Tootsie (1982, Sydney Pollack)


Years hence, director Sydney Pollack would report that nobody ever laughed on the set of Tootsie; his own explanation was that the humor was in the cumulative buildup of its situations, not in anything that happens on the screen. The more accurate explanation is that Tootsie simply isn’t funny, and the reverence it continues to attract as one of the most universally beloved American screen comedies is undoubtedly among the most baffling curiosities in movie history. There’s so little to recommend this film, so little to even crane your neck to see or hear in it, that it can fool you into thinking it’s your fault. No way. It’s a tremendously bad, even inept film, with a wisp of potential imagination to its premise — out-of-work actor Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman) dresses in drag and lives out a covert female existence in order to get a coveted part — that is squandered in its tiresome regard for rote convention, which many mistook for Preston Sturges-like “classicism” of comedy structure.

This script wouldn’t have made it out of Sturges’ typewriter, and as a director he certainly he would have seen through its pandering charmlessness, not all of which can be blamed upon the weak, extensively reconstructed screenplay credited to Larry Gelbart and Murray Schisgal — plenty more comes down to Pollack’s failure to bring any zest or energy to the proceedings, and to the supremely unpleasant and obnoxious performances of all involved except Teri Garr and Bill Murray. Garr in particular is like a beacon of a sweet-natured performance and character shouting out to be heard and noticed over all the slick showboating. Anything real that was meant to be said here about workplace sexism and gender identity, neither of which is ever more than half-heartedly tackled (and this in the year of Blake Edwards’ stunning Victor/Victoria!), is filtered through the scummiest kind of in-the-know NYC biz smugness. As has been pointed out by others, it’s no wonder the biggest fans of this film about people who work in television in New York are… yes, people who work in television in New York.

Part of the issue, today at least, is that Tootsie predicates its entire existence upon being both a portrait of its time and a progressive measuring stick of the permeation of feminism into mainstream society, in this case specifically the then-heated world of the soap opera. You can’t fault it for filtering its perception of reality through a showbiz spectrum. Surely the New York of Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese’s films is no more “real” than this one, just more lived-in and sincere, which might fit except that the smorgasboard of apartment parties and agency arguments feel distinctly like a big put-on for the camera, and the film has no slyness or intelligence to keep it a step ahead of the audience; its loudmouthed cynicism and cheap sentiment add up to someting totally hollow. And if this is the America of the ’80s, we’ve come a long way; how appropriate to the film’s terribly dated sensibilities that its grandiose supposed pro-woman agenda comes at the hand of a highly unpleasant character whose entire life becomes an act of deception and belitting of various women in his life, whose machismo is deterred only by a whole lot of sledgehammer ranting at Dabney Coleman. Of course it takes a man to tell women what they really should be fighting for, cause that’s how movie-world thinks.

Pollack isn’t really a comedy director by trade and so his staging and pacing are both awkward, occasionally to the point of annoyance. The conversations, most of them seemingly taking place in streets or at parties or in bedrooms, feel stilted and almost randomly captured, like the way that the pieces of MASH just seemed to fall into the structure of a supposed movie. When the story takes hold, Pollack feels a bit more at home on the set of the soap opera, Southwest General, where “Dorothy” becomes a rather ludicrous national sensation — shooting things as they’re going quietly awry is a business he can handle. It’s harder to relate to the sort-of-platonic love story that develops between Michael-in-drag and a soft-spoken, melancholy costar portrayed laconically by Jessica Lange, whose easy, homey sensuality doesn’t seem to really belong here. Tootsie teeters on the edge of doing something interesting with all this, of challenging the audience by allowing some sexual ambiguity to develop between the two characters, but the relevant scenes are so awkwardly staged that they’re mostly just mortifying, and the film ultimately shies away from anything besides the traditional sitcom resolution for this sort of shit, with roughly the intellectual content of a Mr. Ed episode, one of the ones in which the horse somehow got Wilbur in marital trouble with Carol.

