In 'Tootsie,' the character Michael Dorsey lands the role of a lifetime—as does the actor playing him, Dustin Hoffman. This multilayered comedy from director Sydney Pollack follows the increasingly elaborate deception of a down-on-his-luck New York actor who disguises himself as a woman to get a coveted soap opera gig; while his female persona skyrockets to fame, he finds himself learning to be a better man. Hoffman's ball-busting yet disarmingly sweet Dorothy Michaels is a sensational comic creation, given support by a stellar cast including Dabney Coleman, Charles Durning, Teri Garr, George Gaynes, Bill Murray, and, in her first Oscar-winning role, Jessica Lange. Imbued with poignant drama, Tootsie is a funny and cutting film from an American moment defined by shifting social and sexual identities.
"There are no other women like you. You're a man!"
Cross-dressing comedies are a dime a dozen, but 'Tootsie' remains unique, namely because it's not a one-gag film. Sure, there's innate humor in watching Dustin Hoffman flounce around in a dress, stumble in high heels, and fend off the attentions of a couple of smitten men, but unlike 'Some Like It Hot,' that's not the meat of the movie. Sydney Pollack's warm, witty, and oh-so-wise romp examines sexual roles and how an insensitive, selfish guy becomes a more enlightened and caring man by being a woman. It also tackles gender politics in the workplace and chronicles the desperation of a serious actor who goes to extreme lengths to ply his craft. All these messages - woven into a tight comedic fabric by screenwriters Larry Gelbart and Murray Schisgal (with uncredited help from the great Elaine May) - ring terrifically true and still strike a chord 33 years later, making 'Tootsie' much more substantive than any other movie in its class.
'Tootsie' works because its premise is fairly plausible. Michael Dorsey (Hoffman), an intensely committed, classically trained actor, is a first-class pain in the ass who drives his directors to distraction by stubbornly refusing to compromise, even in ridiculous situations. (He played a tomato in a TV commercial and held up production for hours because he felt it was "illogical" for a tomato to sit down.) Much to the chagrin of his exasperated agent, George Fields (wonderfully played by Pollack), Michael alienates everyone with whom he works, and his inability to secure theatrical employment makes it tough for him to raise enough money to produce a play written by his roommate (Bill Murray) in which he hopes to star with his good pal Sandy (Teri Garr). Michael needs $8,000 to mount the drama, but George promises he won't even raise 25 cents. "No one will hire you," he bluntly and emphatically states. Yet with dogged determination, Michael perseveres, and in a last-ditch effort to find meaningful work (and prove George wrong), he dons a curly red wig, spectacles, panty hose, and pumps, and transforms himself into Dorothy Michaels, a dowdy, middle-aged character actress with spirit, drive, and enough spunk to land a featured role on the hit daytime soap opera 'Southwest General.'
Michael channels his penchant for truth into Dorothy, who often veers off the soap's trite script, ad-libbing more believable lines to make her character, hospital administrator Emily Kimberly, a more forceful, independent presence. Dorothy's bosses don't like her renegade attitude, but America eats her up, and as Emily becomes less subservient on screen, her strength, moxie, fierceness, and refusal to be stepped on and manipulated by men make her a role model for millions of women who watch the show every day. Almost overnight, Dorothy becomes a star, but her fame and success are tempered by the stress of maintaining her ever-more-tenuous masquerade.
That stress is compounded by Michael's instant attraction to Julie (Jessica Lange), the resident hottie of 'Southwest General,' who is romantically involved with the soap's chauvinistic and womanizing director, Ron (Dabney Coleman). Julie, however, only knows Michael as Dorothy, and as the two become close girlfriends, Dorothy empowers the insecure Julie, helping her take charge of her life and career and navigate the treacherous waters of an unhealthy relationship. (Michael knows guys like Ron all too well, because he is one.) Yet while Dorothy counsels and supports Julie, Michael treats Sandy, with whom he shared an unfortunate one-night stand, like dirt, deceiving her with half-truths and flat-out lies, and showing her none of the respect and empathy he showers upon Julie while wearing a blouse and skirt. As a man, Michael behaves in a stereotypical (and reprehensible) manner, treating women as objects and second-class citizens, but as a woman (who quickly endures her fair share of gender discrimination, sexual harassment, and condescension), he champions other women and encourages them to stand up for themselves and confront the arrogant males who minimize and marginalize them.
