Sydney Pollack's Tootsie is basically a feature-length sitcom, but it's a fantastic feature-length sitcom. The premise of the movie (“Dustin Hoffman pretends to be a woman!”) is a pretty easy sell, but the movie transcends that description on a regular basis. Other movies have been made with similar high-concept plots, and many of them are content to lean on their central gimmick for easy laughs: “Ha ha, Eddie Murphy is a fat lady! Hilarious!” Tootsie has many, many funny moments, yet almost none of them merely ask us to laugh at Hoffman's appearance. Even though the era in which the film takes place no longer much resembles the one we currently live in, the film has aged rather gracefully thanks to a can't-miss combo of killer jokes and a timeless, well-constructed story. In that regard, it's in a class with the likes of My Man Godfrey, Some Like it Hot and Groundhog Day.
Hoffman plays Michael Dorsey, a talented but difficult actor who's found work increasingly hard to come by. His agent George Fields (Sydney Pollack, Michael Clayton) bluntly reveals the truth of the matter: nobody wants to work with Michael anymore because Michael is more trouble than he's worth. In a desperate bid to find a paying job and to prove George wrong, Michael dresses up as a middle-aged woman, dubs himself “Dorothy Michaels” and auditions for a role on a daytime soap opera. Against all odds, everyone buys Michael's facade and Dorothy wins the part. Michael reveals his victory to George and gloats triumphantly, but soon realizes that he's going to have to maintain this new persona every single day until Dorothy's short-term contract expires.
Michael may have landed new work by lying about his gender, but it doesn't take him long to realize that being a woman in a male-dominated industry is a considerable challenge. Dorothy is forced to contend with a cluelessly sexist director (Dabney Coleman, Boardwalk Empire), a perpetually horny co-star (George Gaynes, Police Academy) and a poorly-written character. As usual, Michael quickly begins resisting the creative direction he's given, but this time his resistance has taken on a new tone. He's no longer an actor bickering with a director for purely creative reasons, he's a woman standing for her dignity. Dorothy alters her lines and changes her scenes on a regular basis, always for the sake of making her character seem stronger and more self-sufficient. Within no time at all, Dorothy becomes one of the most iconic female characters on television. “I've got a secretary who wants to be just like Dorothy Michaels – I want to fire her,” George complains.
On paper, Tootsie is a message movie of sorts (it challenges gender stereotypes and offers a strong endorsement of feminism), but it doesn't feel like one because the message never gets in the way of the humor. That's a tricky balancing act to pull off, but Tootsie makes it look easy. Michael's impression of a woman is good enough to fool everyone around him, but he's only good at the surface-level stuff he sees every day. When it comes to the deeper things - how women talk to each other when men aren't around, for instance – Michael is stumbling around in the dark, and watching him work his way through each of these scenarios is consistently hilarious.
Things are further complicated by matters of the heart. Michael begins nursing feelings for his attractive co-star Julie (Jessica Lange, King Kong), who's currently in a dead-end relationship with the show's director. Julie and Dorothy are close friends, but if things are going to go any further than that, Michael will either have to reveal his true identity or attempt to find out whether Julie happens to have any bisexual inclinations (the latter possibility also has its obvious limitations). Meanwhile, Julie's good-hearted father Les (Charles Durning, The Hudsucker Proxy) is developing a crush on Dorothy, who must find a way to fend of Les' polite advances without being too obvious. On top of all of this, Michael (as himself) is attempting to find an easy way out of a relationship with his old friend Sandy (Teri Garr, Close Encounters of the Third Kind), whom he slept with and committed himself to in a moment of panic (you'll see). That Michael doesn't come across as a lecherous creep amidst all of this is another considerable achievement.
Enough about the plot. The movie's funny in many ways, for many reasons. On the few occasions when it sets aside the humor for the sake of sincerity, it works. There's a sweet, gentle sequence in which Michael-as-Dorothy attempts to take care of Julie's baby daughter, and what begins as a bit of gentle silliness quickly transforms into something surprisingly complex and tender. Seeing the baby through Dorothy's eyes rather than his own, Michael permits himself to feel a profound maternal affection he undoubtedly would have resisted or ignored under normal circumstances. He's “getting in touch with his female side,” yes, but what that really means in this case is that he's getting in touch with his basic humanity. It's the most positive possible version of method acting: the ever-irritable Michael takes Dorothy's generosity of spirit and basic decency home with him.
It's a testament to Hoffman's performance that Dorothy feels like such a distinctive individual despite the fact that we're constantly being reminded that it's just Michael wearing makeup. I suppose it requires a small suspension of disbelief to accept the idea that nobody suspects Dorothy's secret, but Hoffman's performance runs far deeper than a high-pitched voice. We're watching a great actor playing a good actor playing a great actress, and Hoffman aces the part(s) on every level. Lange's Oscar-winning performance is terrific, too. Hoffman's scenes with her are among the film's most sincere, and she has a beautifully wary-yet-empathetic moment of honesty when she realizes that “Dorothy” may desire her in a sexual way. Speaking of which: there are a lot of jokes littered throughout the movie built on the question of whether or not certain characters are gay, but none of them feel mean-spirited or derogatory. They're simply natural extensions of the scenario the film has established, and the movie feels cheerfully broad-minded about such matters in general.
The supporting cast is filled with delightful performances, with three in particular standing out. Despite his strong work behind the camera here, I've always admired Sydney Pollack more as an actor than as a director. He's been completely convincing in ever role he's played, and in Tootsie he nails the role of a perpetually weary, hard-working agent who's grown exhausted of his client's antics. Charles Durning has the film's most touching role, and his affection for Dorothy is so sincere that you almost dread the inevitable moment of heartbreak. Finally, Bill Murray (Ghostbusters) steals all of his scenes as Michael's slyly funny roommate, and gets to deliver the film's funniest line. This isn't Murray's movie by any stretch, but it's always a joy to see him working at the peak of his comic powers.
It's easy to underestimate Tootsie for a number of reasons: Pollack's direction isn't particularly flashy, the concept is goofy and the movie is essentially a lightweight comedy. Even so, look closer and you'll discover an impressively multi-layered comic gem which accomplishes its many goals with confidence and skill. With all due respect to the likes of Out of Africa and The Way We Were, it's the finest film of Pollack's career. It's funny, it's moving, it's funny, it's clever, it's funny and it's thought-provoking. Most importantly, it's funny.
Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 1982
Release Year: 2014