Skip to main content

There are no other women like you. You’re a man!

Tootsie
(1982)

(SPOILERS) Tootsie’s that rare hit comedy that almost entirely justifies its high profile, which is probably why it’s that rare hit comedy that was also nominated for Best Picture Oscar. It’s also an ‘80s comedy that stands the test of time – the odds of which are stacked against– even if its askance reactions to both and gender identification and equality (“Don’t you find being a woman in the ‘80s so complicated?”) might now occasionally seem a little antiquated. About the only thing that really shows wear is Dave Grusin’s relentlessly tone-deaf score, but even that Go, Tootsie Go! song – and it’s terrible, let’s make no bones about it – reaches a crescendo of Stockholm Syndrome-esque cheerfulness once it has been impressed on your brain repeatedly.


Sure, you could offer the reactionary reading that Tootsie’s all about a man showing women how to become better, more successful, accomplished, and all-round more complete women, in much the way Tom Cruise later shows the Japanese how to be superior Samurai, but that’s at worst a side effect of it’s enthusiasm for exploring its subject matter to the full. And it’s incredible just how packed with incident and inventiveness the picture is. Tootsie keeps throwing new ideas into play; it probably had enough ideas to justify a movie half as long again. 


It really ought to have been, given the number of contributors to the screenplay (apparently 20 different drafts were sent to the screenwriters’ guild for arbitration). In that broth-spoiling way, invariably the more pens scribbling a piece, the bigger the botched scrawl one should expect; Larry Gelbart and Murray Schisgal received the final credits, but notables Barry Levinson and Elaine May where also in the mix. Tootsie emerges of-a-piece from such overhauling; it feels finely honed, and never at odds with itself. Much of that is surely down to Sydney Pollack’s deceptively easy hand on the rudder. Particularly deceptively, as Dustin Hoffman reportedly drove him to distraction.


It may not remotely be key to enjoying the film, but there’s no doubt that knowing there’s more than a sliver of Dustin in obsessive, perfectionist actor Michael Dorsey, and more than a slice of Sydney Pollack (who’s hilariously droll) in his put-upon, harassed agent George Fields, adds another layer to what is already a keen juggling act of involved plotting and thematic content. Hoffman even pressed put-upon and harassed Pollack into playing the part (it was earmarked for Dabney Coleman, who winded up with the more typically Coleman role – he’d pretty much essayed it already in 9 to 5 two years earlier – of sexist soap director Ron Carlisle). It’s testament to the heightened rapport between director and star that one of the best scenes isn’t a showy Dorothy moment, but finds Michael divulging the extent of his fraught personal life (lives) to a perplexed George (“He gave you a ring? What did you say?”)


Rita: I’d like you to make her a little more attractive. How far can you pull back?
Cameraman: How do you feel about Cleveland?

Hoffman was reputedly disappointed at being unable to make Dorothy Michaels more attractive, but her frumpy homeliness is absolutely key to her appeal. One of the problems with Mrs Doubtfire is the shroud of prosthetics that removes the fact of Robin Williams from the equation (I know, I know, it was a huge hit). Here, Hoffman is right there, but such is the delirium of his performance you’re transported into the world of Dorothy, or the world of Michael Dorsey fully invested in the world of Dorothy Michaels, fully invested in the world of Emily, her soap character in Southwest General.


Michael’s ultimate pronouncement of how “I was a better man with you, as a woman… than I ever was with a woman, as a man” is both brilliant and a little too neat (not nearly as much as the freeze frame arm-around-the-girl wrap-up; Jessica Lange’s Julie is brought around a little too quickly, matters ought to have been more positively open-ended than a fait accompli), but we completely buy into his belief that “I think Dorothy’s smarter than I am” (or, as Robert Downey Jr confusedly professes in Tropic Thunder, regarding his grip on his character, “I know who I am. I’m the dude, playing the dude, disguised as another dude”).