Further complications ensue when a frisky older actor on the soap (George Gaynes) becomes infatuated with Dorothy, as does Julie's widowed father (Charles Durning), who hasn't fallen for a woman since his wife's death many years ago. At the same time, Michael's feelings for Julie intensify, and the resulting confusion leads to a total mix-up of sexual perception. Sandy thinks Michael might be gay and Julie believes Dorothy to be a lesbian. Amazingly, the script sorts everything out in a relatively believable fashion, which allows the relatable themes of 'Tootsie' to resonate.
'Tootsie' is smart, romantic, touching, thought-provoking, and, most importantly, laugh-out-loud funny. Sure, the outrageous scenario strains credulity, but the humor is grounded in reality, and the most amusing lines skewer our ingrained perceptions of how men and women relate. Though feminism has clearly evolved and advanced in the 30-plus years since the film premiered, the movie's assessment of male-female relationships - both professional and personal - remains accurate and relevant. We've come a long way, baby, but we may never scale certain humps, and 'Tootsie' reminds us of our inherent differences while helping us bridge the gaping chasm between the sexes so we can hopefully find a bit of common ground.
Hoffman creates two distinct characters and juggles them well. Tapping so deeply into one's feminine side isn't easy, but Hoffman fully embraces Dorothy, making her both tough and endearing...just masculine enough to remind us of the ruse, but also warmly feminine in a plain, spinster-ish sort of way. And Michael's genuine affection for his creation and concern for her well-being is quite touching. Hoffman also acutely transmits Michael's passion for acting, which drives the story and fuels his intense commitment to his new persona. Without such fervent motivation, 'Tootsie' would lose both its sting and relevance. Unfortunately, Lange is saddled with the film's only bland role, but her disarming naturalness and fresh-faced beauty instantly win us over. The scene in which she recalls her mother helping her pick out her bedroom wallpaper is played with such simple tenderness, it's impossible not to fall in love with her. Though Lange gave a riveting performance in the Frances Farmer biopic 'Frances' the same year (for which she received a well-deserved Best Actress Oscar nomination), the Academy gave her the consolation prize of Best Supporting Actress for 'Tootsie' instead. The choice was popular and predictable (Meryl Streep was a lock to win Best Actress for her magnificent work in 'Sophie's Choice'), but ironically, Lange's portrayal wasn't the best of the year. It wasn't even the best featured performance by an actress in the film.
That honor goes to Garr, whose brilliantly etched, savagely funny portrayal of the ditzy and neurotic Sandy provokes many of the movie's biggest laughs. It's a shame she didn't win the award (she, too, was nominated), and it's a shame the sardonic, bemused Murray didn't receive any tangible accolades for his fine work. His deadpan deliveries help him steal almost every scene in which he appears, especially the one in which he derisively utters the disdainful assessment "You slut," a line that never fails to bring down the house during theatrical showings. Coleman, Durning, Pollack, Gaynes, a young Geena Davis in her film debut, and Doris Belack as the acerbic soap producer all assert themselves well and help make the internal engine of 'Tootsie' hum.
