Director: Sydney Pollack
Screenplay: Larry Gelbart & Murray Schisgal (story by Don McGuire and Larry Gelbart)
Stars: Dustin Hoffman (Michael Dorsey / Dorothy Michaels), Jessica Lange (Julie), Teri Garr (Sandy), Dabney Coleman (Ron), Charles Durning (Les), Bill Murray (Jeff), Sydney Pollack (George Fields), George Gaynes (John Van Horn), Geena Davis (April), Doris Belack (Rita), Ellen Foley (Jacqui), Peter Gatto (Rick), Lynne Thigpen (Jo), Ronald L. Schwary (Phil Weintraub)
MPAA Rating: PG
Year of Release: 1982
Country: U.S.
Tootsie: Criterion Collection Blu-ray
TootsieThe seven-year production history of Tootsie, the surprisingly durable early-’80s comedy hit about a struggling actor who pretends to be a woman in order to land a role on a soap opera, is a particularly instructive example of how collaboration, conflict, and artistic differences can lead to great Hollywood cinema. The film began in 1975 as a 30-page treatment titled Calling Diana Darling by screenwriter Don McGuire, a veteran of early Jerry Lewis movies, and by the time it finally arrived in theaters in late December 1982, it had gone through three title changes, five production executives, a half-dozen writers, and several directors and potential leading men (at various points Dick Richards and Hal Ashby were going to direct, while the lead role was originally offered to Peter Sellers and Michael Caine, although for a number of years the actor of choice was George Hamilton).

It is only through the bizarre, inexplicable process known as Hollywood development that it finally came together with Dustin Hoffman, fresh off his Oscar-winning performance in Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), in the lead role and Sydney Pollack, who had directed a string of hits the previous decade, including the Robert Redford vehicles The Way We Were (1973) and The Electric Horseman (1979), behind the lens. Their pairing on this particular project was certainly unlikely, given that Hoffman hadn’t starred in a comedy since his breakthrough in The Graduate (1967) 15 years earlier and Pollack had never directed one.

But, sometimes the unlikeliest choices turn out to be the best ones, as Hoffman provided the perfect model for Michael Dorsey, an intense, uncompromising New York stage actor, and Pollack gave what could have been a fluffy-light comedy a sense of dramatic weight while also discovering a real penchant for comic timing as both director and actor (at Hoffman’s insistence he took the role of Michael’s harried agent). For Pollack, one could easily describe Tootsie as one of Hollywood’s greatest comic debuts, and for Hoffman it could be described as one of Hollywood’s greatest returns to the genre; the irony is that Pollack made only one other comedy, the relatively leaden 1995 remake of Sabrina with Harrison Ford and Julia Ormond, while Hoffman’s next foray into the genre was the legendary bomb Ishtar (1987), which was written and directed by Elaine May, who contributed significantly (without credit) to Tootsie’s script.

Despite the numerous hands involved, the script was eventually credited to Larry Gelbart (best known for developing and writing the TV series M*A*S*H) and Murray Schisgal (a playwright and veteran of television series and movies), with original treatment writer Don McGuire maintaining a co-story credit along with Gelbart (Pauline Kael reported that, when the Writers Guild had to arbitrate screen credit, they had to go through three large cardboard boxes containing more than 20 different iterations of the script). That the film came together at all is some kind of miracle, which makes it all the more astonishing that it became both an instant commercial hit (the second highest grossing film of 1982, behind Steven Spielberg’s E.T.) and critical success (it scored nine Oscar nominations).

Tootsie worked then and continues to work now because it delves much deeper than its surface gags about female impersonation. It’s a wonderful movie, full of warmth and good humor balanced with both farcical silliness and level-headed recognition of certain social truths about the sexes we often want to ignore. Had it been solely about a man pretending to be a woman and all the comic pratfalls both physical and social involved, Tootsie likely would have been a funny and ultimately forgettable farce. However, Pollack insisted during the script development that the film actually be about something, which forced the writers to deal seriously with the ramifications of a man walking around in a woman’s skin in modern society, which elevated the film immensely; it is no wonder it is often spoken of in the same breath with classical Hollywood screwball comedies. Thus was born an idea both funny and poignant: Michael Dorsey, the recalcitrant male actor played by Hoffman, learns to be a better man by living as a woman. In other words, for the first time he sees—really, really sees—what women go through on a daily basis just for being women, which forces him to rethink his attitude about not just himself, but the women in his life.

Michael concocts his scheme out of no grander plan than to pay the bills. As the opening credits montage makes clear, he is a difficult actor to work with, both because he doesn’t fit the conventional physique of the leading man and because he is absolutely committed to his artistic ideals and will accept no compromise. He is a gifted actor, no doubt, but as his agent, George Fields (Pollack), tells him, “No one will hire you!” So, in what appears to be a moment of sudden inspiration, Michael dons a wig, glasses, false teeth, and a whole lot of make-up to become Dorothy Michaels, a Southern-accented firebrand (it’s no surprise that Michael makes her a redhead) who lands a plum leading role on a daytime drama.

