Not only is Tootsie (1982) the finest American comedy ever made, it is without question the greatest movie made about the art of acting! No other film has ever so fully displayed the intense passion with which an actor approaches a role, the manner in which they are willing to live in abject poverty waiting for that big break, the love they possess for the character they are portraying, or that moment when they know they have ceased to be the actor and become the character, inhabiting their character as though they were its soul. Tootsie portrays the truth in acting, making clear how essential truth is for the art to be complete. How they managed to make a film about both is quite incredible, but how they managed to make it so damned good is quite another level of brilliance. When I say the greatest American comedy ever made, I mean a film that is impeccably acted and directed, superbly written and edited, everything coming together to create a film that was hugely funny, deeply moving, a monster hit with audiences and adored by critics. The great strengths of Tootsie are the performances, though at the center of the film is Dustin Hoffman giving what is his greatest performance, one that should have won him a second Academy Award, and a performance that I believe to be
one of the greatest ever put on film.
Tootsie is that great.
Michael Dorsey is a New York actor turning forty, still looking for that big career break that will take him away from having to do regional theater and Strinberg in the Park and into major Broadway works and movies. The problem though is that no one wants to work with Michael. So dedicated is he to his craft, to the art of acting he drives all around him crazy including the many directors who now refuse to work with him. He auditions, constantly working and hoping for a role, but it has been two years since he worked, and he is now more of a waiter than an actor, though he mentors students who rave about him. When his agent, George (Sydney Pollack) makes clear to him how dire his situation is Michael makes a drastic move and auditions for a network soap…as a woman. He re-names himself Dorothy Michaels, wears a wig, makes himself, wears a dress and off he goes to a major network daytime drama program, and low and behold he…ur, she lands the role. There is something about her the director does not like, but the producer loves her, so Michael…Dorothy is in. Within weeks of landing the part he, or she becomes a major star, beloved by women across America for her feisty manner and no nonsense approach. But there is trouble brewing. His co-star, a lecherous old actor loves him, but Michael loves his co-star, Julie, portrayed with deft humor by Jessica Lange who sees Dorothy as her best friend. Michael’s roommate is working on a play for Michael to star in, and is caught up in the nightmare that is Michael’s life at the moment, taking it all in with a bemused look on his face. And let’s not forget Sandy (Teri Garr), Michael’s long time friend who became his lover and thinks they are a couple. You see the plan was for Michael to work long enough to raise the money to produce Jeff’s (Bill Murray) play, Return to Love Canal, a study of a couple who move back to their home near toxic waste, which both men think is an important piece of theater. When Michael becomes a huge success as Dorothy, they pick up the option on his/ her contract and he is stuck in the job of another year. It is not a year he can take and he makes another drastic decision that will alter his life yet again.
Dustin Hoffman does something beyond acting in this film. Always a brilliant actor, at his best portraying characters with a nasty edge to them, there is a moment in Tootsie where we lose Dustin Hoffman and he becomes Dorothy right in front of our eyes. It is extraordinary, a moment I will never forget, and one that to me is among the greatest feats of acting ever put on the big screen. There is no trace of Dustin Hoffman in Dorothy, although we know that it is a man under the dress, we accept him as a woman. In fact, as he later tells us, we watch him become a better man as a woman than he ever was while he was a man. It is an astounding performance, both of them, because his Michael is a biting, angry actor, aware of his talent but unaware of how to put it to use. The exchange between he and George in the agents’ office is one of the great classic scenes in modern comedy as George attacks Michael because he would not sit down as a tomato because it was not logical. Talk about method. When audiences think of Hoffman they more often than not discus his work in Midnight Cowboy (1969) or The Graduate (1967) or Rain Man (1988), fine work all, but his best work tends to be that outside his comfort zone when he is pushed to go further than he expects to
go. His best work other than Tootsie must be Straight Time (1978) in which he portrays a nasty criminal recently paroled, constantly drawn back to criminal life. The generation of great actors from the seventies are now in their seventies and eighties, but lucky for us their great work remains on film forever, allowing us to see Hoffman’s genius in Tootsie, forever.
Hoffman is surrounded by splendid actors in the film, beginning with an unbilled Bill Murray as his roomie, who moves through life with a droll expression on his face. He wants people to see his plays and not know what they are about, to see them after they have come in from the rain. It was perhaps the first rumbling that Murray was a gifted actor. The ladies in the film are superb, with Jessica Lange winning the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her comic turn as Julie. Teri Garr is more shrill as the over the top, deeply insecure Sandy, earning herself an Oscar nomination in the process. Sydney Pollack gives a delightful performance as George, the harried agent, and Charles Durning is brilliant as Julie’s father, who falls in love with Dorothy, only to discover her mannish looks are hiding something…literally.
The smart and sharp screenplay is one of the best of the decade, and Pollack’s direction is superb, understanding he is merging farce with romantic comedy with an element of drama. In a long distinguished career that saw him win an Oscar as Best Director for Out of Africa (1985) this was without question his best work. The film was nominated for ten Academy Awards, including Best Film, Best Actor, Best Director, and the aforementioned nominations for Pollack, Garr and Lange, but the only award the film won was the Oscar Lange picked up. The great Laurence Olivier made it clear about his love for Hoffman’s performance at the Oscar ceremony, and though the actor gave a mesmerizing, brilliant performance he lost the Oscar to Ben Kingsley in Gandhi (1982).
Rarely is comedy this brilliant. Rarely has comedy been this moving, this realistic, human and compassionate, and never has an actor given a performance like Hoffman gives in Tootsie, he is breathtaking in his genius.