In all, 'Tootsie' received 10 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Director, Actor, Screenplay, Cinematography, Song, Sound, and Editing, yet the Academy's habitual and shameless disregard of comedy left it criminally ignored on awards night. (Lange took home the film's only citation.) 'Gandhi' was the big winner, yet Richard Attenborough's bloated epic isn't nearly as beloved as Pollack's intimate and insightful farce, which still speaks to us on a variety of levels today. Most guys won't put on a dress to become a better human being, but we all can learn plenty about each other from 'Tootsie,' and laugh a lot along the way. That's the essence of comedy, and few films capture its elusive qualities with as much verve and relish as this perennial favorite.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Tootsie' at last arrives on Blu-ray packafged in a standard Criterion case. A 16-page foldout booklet containing an extensive essay by film critic Michael Sragow, a couple of color photos, cast and crew listings, and transfer notes is tucked inside the front cover. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is LPCM mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu accompanied by the annoying Stephen Bishop song 'Roll, Tootsie, Roll' immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
According to the liner notes, this new 4K digital transfer of 'Tootsie' was struck from the original 35mm camera negative, and the results are quite good. Excellent clarity and a light grain structure lend the image a newfound vibrancy that's well suited to the comedic material. Some interior scenes look a bit dull and flat, but that may be how they were originally shot and not a deficiency of this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer. A gritty urban feel distinguishes the New York City exteriors, while the country sequences exhibit a striking lushness. Colors are generally bold and rich, as are black levels, and fleshtones remain natural and stable throughout. Close-ups, especially those of Hoffman, are stunningly crisp; Lange is photographed in a slightly softer manner, most likely to emphasize Hoffman's angelic vision of her, but her fresh-faced beauty still comes through. Shadow delineation is solid, background elements show up well, and only a few stray marks litter the pristine source material. No noise or banding could be detected, and only minor digital tinkering has been applied. This is by far the best 'Tootsie' has ever looked on home video, so fans shouldn't hesitate to upgrade.
The liner notes state "the original monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from the 35 mm magnetic dialogue, music, and effects track" and is presented here in LPCM format. Though a bit bland, the track outputs clear, well-modulated audio. Good fidelity and depth of tone help Dave Grusin's bouncy score sound bright and fresh, and the two songs performed by Stephen Bishop fill the room with ease. (The Oscar-nominated 'It Might Be You' exudes a lovely warmth.) Most of the dialogue is easy to comprehend, but occasionally the music or ambient effects render some soft-spoken lines unintelligible. An expansive dynamic scale keeps distortion at bay, and no hiss, pops, crackles, or other age-related imperfections rear their ugly heads. 'Tootsie' never boasted exceptional audio, but this workmanlike track serves the film well.
A wealth of interesting supplements are included on this Criterion release. The few extras that graced the 25th anniversary DVD have been ported over, but additional material nicely fleshes out the disc. It's about time 'Tootsie' received the attention and recognition it deserves, and these comprehensive extras really get under the film's skin.
Audio Commentary - Way back in 1991, the late Sydney Pollack sat down to record this relaxed, straightforward commentary that contains quite a few interesting tidbits. In an affable yet serious tone, Pollack talks about the film's humor and how it comes from the reality of the situations, points out numerous improvisational moments (most of which involve Bill Murray), examines the difficulties of telling the story in a believable manner, and recalls how he cast Lange and Garr without a finished script. (He had just seen Lange in 'King Kong' and admits "I was a freak about getting her into the picture.") He also details the arduous task of directing himself, and how he often blew his lines in two-shots because he was focusing on Hoffman's performance. Pollack claims he was "totally unprepared" for the film's success and remembers that while they were shooting the movie it felt more like a "truthful drama" than a comedy. Pollack is an articulate speaker, and anyone who enjoys 'Tootsie' will appreciate his remarks.
"An Interview with Dustin Hoffman" (HD, 18 minutes) - Hoffman gets a bit emotional about a film that's very close to his heart in this honest, candid, and totally engaging 2014 interview. Topics include his myriad conflicts with Pollack during production, the innate differences between men and women that helped him craft a believable dual portrayal, and his acting experiences in such films as 'Kramer vs. Kramer,' 'The Graduate,' and 'Midnight Cowboy.' Hoffman also talks about how comedy isn't regarded as highly as drama (especially by the Oscars) and admits there are "dozens of things" he would do over if given the chance to make 'Tootsie' again. If you're a Hoffman fan, this is an essential view.