The show, one of those hospital-based sudsers called Southwest General (Dorothy’s role is as the new administrator), is helmed by a chauvinistic director named Ron (Dabney Coleman, essentially playing the same bigoted jerk he played in 9 to 5) who is involved with Julie (Jessica Lange), the show’s beautiful lead who plays the hospital floozy. Michael is immediately attracted to Julie, for both her beauty and her vulnerability, but in the guise of Dorothy all he can be is her new best friend and confidant. At the same time Michael is juggling his relationship with Sandy (Teri Garr), a neurotic acting student who auditioned for the very role he landed as Dorothy. His life is further complicated when he becomes the intense object of affection for Julie’s widower father, Les (Charles Durning), a development that is handled with a deft touch and real sensitivity.

The plot mechanics are all expertly balanced, and supporting roles like Jeff (Bill Murray), Michael’s incredulous playwright roommate, and John Van Horn (George Gaynes), the soap opera’s incompetent lead actor and inveterate womanizer, are so skillfully drawn and played that everything feels of a piece. Pollack balances the drama and the humor, ensuring that we see the characters as fully realized human beings before unleashing the film’s more farcical moments, the highlights of which involve Van Horn’s clumsily attempted seduction of Dorothy, Dorothy’s disastrous attempt to babysit Julie’s one-year-old, and Michael running about his apartment trying to get out of his Dorothy guise while Sandy bangs on the door. The film’s insistence on humanity over laughs elevates both, and there are moments that are almost painfully poignant, especially the scenes in which Julie confides to Dorothy about her own struggles and how she feels complicit in the essentially exploitative relationship she has with Ron.

Lange, who deservedly won a host of awards, including a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, is especially good as Julie, playing her as sweet and gentle, rather than dim or spacey. She has an innocence about her, but she’s never unaware. You can see immediately why Michael is drawn to her and why Ron is so good at manipulating her. Hoffman, of course, has the most complex role, playing an actor who is constantly acting, so that Hoffman’s performance is like a series of Russian nesting dolls. The speed with which he becomes Dorothy—there’s no build-up, no montage of getting ready, just a cut from Michael to Michael-as-Dorothy walking down a crowded New York sidewalk—that we get the sense that he is constantly making her up as he goes along, finding the character within himself. The brilliance of Hoffman’s performance is that he allows us to see all the layers working at once without any of them getting in the way of the others.

The word “tootsie” is only spoken once in the whole film, when Dorothy boldly admonishes Ron for using sexually debasing nicknames to refer to the women with whom he works instead of their proper names, but it hangs over the entire film as Michael learns via Dorothy’s high heels that sexism is still alive and well and as painful as ever, even after both waves of feminism had washed over the culture and supposedly shattered the glass ceiling. That many of the film’s social observations are still relevant today is unfortunate, even though it means that Tootsie still has much to offer beyond its laughs. One can only hope that some day its relevance will be primarily as a document of how things used to be.

Tootsie Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio2.40:1
  • English Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • Audio commentary by director Sydney Pollack
  • Interviews with actor Dustin Hoffman
  • Interview with comedy writer Phil Rosenthal
  • Interview with Dorothy Michaels by film critic Gene Shalit
  • “Making of Tootsie” (1982) documentary
  • “A Better Man: The Making of Tootsie” (2007) documentary
  • Screen and wardrobe test footage
  • Deleted scenes and trailers
  • Essay by critic Michael Sragow
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateDecember 16, 2014

    The new 4K transfer on Criterion’s Blu-ray was made from the original camera negative and digitally restored, leaving it in excellent, unblemished condition. The digital restoration has not flattened out the image or scrubbed it free of texture, as there is a fine interplay of grain that is typical of Hollywood films in the early 1980s. Color and contrast are unquestionably good, allowing primary colors to pop with authority; even the more muted scenes have a sense of density and warmth. The original monaural soundtrack was transferred at 24-bit from the 35mm magnetic dialogue, music, and effects track. There is no mention in the liner notes about any kind of restoration on the soundtrack, but it certainly sounds rejuvenated, with excellent clarity and no ambient hiss or aural artifacts to speak of.
    The supplements on Criterion’s disc combine a mixture of previously available material with several new pieces. From Criterion’s 1991 laserdisc we get an outstanding and informative audio commentary by director Sydney Pollack. Ported over from Sony’s 2007 DVD (which celebrated the film’s 25th anniversary) we get “A Better Man: The Making of Tootsie,” an hour-long retrospective documentary that includes then-new interviews with Dustin Hoffman, Sydney Pollack, Teri Garr, Larry Gelbart, and Murray Schisgal, among others. Also from that disc we get 10 minutes of deleted scenes and 6 minutes of screen and wardrobe test footage that was originally shot in 1980 when Hal Ashby was intending to direct the film. New to this edition are interviews with Hoffman and comedy writer and Everybody Loves Raymond creator Phil Rosenthal. Also new to this edition is some archival material, including an interview with Dorothy Michaels by film critic Gene Shalit (part of which appears in the film) and “Making of Tootsie,” a half-hour behind-the-scenes featurette from 1982. Also included are two theatrical trailers.

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    Overall Rating: (4)

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