Let’s be fair to the film and its legions of fans, evidently including the writers of 30 Rock. There are three mildly amusing moments. First is that in which Hoffman attempts to cover up his new job to his friend Sandy (Garr) by, beyond treating her like shit, claiming he received an inheritance from a dead relative; her cause of death was “a disease.” (Garr is such a delight far beyond Lange here, you can’t imagine what Hoffman is thinking by humoring and ditching her like a piece of dirt, but we digress.) Second, the outrageousness of the live-feed sequence that contains Michael’s climactic revelation to the national TV audience is the kind of balletic, bizarre, and genuine Comedy that the film is reputed to be and isn’t; this is its only significantly amusing setpiece. The third is, yeah, Bill Murray’s line just afterward, which isn’t such a big laugh the second time but got me the first time, and Murray can probably thank Tootsie for some of his reputation as a scene-stealer. For the rest of the film, not only am I not amused, I don’t even understand what’s supposed to be funny. It’s an unholy hybrid of light romance novel and For Better or For Worse.

The montages and the soundtrack are what really pushes this over from harmless to bad, however. Dave Grusin’s score, while horrific, is par for the early ’80s course and not too far in tone from scores I actually like — Michael Gore’s for Terms of Endearment, for instance — and scores that are equally annoying but received Academy Awards (looking at Hans Zimmer’s seat of honor). But the songs, my goodness, the songs. Besides being the absolute dregs of cutesy-pie soft rock, Stephen Bishop’s pseudo-musical numbers in the film are so completely mismatched to any attempt at comedy that their relative success is perhaps more bewildering than that of the movie. In the entire AFI list project, there is no moment more dreadfully of-its-time in the worst way than the magazine cover montage set to the complete non-song “Go, Tootsie, Go,” so awful it forgives in advance the more harmless piffle of #1 adult contemporary hit “It Might Be You,” twiddling out insipidly over the closing credits. But that montage, man. Painful. Painful!

If no one comes off quite as badly here now as Bishop, it’s not as though Hoffman and Pollack acquit themselves. This is such a supremely joyless effort on the director’s part, you can get an idea of how tense the set was, as evidently director and star fought for much of the duration of the project. This is very likely Hoffman’s worst performance ever, and on the heels of one of his best and most human, in Kramer vs. Kramer. I come as close to worshiping Hoffman as I do any actor and it’s hard work to make me not enjoy a performance of his; he even makes Rain Man nearly bearable. But he’s saddled with an incomprehensible character here and he is unable to make anything of it except a complete dick; I don’t understand why we’re expected to feel he’s redeemed himself at the finale, and we never feel “let in” to his world — his plight is always something we’re told about, not something we feel. People still fall over themselves with adoration of his key line in the last scene and its delivery — “I was a better man with you as a woman than I ever was with a woman as a man” — but Ray Davies said it more eloquently, more wisely, riskier — “I know what I am and I’m glad I’m a man and so’s Lola.” In all its hours, the film hasn’t the bravery of that one line, not by a longshot.

It has to finally be pointed out that Hoffman is awful as a drag performer. Which would make perfect sense, except that it violates the film’s central believability to then ask us to trust that he would somehow be successfully integrated into a popular TV series, would permeate the entire culture, and would become one of the most famous people in America, all with people fully believing he was not a man, and not playing dress-up. Perhaps we’ve been spoiled by five seasons of The Kids in the Hall, but Hoffman is completely terrible at this; he acts like a man’s insulting notion of what a “woman” should do and say. Just think for a second of Bruce McCullouch in one of the AT&Love sketches — how he seems genuinely to live in his part and is never, ever a caricature, always a full-bodied character in our brief time with him/her. But hell, I’d even take Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot — obviously never once believable as anything other than Lemmon dressed up as a lady, but generating a level of actual joy and vivaciousness in his performance to which Hoffman never even comes close. Some Like It Hot itself may be padded out but at least it’s actually daring and human in all its absurdity. Hell, “Nobody’s perfect” might be more hilarious, clever and adventurous than Ray Davies. Tootsie is left in the dust.

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