Interview with Phil Rosenthal: "Everybody Loves 'Tootsie' (and here's why)" (HD, 16 minutes) - The producer of the TV series 'Everybody Loves Raymond' (and an HDD reader!) rhapsodizes about the film, praising its message, presentation, and the performers who make it come alive. He cites the introduction of Dorothy Michaels walking down a New York street as the comic equivalent of Omar Sharif's stunning entrance across the desert in 'Lawrence of Arabia' (a bit of a stretch in my view), defines 'Tootsie' as a situation comedy (not a farce), lauds Pollack as an actor, and interprets the movie's message. Rosenthal's enthusiasm is contagious, and his remarks are delivered in such a lively manner, the time flies by.
Interview with Dorothy Michaels by Film Critic Gene Shalit (HD, 4 minutes) - The former 'Today' entertainment editor does a mock interview with Dorothy Michaels that unfortunately ended up on the cutting room floor. The amusing dialogue covers, among other things, Dorothy's previous acting assignments before she landed the role on 'Southwest General,', what it's like to work on a soap opera, and the over-zealous nature of some male fans. Dorothy even hits on Shalit toward the end of the interview, much to the film critic's dismay.
Vintage Documentary: "Tootsie" (1982) (HD, 34 minutes) - Director Rocky Lang chronicles the production of 'Tootsie' from its earliest stages up until the end of shooting in this absorbing behind-the-scenes documentary. Largely filmed in a cinema vérité manner, the documentary provides a fly-on-the-wall feel, as we witness battles in the "respectable and friendly war" between Hoffman and Pollack as they hash out various plot points, watch them rehearse and shoot the classic "No one will hire you" scene, and listen in as Pollack discusses casting over the phone. Pollack also talks about the anxiety associated with directing, while Hoffman discusses how his interest in the differences between the sexes led to the project's genesis. There's plenty of footage of Pollack setting up shots and Hoffman conferring with crew members about makeup and wardrobe, and Jessica Lange, Teri Garr, and Bill Murray chime in with their impressions over the course of this excellent piece.
Documentary: "A Better Man: The Making of 'Tootsie'" (2007) (HD, 68 minutes) - Equally excellent, and including some of the footage from the 1982 documentary, "A Better Man" takes a comprehensive look at the entire production arc of 'Tootsie,' from the development of the script and feminization of Hoffman to casting, shooting, and the struggles and challenges the cast and crew often faced. Pollack, Hoffman, Lange, Garr, Dabney Coleman, and writers Murray Schisgal and Larry Gelbart all share their perspective (as well as a few entertaining anecdotes), and a wealth of behind-the-scenes footage augments their recollections.
Deleted Scenes (HD, 10 minutes) - Nine insignificant scenes add little except excess air to the film, and Pollack was wise to cut them.
Screen and Wardrobe Test Footage (HD, 7 minutes) - Shot in 1980 when director Hal Ashby (Hoffman's original choice to helm the film) was still attached to the project, this rare footage shows Dorothy dressed as a nurse and interviewing for a role on 'Southwest General.' Hoffman uses a different voice for Dorothy than the one he eventually decided upon, but the character's essence remains intact. Silent clips of Dorothy modeling a couple of outfits and flirting with Ashby are also included.
Trailers (HD, 3 minutes) - A brief trailer and two teasers show three marketing strategies for the film.
'Tootsie' is far more than a cross-dressing comedy. It examines gender roles with warmth, humor, and surprising acuity, and staunchly salutes dedicated, committed actors and their dogged pursuit of the work they so dearly love. Dustin Hoffman files a brilliant dual portrayal that hasn't lost a bit of luster more than 30 years later, and excellent supporting work from Jessica Lange, Teri Garr, Bill Murray, Charles Durning, Dabney Coleman, and a host of others help infuse this breezy, madcap farce with a substantial amount of depth and heart. Criterion's Blu-ray presentation honors this beloved film with an excellent transfer, good-quality audio, and a boatload of interesting and entertaining supplements. Though feminism and sexual roles have certainly evolved since 'Tootsie' premiered in 1982, there's a timeless element to this perceptive romp that keeps it fresh, endearing, funny, and certainly worthy of an enthusiastic recomendation.