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

They'll think I've lost control again and put it all down to evolution.

Time Bandits (1981) (SPOILERS) Terry Gilliam had co-directed previously, and his solo debut had visual flourish on its side, but it was with Time Bandits that Gilliam the auteur was born. The first part of his Trilogy of Imagination, it remains a dazzling work – as well as being one of his most successful – rich in theme and overflowing with ideas while resolutely aimed at a wide (family, if you like) audience. Indeed, most impressive about Time Bandits is that there’s no evidence of self-censoring here, of attempting to make it fit a certain formula, format or palatable template.

I never strangled a chicken in my life!

Rope (1948) (SPOILERS) Rope doesn’t initially appear to have been one of the most venerated of Hitchcocks, but it has gone through something of a rehabilitation over the years, certainly since it came back into circulation during the 80s. I’ve always rated it highly; yes, the seams of it being, essentially, a formal experiment on the director’s part, are evident, but it’s also an expert piece of writing that uses our immediate knowledge of the crime to create tension throughout; what we/the killers know is juxtaposed with the polite dinner party they’ve thrown in order to wallow in their superiority.

Oh, you got me right in the pantaloons, partner.

The Party (1968) (SPOILERS) Blake Edwards’ semi-improvisational reunion with Peter Sellers is now probably best known for – I was going to use an elephant-in-the-room gag, but at least one person already went there – Sellers’ “brown face”. And it isn’t a decision one can really defend, even by citing The Party ’s influence on Bollywood. Satyajit Ray had also reportedly been considering working with Sellers… and then he saw the film. One can only assume he’d missed similar performances in The Millionairess and The Road to Hong Kong ; in the latter case, entirely understandable, if not advisable. Nevertheless, for all the flagrant stereotyping, Sellers’ bungling Hrundi V Bakshi is a very likeable character, and indeed, it’s the piece’s good-natured, soft centre – his fledgling romance with Claudine Longet’s Michele – that sees The Party through in spite of its patchy, hit-and-miss quality.

Never lose any sleep over accusations. Unless they can be proved, of course.

Strangers on a Train (1951) (SPOILERS) Watching a run of lesser Hitchcock films is apt to mislead one into thinking he was merely a highly competent, supremely professional stylist. It takes a picture where, to use a not inappropriate gourmand analogy, his juices were really flowing to remind oneself just how peerless he was when inspired. Strangers on a Train is one of his very, very best works, one he may have a few issues with but really deserves nary a word said against it, even in “compromised” form.

You must have hopes, wishes, dreams.

Brazil (1985) (SPOILERS) Terry Gilliam didn’t consider Brazil the embodiment of a totalitarian nightmare it is often labelled as. His 1984½ (one of the film’s Fellini-riffing working titles) was “ the Nineteen Eighty-Four for 1984 ”, in contrast to Michael Anderson’s Nineteen Eighty-Four from 1948. This despite Gilliam famously boasting never to have read the Orwell’s novel: “ The thing that intrigues me about certain books is that you know them even though you’ve never read them. I guess the images are archetypal ”. Or as Pauline Kael observed, Brazil is to Nineteen Eighty-Four as “ if you’d just heard about it over the years and it had seeped into your visual imagination ”. Gilliam’s suffocating system isn’t unflinchingly cruel and malevolently intolerant of individuality; it is, in his vision of a nightmare “future”, one of evils spawned by the mechanisms of an out-of-control behemoth: a self-perpetuating bureaucracy. And yet, that is not really, despite how indulgently and glee

Miss Livingstone, I presume.

Stage Fright (1950) (SPOILERS) This one has traditionally taken a bit of a bruising, for committing a cardinal crime – lying to the audience. More specifically, lying via a flashback, through which it is implicitly assumed the truth is always relayed. As Richard Schickel commented, though, the egregiousness of the action depends largely on whether you see it as a flaw or a brilliant act of daring: an innovation. I don’t think it’s quite that – not in Stage Fright ’s case anyway; the plot is too ordinary – but I do think it’s a picture that rewards revisiting knowing the twist, since there’s much else to enjoy it for besides.

I'm an old ruin, but she certainly brings my pulse up a beat or two.

The Paradine Case (1947) (SPOILERS) Hitchcock wasn’t very positive about The Paradine Case , his second collaboration with Gregory Peck, but I think he’s a little harsh on a picture that, if it doesn’t quite come together dramatically, nevertheless maintains interest on the basis of its skewed take on the courtroom drama. Peck’s defence counsel falls for his client, Alida Valli’s accused (of murder), while wife Ann Todd wilts dependably and masochistically on the side-lines.

A herbal enema should fix you up.

Never Say Never Again (1983) (SPOILERS) There are plenty of sub-par Bond s in the official (Eon) franchise, several of them even weaker than this opportunistic remake of Thunderball , but they do still feel like Bond movies. Never Say Never Again , despite – or possibly because he’s part of it – featuring the much-vaunted, title-referencing return of the Sean Connery to the lead role, only ever feels like a cheap imitation. And yet, reputedly, it cost more than the same year’s Rog outing Octopussy .

You’re easily the best policeman in Moscow.

Gorky Park (1983) (SPOILERS) Michael Apted and workmanlike go hand in hand when it comes to thriller fare (his Bond outing barely registered a pulse). This adaptation of Martin Cruz Smith’s 1981 novel – by Dennis Potter, no less – is duly serviceable but resolutely unremarkable. William Hurt’s militsiya officer Renko investigates three faceless bodies found in the titular park. It was that grisly element that gave Gorky Park a certain cachet when I first saw it as an impressionable youngster. Which was actually not unfair, as it’s by far its most memorable aspect.

I don’t like fighting at all. I try not to do too much of it.

Cuba (1979) (SPOILERS) Cuba -based movies don’t have a great track record at the box office, unless Bad Boys II counts. I guess The Godfather Part II does qualify. Steven Soderbergh , who could later speak to box office bombs revolving around Castro’s revolution, called Richard Lester’s Cuba fascinating but flawed. Which is generous of him.