brilliantly--through a breezily laconic birthday party scene--sets up Dorsey as a sexist manipulator whose own desperate gaming comes back to bite him on the ass when he positions himself as a “woman” in a man’s world.

Hoffman is extraordinary in Tootsie.  His Dorothy Michaels is one of his most vivid creations, and I love how the movie keys us in to one of the bittersweet things about being an actor: If they’re lucky, they can craft a valuable character, but then, after the show is over and the costume is off, they must relinquish a hold on this newborn personality. It’s like they’re constantly sweating over sand mandalas destined to be swept to the wind.  Dorothy Michaels becomes incredibly important to “Southwest General” (her unpredictable, improv ways strike a ratings spike for the series), but she also becomes indispensable to the lives of her co-stars, including Dorothy’s new best friend, the soap's femme fatale Julie (a fetching Jessica Lange, who took home the film's only Oscar out of 11 nominations--an extremely strong showing for a comedy).  Hoffman’s moments with Lange in this film are moving and exquisitely revealing; you can feel Julie finally letting down a expertly-built guard of cynicism when she’s basking in Dorothy’s homey charm and, while it’s easy to forget that Dorothy Michaels is actually a man, you can also feel Michael Dorsey’s naughty excitement--and, later, his shamed regret--at being let into Julie's heart on such massively false pretenses.  At another extreme, it's also exciting to see Hoffman share the screen with Dabney Coleman as the soap's laughably macho director; the one off-set scene they have together is cogently written, with Coleman trying to draw Dorothy Michaels out on why she dislikes him, while we know Michael had this jerk's number firmly punched from the get-go.  Of course, Dorsey's attempts to reconcile these two extremes--these two parts of himself--constitutes the film’s complicated but never overbearing plot, as well as its neatly-stated anti-sexism political stance, and, most importantly, its strongest laughs.

And there are a bunch of laughs here: George and Michael heatedly debating whether a “sexy beefsteak tomato” should walk and talk; Michael showing his “Dorothy” creation to his playwright roommate Jeff, who comments on the hair “Well, it’s a little Howard Johnson’s…” (Jeff is played by an uncredited Bill Murray, and he’s the film’s acerbic ace-in-the-hole); Dorothy sharing an awkward romantic nighttime moment in a tree swing with Julie’s smitten father (a very sweet Charles Durning); George and Dorothy's surprise meeting at the Russian Tea Room, with Dorothy confidently ordering a Dubonnet with a twist and complementing the server on his "lovely blouse"; the soap’s aptly named male lead John Van Horne (George Gaines) creepily stalking Dorothy all the way back to Michael’s apartment (which results in a surprise appearance by Murray that absolutely brought the house down when I went to see the film on opening night; I still remember the line “You slut” as a moment of comedically-driven audience pandemonium).

I adore the scene where Michael finally gets to meet Julie as himself, and slyly tries to lay her own ideal come-on on her: "You know, I could lay a big line on you and we could do a lot of role-playing, but the simple truth is, is that I find you very interesting and I'd really like to make love to you." Cue the drink thrown in his face.  And there are so many more hysterical moments: “How do you feel about Cleveland?,” “What kind of mother would I be if I didn’t give my girls tits--I mean, tips?,” “That is one nutty hospital.” I even have affection for the cliched yet well-edited scene where Michael, as Dorothy, is haplessly left alone with Julie's baby.  (I giggle when she hands the infant a mirror and scolds, in Michael's deep voice, "There. You see what a bad girl looks like?").   Through it all, Pollack gracefully keeps the scenes firmly rooted in reality, even if the story and behavior is lovably outlandish.

As a result, the movie is always massive fun.  However, ultimately, I sense a deep underlying sense of honest discovery here. I really believe, in reaching for quite specific emotions, Hoffman’s own life was changed by playing Dorothy, and this expertly sculpted movie shows this transformation occurring step by step. Hoffman--the man, the artist and the person--emerged from TOOTSIE a softer, more playful, more accepting soul. At the film’s end, he comforts Julie, who’s missing Dorothy, by saying “You don’t have to. She’s right here. And she misses you.” I’m certain that serves as a big comfort to Hoffman himself, and to the grateful moviegoers he and his collaborators gifted with this insightful film.