Release Date: December 17th, 1982 MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Sydney Pollack Actors: Dustin Hoffman, Jessica Lange, Teri Garr, Bill Murray, Charles Durning, Sydney Pollack, Dabney Coleman, George Gaynes, Geena Davis, Doris Belack
t’s tough for an actor in New York. Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman) experiences this common standard first hand, quite often, as he continually auditions for any role he can find – despite repeatedly being too tall, too short, too young, too old, or just not right for the part. “I can be different!” he exclaims, vigorously combating failed acting opportunities and unemployment by picking up waiter jobs or whatever fills the void between auditions. He’s also an acting coach for his longtime, tragically insecure, always apologetic friend Sandy Lester (the hysterical Teri Garr in an Oscar-nominated turn), and he’s roommates with sarcastic, aspiring playwright Jeff Slater (Bull Murray).
Dorsey has a terrible reputation for being difficult when he actually gets parts – mercilessly criticizing directors, producers, and writers. He’s a wonderful actor, but problematic on the stage. His agent George Fields (director Sydney Pollack) informs him that no one on either coast will hire him. He has no other choice than to no longer be himself. With the drastic transformation of a wig, a dress, a handbag, some lipstick, and heels, Michael Dorsey becomes Dorothy Michaels, an older woman who quickly becomes the perfect fit for a role on the National Video Center TV soap opera “Southwest General.” Since it was a part he originally coached Sandy to audition for, he’s tasked with not only keeping his true identity a secret from the other cast members, but also from his dear friends.
To make matters worse, Michael starts to fall for fellow actress Julie Nichols (Jessica Lange), which creates a particularly precarious balancing act, as he practically dates her while in character. An an accidental romantic entanglement with Sandy further complicates matters. “I’m not having an affair with the woman who came into my apartment. It’s impossible,” reasons Michael when Sandy becomes suspicious. He also contends with the womanizing Dr. Brewster, the arrogant lothario and episode director Ron (Dabney Coleman), and Julie’s father’s advances. The drama that evolves from the very backwards, mixed-up scenarios helps “Tootsie” transcend what could have been a comedy that merely exploits the idea of cross-dressing. In many regards, it’s the more straight-laced, levelheaded, believable version of “Some Like It Hot.” There’s still a touch of slapstick, but it’s not exaggerated to a cartoonish degree.
“Tootsie” is very much a product of the ‘80s, most noticeably dated by Dave Grusin’s music, which conspicuously lingers around almost every moment – but is interruptive between scenes as a transitional device. And then there are the numerous montages, ranging from photo shoots to costume changes to farming. It all comes together with some sensationally dry humor – the kind of comedy that feels natural, realistic, and spontaneous. It stems from hilariously unusual situations, not from random dialogue or forced one-liners. It also alternates from moments of laugh-out-loud awkwardness to toying with emotions or combining pathos; clearly, an enormously catastrophic reveal is creeping up on the horizon. And it is, inevitably, that specific, calamitous, climactic element that will make or break the film for audiences. Nonetheless, it’s a highlight for Dustin Hoffman and Sydney Pollack (along with the rest of the cast) and, while role reversals as extreme as changing sexes are rare (though 1982 also saw “Victor/Victoria”), “Tootsie” is one of the most memorable and accomplished of all films to take on the topic – as well as one of the best pictures of the year.
– Mike Massie