As the esteemed American Criterion Collection label - think lavishly packaged, bonus feature-laden DVD and Blu-ray editions of classic and contemporary cinema - makes its way finally to UK shores (thanks to a multi-year distribution deal with Sony), the Smoke Screen was lucky to be able to take a peek at some of the first discs to be made available here. First up is Syndey Pollack’s 1982 cross-dressing comedy starring Dustin Hoffman; Tootsie.
Tootsie tells the story of on an out of work New York actor and acting coach- one Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman)- who, tired of being turned down for role after role because he, as his agent says (and he isn’t wrong, frankly) is a ‘difficult’ one, decides to go for a role on a bland hospital-based weekly drama disguised as “Dorothy Michaels”: a middle aged female performer with a southern twang to her voice and a bolshy-but-motherly attitude. Winning the role despite the misgivings of the chauvinistic director, in part because of Michael/Dorothy’s unexpected take-no-shit outbursts which please the frustrated female scriptwriter/showrunner, the character and “Dorothy” herself go on to become prime time hits and a nationwide sensation. This of course puts Michael in an absurd situation, as the longer this goes on, the greater the fallout will be when it is revealed he is pulling a fraud on both the network and the American public. And then there’s the not insignificant fact that Michael starts to fall in love with his female co-star Julie (Jessica Lange), who herself thinks “Dorothy” could be a perfect match for her widowed and distinctly old-school “man’s man” father.
Hilarity and hijinks ensue for Michael in short order, from hours lost to leg shaving, too much time spent avoiding the near-constant attentions of hungry males in his vicinity when in disguise, to having to handle the looming clash with his friend of six years (and recent sleeping partner) Sandy (Teri Garr): who has no idea about Michael’s alternate life and starts to think he his having an affair with whoever this “fat” woman is who she spies going up to Michael’s apartment every evening . But, though he went into this scheme purely interested in getting some cold hard cash to fund a play his flatmate and writing/acting partner Jeff Slater (Bill Murray, in a typically great deadpan supporting role) wants to put on, the experience Michael has of everyday sexism in the workplace and beyond starts to make him reflect on his own boorish and self-absorbed behaviour.
Tootsie certainly boasts an interesting writing team, aside from M.A.S.H TV series creator Larry Gelbart and writer/playwright Murray Schisgal, both famed directors Barry Levinson (Rain Man) and Elaine May (A New Leaf) also put in uncredited rewrites. Pollack himself was already acclaimed for films like They Shoot Horses, Don't They? and Three Days of the Condor. Upon release, the film actually came second in terms of domestic US box office for the entire year of 1982, beaten only by Spielberg’s E.T, and it racked up an impressive number of Oscar nominations too (ten in total, including for actor, director and screenplay). In 1998, the United States Library of Congress deemed the film "culturally significant" and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry. The film is frequently held up as a smart piece of commentary on sexism and male-female relationships, as well as just being a great example of how to craft a fast-paced, zany comedy. But how does it hold up some 34 years later?
In truth, Tootsie’s progressive credentials can be criticized, in many ways from the “it’s a product of its time” angle. Some of the gags are a bit stale and lazily play on stereotypes of female “issues”, and one recurring joke where the TV show’s bumbling lead actor Dr John van Horn(George Van Haynes, who played the hapless police commandant in the Police Academy films) basically carries on as the dirty old letch of the production “Dorothy” is starring in, really starts to move into awkward territory when he forces himself upon “Dorothy” after following her to her apartment in one third act scene. The whole farrago is played for laughs, and van Horn’s boorish advances are cut short by Jeff walking into the apartment, but this really doesn’t seem funny now. And for a film championing women, there could have been better roles for the actual females starring in the picture: with Jessica Lange a somewhat weak and uncharismatic presence, and Teri Garr stuck playing a bit of a flake (even if the scene where her character angrily claims the cherry chocolates Julie’s smitten father gave to “Dorothy”, which a desperate Michael is now trying to pass on to her to soothe her anger, is one of the film’s best).
On the other hand, Tootsie’s screenplay is interesting in how it does actually address some of the criticisms audience members might have of this concept: which, after all, is that of a straight, white man taking a job that should have gone to a woman in an already male-dominated industry (and yes, you could view it as creepy that, in a comedy, a disguise allows a man access to female private spaces like dressing rooms). Michael himself comes off as a bit of an asshole in the opening few minutes, flirting aggressively with women, treating his acting student and friend Sandy cruelly in coaching sessions, and later two-timing her once their relationship turns sexual: two-timing in a very strange double sense, given he is falling love with Julie and also neglecting their relationship due to the time he is spending dressed and acting as a woman. It seems at first that this is just all going to be passed off as a bit of light comedy.
But later in the film, whilst disguised as the finger-wagging and uncompromising “Dorothy”, and having starting to side with his female co-stars, Michael himself hears the same bullshit, chauvinistic justifications directed back at him from the male employees on the show. In one scene, the faintly sleazy director Ron Carlisle, who is two-timing Julie much to “Dorothy’s” displeasure, defends his behaviour using exactly the same words Michael used when explaining away his callous treatment of Sandy. In disguise, Michael’s retort to Ron - “I understand you better than you think” - has a self-lacerating undertone to it. But on the other hand, when Sandy angrily calls “Dorothy’ that “fat woman” who she has spied sneaking into Michael’s apartment at night, Michael is visibly hurt at the sharp language she uses, though he has probably said the same thing thoughtlessly a thousand times before.
It is a credit to the filmmakers though that Tootsie remains blisteringly funny no matter whether Michael is in disguise or not: the film never just relies on some of the more obvious gags of having him struggle to keep his composure in the ladies dressing room, or battle to keep his wig falling off. Watching Dustin Hoffman rant epically at his agent (played by Pollack himself) that he is spectacular at playing vegetables in commercials (“ I was even a great endive salad, dammit”!) and seeing he and Pollack get utterly tongue tied over trying to explain Michael/Dorothy’s increasingly bizarre situations whilst separating what is happening to who (by the third act Julie’s father wants to Marry Dorothy, Julie thinks Dorothy is a lesbian, Sandy thinks Michael is gay) is side-splittingly funny. So although Tootsie has dated somewhat when it comes to the progressive side of things, its comedy laurels remain well-deserved.
DISC REVIEW + EXTRAS
The film’s 4K bluray transfer delivers the goods in terms of audio/visuals.
Those unfamiliar with Criterion’s tradition of lavishing care and attention on the extras for their releases are in for a pleasant surprise: Tootsie is packed with informative bonus features, including a commentary Pollack recorded back in 1991 for an earlier release, a timeline chapter selection tool to help pinpoint particular scenes and points in the commentary, and several making of featurettes and interviews with the cast.
New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
Audio commentary featuring director Sydney Pollack
New interviews with actor Dustin Hoffman and comedy writer Phil Rosenthal
Interview with Dorothy Michaels by film critic Gene Shalit
Making of “Tootsie” (1982) and A Better Man: The Making of “Tootsie” (2007), two documentaries featuring interviews with cast and crew
Screen and wardrobe test footage
Deleted scenes and trailers
PLUS: An essay by critic Michael Srago