Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Master Class: "Tootsie"

No one will work with Michael Dorsey. Played by Dustin Hoffman, he’s the main character in Tootsie. An intense, intelligent actor in Manhattan, he’s also difficult and needs to rationalize everything, often driving directors mad with his “suggestions” and “helpful hints”. He’s so method and exacting that when he played a tomato in a Fruit of the Loom ad, he refused to take direction because it’s not logical for a tomato to do that. His agent angrily bellows at him, “You were a tomato! A tomato doesn’t have logic!” At the end of this conversation, the agent (also the film’s director, Sydney Pollack) informs Michael that no one will work him in New York … or in Hollywood, for that matter.

Just before this meeting, Michael took his acting colleague and needy sometime lover Sandy (underrated comic genius Teri Garr) to an audition for a soap opera. The part required someone “different”. In what must be a stroke of genius or pure insanity, Michael dons a wig and women’s clothing to another audition for the same, and is nearly turned away by the soap’s lecherous director (Dabney Coleman) until Michael, as “Dorothy Michaels”, hits him and jumps into a tirade on gender parity and unfair casting practice. A casting director, who happens to be a woman, steps in and gives “Dorothy” the part. Before the success of Mrs. Doubtfire, the cross-dressing comedy that everyone remembers and loves is Tootsie.

Michael Dorsey (Hoffman)
Dorothy faces the world differently at work. Michael’s a straight man simply playing the part of a woman (playing the part of another woman) just for the money. He knows his reputation for being difficult has preceded him, he’s losing parts, and he needs a steady job to pay the rent on a flat he shares with a deadpan playwright (Bill Murray in an amazing film debut). He shares his dressing room with a perpetually half-naked bombshell, played by Geena Davis in her feature film acting debut. An aging, vain actor (George Gaynes, two years before he starred on Punky Brewster) pursues Dorothy romantically at work and in her private life, and Michael doesn’t have the guts to tell Sandy that he won the part in the soap opera. (Sandy is a study in comic paranoia.) Dorothy becomes close at work with his co-star Julie (Jessica Lange, who won an Oscar for her performance), falling for her even as Dorothy coaches Julie on how to stand up for herself against the director with whom she’s been having an affair. To complicate things further and build up a rising comic house of cards is the presence of Julie’s father (Charles Durning), who falls madly in love with Dorothy. At some point, the deceptions wear Michael down, and the only two people who can keep his secret are his agent and the playwright, who advises Dorothy, “don’t play hard to get” on a date, because that’ll just make the man want her more, right?

Julie with "Dorothy"
Released at Christmas 1982, Tootsie was a runaway smash. This film’s antics remain a master class in how you do cross-dressing situational comedy right. Why? Because while the characters respond to Michael / Dorothy’s antics, and he may be playing them all the fool, they themselves are not foolish. With a couple of exceptions, these are warm, funny people with their own neuroses, insecurities and foibles with which to contend. The longer he spends in character as Dorothy, the more Michael sees with his very eyes the rampant sexism prevalent in the acting profession and the world at large. He grows sensitive to Dorothy’s needs, because his experience enhances and informs his mindset. Hoffman himself said he spent weeks in drag on the streets of New York, where no one noticed him but where he saw the world through a woman’s eyes for the first time. It’s not a surprise that his performance in the dual role of Michael / Dorothy is so on the nose: he’s lived this out. Even the film’s title comes from a sexist nickname given to Dorothy when the director forgot her name.

Oscar winner Lange
There may have been grand opportunities to make homophobic jokes, but the writers aren’t concerned with them since that would have been a cheap way to get laughs. This is not The Hangover or its sequel, which are loaded with stereotypes because the producers underestimate the audience’s intelligence. Tootsie is a deftly acted, brilliantly scripted, confidently directed feature that is also one of the smartest comedies ever made.

There’s a saying that there are no small parts, just small actors. That is true, because Tootsie is a treasure trove for actors, each of whom gets to deliver some whip-smart throwaway lines even in featured roles. Let me read you that list of actors again: Dustin Hoffman, Jessica Lange, Teri Garr, Bill Murray, Geena Davis, Dabney Coleman, Sydney Pollack, George Gaynes, Charles Durning. There’s even a small part for future Emmy winner and Golden Girl Estelle Getty, who gets a screen credit even though her character doesn’t even have a name. In her biography Bossypants, Tina Fey recalls Rob Marshall telling everyone on the 30 Rock set to treasure their jobs, because they were rare opportunities in the entertainment field. Truer words have never been spoken, and this could easily have applied to the set of Tootsie.

"Dorothy" during a taping
At the Academy Awards, Tootsie received 10 Academy Awards nominations including Best Picture, Director, Actor (Hoffman), Supporting Actress (Garr), Original Screenplay and Song (“It Might Be You”, AKA a karaoke classic I absolutely rock). Only Lange won, in the Best Supporting Actress category, while the important and serious biopic Gandhi won nine trophies. Gandhi was an extremely fine film accomplishment, but tell me honestly: reader, how many times have you seen it? If Gandhi appeared on TBS, would you drop everything to watch it? I know you would for Tootsie, because Tootsie is worth several replays. And how many lines can you recall from it? This brilliant New York Times article perfectly captures the wit, wisdom and warmth of the classic comedy. This is a film that, line for line, gives you more memorable bang for your cinematic buck than any number of endless explosions in the latest Transformers flick. It’s even been studied in film school as a model screenplay. Just watch this clip and be enchanted by the repartee:

Everyone, and in particular actors and those in love with the city of New York, must watch Tootsie. It’s the perfect bad day movie. A friend told me it was one of the reasons why he moved to New York City once upon a time. For the unemployed, this is an ode to the virtues and pitfalls of work, and if you can’t get a job at this critical time in our economic lives, then this will remind you of just how unattractive office politics can be. I have seen this film with three generations of my family, friends, colleagues, paramours, acquaintances and perfect strangers, and everyone loves it. When I was in Hong Kong on holiday in 1993, it was the only English-language programming one evening we could find because none of us spoke Cantonese and we all just wanted to relax from a long day of sightseeing (i.e. hitting up the sales) with this comic gem. This is a movie for everyone.

Should the year really end in 2012, and you want to put together a time capsule, include a copy of Tootsie in it. Future civilizations can take away lessons on how to understand gender identity, how to relate to human beings, and how to laugh. Maybe they’ll learn how to become better people, just as Michael Dorsey says at the end: “I was a better man with you, as a woman, than I ever was with a woman, as a man.”