The accordion of relationship dilemmas Michael/Dorothy get him/herself into is the stuff of high farce, from sleeping with long-time acting class protégé Sandy (Teri Garr, sublimely self-doubting and needy) in order to conceal that he’s undressed in her apartment purely to try on her outfits, to leading Julie to think Dorothy’s a lesbian when she makes a pass, to fending off the advances of lecherous aging soap star John Van Horn (George Gaynes, best known for Police Academy, and so peerlessly baffled he’d give Frank Drebin a run for his money), to trying not to lead on Julie’s dad Les (Charles Durning), who turns out to be far more understanding than Michael had any right to expect (“Truth is, you were okay company”).


Dorothy: Shame on you, you macho shithead.

It’s undoubtedly the case that Dorothy wins plaudits for foiling men where real women have been unable to, but it’s so gloriously played out – particularly in the case of Van Horn – that it avoids coming across as a backwards lesson in men doing it better. The soap scenes are something else whenever Dorothy goes off-script and has to nudge the incompetent Van Horn – or shove him – in the right direction. And the climactic reveal scene is as breathlessly fizzy as the picture gets.


Tootsie rarely stumbles with its fun, embarrassment or excruciation – the “tips/tits” scene with Geena Davis in her underwear is rather beneath it, since pretty much everything else is aiming higher and hitting its target, but generally Pollack, Hoffman et al keep finding new challenges and boiling imbroglios for Michael and Dorothy to tackle.


And Michael is undoubtedly a jerk until he becomes Dorothy, scouting the room for girls, using the exact same excuse for seeking a relationship with Julie while simultaneously seeing Sandy that Ron later uses for playing away from Julie (it’s another reason why the ending shouldn’t be quite as easily earned as it is; Michael really needs to prove himself beyond the sobering experience, while posing as Dorothy, of being relegated to the dorky best pal who can’t have the girl).


Jeff: Nowadays, when people dream, they don’t dream in their own country any more, and I think it’s SICK.

Throughout this, there’s Bill Murray as Michael’s flatmate Jeff, shamelessly improving and blending in seamlessly with the ensemble. All the while, pure gold is tripping of his tongue (“I’m just afraid you’re going to burn in hell for all this”, “You slut”, and “That is one nutty hospital”). Even he can’t beat Pollack, though, a former actor with an instinct for deadpan naturalism; “God forbid you should lose your standing as a cult failure” he mocks Michael over his actorly scruples, “You were a tomato!” (Dorsey’s failed roles were apparently all based on Hoffman’s own experiences) and “There are no other women like you. You’re a man!


Lange credits Pollack with making Julie special in the editing room, which is very modest of her, particularly as she walked away with the one Oscar (Best Supporting Actress) out of Tootsie’s ten nominations. Hoffman certainly didn’t have easy competition in his category (I’ll hesitate to say who I’d pick for now, except that it wouldn’t be Lemmon). Dave Grusin’s miss, nominated for Best Song (It Might Be You) is less surprising. Only that he got considered in the first place. In fairness to Grusin, his score for The Fabulous Baker Boys at the end of the decade is fabulous. This: really not. 


A number of critics, Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael among them, summoned memories of the finely sprung screwball comedies of the ‘40s when describing the picture, and that’s rather apt. Few comedies were testing Best Picture status at this point, the occasional Woody Allen aside, and Tootsie manages to rise from the mire of being quintessentially ‘80s in form and texture to remain an extremely funny movie.



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

You're waterboarding me.

The Upside (2017)
(SPOILERS) The list of US remakes of foreign-language films really ought to be considered a hiding to nothing, given the ratio of flops to unqualified successes. There’s always that chance, though, of a proven property (elsewhere) hitting the jackpot, and every exec hopes, in the case of French originals, for another The Birdcage, Three Men and a Baby, True Lies or Down and Out in Beverly Hills. Even a Nine Months, Sommersby or Unfaithful will do. Rather than EdTV. Or Sorcerer. Or Eye of the Beholder. Or Brick Mansions. Or Chloe. Or Intersection (Richard Gere is clearly a Francophile). Or Just Visiting. Or The Man with One Red Shoe. Or Mixed Nuts. Or Original Sin. Or Oscar. Or Point of No Return. Or Quick Change. Or Return to Paradise. Or Under Suspicion. Or Wicker Park. Or Father’s Day.

What about the meaningless line of indifference?

