Monday, February 12, 2018

Blind Spot 2018--Sydney Pollack's 'Tootsie'

On watching the beloved 1982 comedy "Tootsie" for the first time.

There's a scene, well several scenes, but one in particular in Sydney Pollack's 1982 comedy "Tootsie" that seems borne out of the collective dream of the #TimesUp and #MeToo movements. It feels as at home here THIRTY-SIX years later as it probably didn't then. 

Early on, Dustin Hoffman as Dorothy Michaels, the new sensation of a soap, or "daytime drama" if you will, tells off the show's slimy, womanizing director Ron (Dabney Coleman) that she is sick of being just another "honey" or "baby" or "toots" or "tootsie" or what have you. This comes after another scene where she, on her first day as a woman, thrashes back at the show's female producer for not immediately defending her when the director makes a crack about power and female masculinity.

Honestly, this is the film's most solid central idea, which is otherwise solidly of its time, and it enlightened and surprised me. It made the experience all the more richer. I couldn't have expected it.

Hoffman plays two characters in this film and is billed as such. That would be a gimmick if it wasn't actually the case. He is first the pedantic blowhard of an act-or Michael Dorsey, who hasn't worked in months because he argues with every director who casts him. His agent George (Sydney Pollack) won't even put him up for any parts because he just pisses everybody off. He also won't help him bankroll a play written by his roommate Jeff (Bill Murray). When his best friend, the struggling actress Sandy (Teri Garr) loses out on a soap opera role, an idea comes together, and, for most of the picture he is Dorothy, a one-of-a-kind, the total package, a woman with the balls, like SO MANY women today, to flip the script and go full feminist when clearly most actresses of the time wouldn't dare. She becomes an inspiration.

Of course, classically ironic situations ensue and some of the plot becomes inevitable. He falls for his beautiful co-star, the single mother in a bad relationship with the director, Julie (Supporting Actress Oscar winner Jessica Lange). Meanwhile, in hiding his new identity from Sandy, he covers a blunder and ends up in bed with her instead, complicating his juggling act of being a woman falling for a woman and worrying about messing up his friendship with his best friend, now lover, a woman.

And the beauty of the screenplay, which I've heard is often studied in screenwriting courses, despite its being developed over the course of years by various writers, is that it doesn't have Michael, the male Hoffman character, immediately change. It instead illustrates that change through Dorothy exclusively, as if they are truly two separate people. Being treated like a woman instantly creates the transformation of Dorothy into the feminist she becomes, while Michael, like most men is still five steps behind.

The lack of Michael's early understanding is perfectly written and played in the film's best scene in which Dorothy crashes his agent's lunch at the Russian Tea Room. Breaking character to become Michael in voice alone, he gloats about how he's done it, he has gotten a gig, a totally macho power play of a move. Hoffman and Pollack together is screenwriting and acting gold. (How wonderful that Hoffman got Pollack to perform in the film. He is so good.) By the end, they have met again, in another hilarious and timely scene, this time with Hoffman as Michael begging to get out of the contract, understanding the pain he may ultimately leave in his wake the longer he keeps up the act.

And it is this understanding, coming through the love he has developed through his friendship with Julia, that Michael begins to shed Dorothy. (Kudos to Lange for making Julia such a strong woman in her own right, so understanding.) Dorothy's work was done. She changed the expectations of a television show's audience. She empowered the other women to do the same. She shot down the advances of men used to getting exactly what they want, including her director as well as the show's aggressive but harmless old hack, John Van Horn (George Gaynes), and Julia's sweet widowed father, Les (Charles Durning). She has lied and decided that the truth would, well, set her, or him, free.

"Tootsie" is timely because it is more proof that women can turn the table on an industry that belittles them and a world that, as the Durning character makes clear, sees woman as different, if not inferior or unequal. It does this by showing us a man capable of understanding women. So few of us are. That was the problem then. That is the problem now. Maybe we should all dress the part someday and see how long it takes us to decide that it's too damn hard to even fathom.

10 comments:

  1. You.... hadn't seen Tootsie before now? WOW. It really is one of the greats; Hoffman's best performance, easily, and one of the most rewatchable films of the 80s. Friends of mine have issues with it now because found it difficult to reconcile the fact that it's very feminist and about a misogynistic male learning how much harder it is for a woman with the fact that most of the pro-woman stuff is essentially said man mansplaining how things should be. I kinda get that, but also... no. I think Michael's arc is really well-thought out and brilliantly performed. The message for women is, essentially, don't care about how sticking up for yourself and what you deserve makes you look - the fact that you do it will make people respect you more.

    Anyway, Tootsie is one of the most brilliant comedies ever made. The live soap opera taping scene where Michael removes his wig and reveals himself as Dorothy is PERFECTION. The scene with Sydney Pollack (BRILLIANT casting) in the Russian Tea Room is also great. And everything Teri Garr does in this is flawless. It's a great movie. So glad you finally saw it and loved it!

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    1. I know! It's one of those movies that I have heard about over and over throughout my life and just never got to. Then, a couple weeks ago, my Mom started talking about how she remembered Bill Murray being great in it. I didn't even know he was in it. That piqued my interest...again, and the rest is history.

      I felt like I was walking a fine line in basically calling this movie a feminist statement, but it is, even if it's an 80s version of it. It focuses quite clearly on the same power dynamics that women are fighting now.

      So many great moments in this movie, and Hoffman is, as usual, outstanding.

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  2. I love this film. It's so funny and it features some great performances. I love seeing Dustin Hoffman as a woman where I just love where he kind of becomes a feminist in a way and I love that first encounter with Dabney Coleman where he says "Shame on you, you macho shit-head". Plus, any scene with George Gaynes (R.I.P. Commandant Eric Lassard) is gold.

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    1. No doubt. Great performances top to bottom. Gaynes is wonderful.

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  3. I've never seen Tootsie either and it's one I've always meant to start. Some day, lol. Some day.

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  4. This is such a funny movie and I love Bill Murray in this who didn’t want to be in the acknowledgements. I loved Terri Garr as well but was not bawled over by Jessica Lange who should have won the Oscar for her portrayal in Frances

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    1. Garr probably is better. I found Lange great in a few late scenes though.

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    1. Do it. You need to get into the 80s, Cameron.

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