“Tootsie” is a lulu. Remarkably funny and entirely convincing, film pulls off the rare accomplishment of being an in-drag comedy which also emerges with three-dimensional characters. Dustin Hoffman’s first pic since his Oscar win for “Kramer Vs. Kramer” has b.o. smash written all over it.
Film instantly takes flight with charm and confidence and stays aloft thereafter with nary a bump in the ride. Hoffman portrays a long-struggling New York stage actor whose ‘difficult’ reputation has relegated him to employment as a waiter and drama coach. The frustrating realities of the thespian profession are deftly sketched, and after 20 minutes it’s clear that, having reached a dead-end, desperate measures are called for if he’s ever going to make it.
Brash but appealing actor’s solution: audition for a popular soap opera as a woman. Outrageous as this may seem, ruse proves instantly acceptable, not only in the fictional context, but even objectively. Hoffman’s new persona, the rather fastidious, outspoken and somewhat motherly Dorothy Michaels is genuinely a likeable character, a creation which enables him to not only carve a successful career, but to express personality traits otherwise difficult or impossible for him.
Remainder of the story bears the contours of classical farce, but at all times restrains a fundamental humanity which is never abandoned or betrayed for the sake of a cheap laugh. Becoming a hit on the show, Dorothy develops into a media celebrity thanks to her forthright manner and ‘different’ personality. Hoffman finds it hard to devote much time to sort-of-girlfriend Teri Garr, and all the while is growing more deeply attracted to soap costar Jessica Lange, who in turn is dating macho tv director Dabney Coleman.
Invited to the country farm of Lange’s father, Charles Durning, for the weekend, Hoffman’s Dorothy finds himself having to maintain his disguise even while sharing a bed with his inamorata, just after widower Durning has tried to seduce him downstairs.
On a subsequent evening nearly unsurpassable for romantic contortions, Hoffman gently comes on to Lange (who thinks Dorothy is a lesbian), is proposed to by Durning, is practically raped by aging lothario George Gaynes and is then suspected by Garr of being gay, the other way. Complications are deliciously set up and expertly played out.
Furthermore, situation possesses interesting reverberations in terms of Hoffman’s career–in “The Graduate,” he had relations with both the mother and the daughter, whereas here he’s desired by the father and lusts after the daughter.
Naturally, Hoffman must ultimately lay his cards on the table and, to its great credit, film doesn’t fall apart here even though it must necessarily take a more serious turn.
In what could have been just a stunt or a “La Cage Aux Folles”-type comic turn, Hoffman triumphs in what must stand as one of his most brilliant performances. Although hardly blessed with what one could consider feminine or even androgynous features, his Dorothy is entirely plausible and, physically, reasonably appealing. But much more importantly, he gets across the enormous guts and determination required of his character to go through with the charade. When his character says that he’s been able to express more of “himself” through Dorothy than he ordinarily can in “real” life, it’s a tribute to Hoffman that the full import of his statement is felt.
Having just reached a personal career high in “Frances,” Jessica Lange has now scored a two-punch knockout with the addition of her costarring role here. Her beauty and desirability make it all the more difficult for Hoffman to restrain himself as long as he does, and she displays the talent for relatively realistic romantic comedy some have long sensed she possessed.
As an actress with a heavy inferiority complex, Garr gets to build up frustration and let off steam in equal measure and does so in fine, high-powered style. Dabney Coleman’s self-confident director is a more believable version of his “Nine to Five” character, Charles Durning is wonderful as the father and, incidentally, pulls off a sensational slow burn during a bar scene with Hoffman, while Gaynes nearly steals all his scenes as an on-the-make soap star. Bill Murray is effectively low-keyed as Hoffman’s roommate.
Sydney Pollack registers a double whammy of his own by virtue of his beautifully sustained direction as well as his vastly amusing supporting performance as Hoffman’s agent. There can be little question that “Tootsie” marks Pollack’s top career achievement to date.
Script by Larry Gelbart and Murray Schisgal (with reported, but uncredited, assist from Elaine May) is a model of comic construction and contains numerous belly laughs as well as constant chuckles. Tech work is top drawer all the way.
1982: Best Supp. Actress (Jessica Lange).
Nominations: Best Picture, Director, Actor (Dustin Hoffman), Supp. Actress (Teri Garr), Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, Original Song (‘It Might Be You’), Sound