The Lion King (2019)
(SPOILERS) And so the Disney “live-action” remake train thunders on regardless (I wonder how long the live-action claim would last if there was a slim hope of a Best Animated Feature Oscar nod?) I know I keep repeating myself, but the early ‘90s Disney animation renaissance didn’t mean very much to me; I found their pictures during that period fine, but none of them blew me away as they did critics and audiences generally. As such, I have scant nostalgia to bring to bear on the prospect of a remake, which I’m sure can work both ways. Aladdin proved to be a lot of fun. Beauty and the Beast entirely tepid. The Lion King, well, it isn’t a badfilm, but it’s wearying its slavish respectfulness towards the original and so diligent in doing it justice, you’d think it was some kind of religious artefact. As a result, it is, ironically, for the most part, dramatically dead in the water.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

You know what I think? I think he just wants to see one cook up close.

The Green Mile (1999)
(SPOILERS) There’s something very satisfying about the unhurried confidence of the storytelling in Frank Darabont’s two prison-set Stephen King adaptations (I’m less beholden to supermarket sweep The Mist); it’s sure, measured and precise, certain that the journey you’re being take on justifies the (indulgent) time spent, without the need for flashy visuals or ornate twists (the twists there are feel entirely germane – with a notable exception – as if they could only be that way). But. The Green Mile has rightly come under scrutiny for its reliance on – or to be more precise, building its foundation on – the “Magical Negro” trope, served with a mild sprinkling of idiot savant (so in respect of the latter, a Best Supporting Actor nomination was virtually guaranteed). One might argue that Stephen King’s magical realist narrative flourishes well-worn narrative ploys and characterisations at every stage – such that John Coffey’s initials are announcement enough of his …

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Kindly behove me no ill behoves!

The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990)
(SPOILERS) It’s often the case that industry-shaking flops aren’t nearly the travesties they appeared to be before the dust had settled, and so it is with The Bonfire of the Vanities. The adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s ultra-cynical bestseller is still the largely toothless, apologetically broad-brush comedy – I’d hesitate to call it a satire in its reconfigured form – it was when first savaged by critics nearly thirty years ago, but taken for what it is, that is, removed from the long shadow of Wolfe’s novel, it’s actually fairly serviceable star-stuffed affair that doesn’t seem so woefully different to any number of rather blunt-edged comedies of the era.

What you do is very baller. You're very anarchist.

Lady Bird (2017)
(SPOILERS) You can see the Noah Baumbach influence on Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, with whom she collaborated on Frances Ha; an intimate, lo-fi, post-Woody Allen (as in, post-feted, respected Woody Allen) dramedy canvas that has traditionally been the New Yorker’s milieu. But as an adopted, spiritual New Yorker, I suspect Gerwig honourably qualifies, even as Lady Bird is a love letter/ nostalgia trip to her home city of Sacramento.

You’re a staring Stanley!

The Sixth Sense (1999)
(SPOILERS) It has usually been a shrewd move for the Academy to ensure there’s at least one big hit among its Best Picture Oscar nominees. At least, until the era of ever-plummeting ratings; not only do the studios get to congratulate themselves for their own profligacy (often, but not always, the big hits are also the costliest productions), but the audience also has something to identify with and possibly root for. Plus, it evidences that the ceremony isn’t just about populism-shunning snobbery. The Sixth Sense provided Oscar’s supernatural bookend to a decade – albeit, The Green Mile also has a stake in this – that opened with Ghost while representing the kind of deliberate, skilfully-honed genre fare there was no shame in recognising. Plus, it had a twist. Everyone loves a twist.

Do you read Sutter Cane?

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
(SPOILERS) The concluding chapter of John Carpenter’s unofficial Apocalypse Trilogy (preceded by The Thing and Prince of Darkness) is also, sadly, his last great movie. Indeed, it stands apart in the qualitative wilderness that beset him during the ‘90s (not for want of output). Michael De Luca’s screenplay had been doing the rounds since the ‘80s, even turned down by Carpenter at one point, and it proves ideal fodder for the director, bringing out the best in him. Even cinematographer Gary K Kibbe seems inspired enough to rise to the occasion. It could do without the chugging rawk soundtrack, perhaps, but then, that was increasingly where Carpenter’s interests resided (as opposed to making decent movies).