Classic Movie ReviewsMovie ReviewsClassic Review: Tootsie (1982)

leandromatos1981December 20, 2018

Headline: A legendary comedy with top-notch performances from the entire cast.

Synopsis: Michael Dorsey, an unsuccessful actor, disguises himself as a woman in order to get a role on a trashy hospital soap. (IMDB)

Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Jessica Lange, and Teri Garr

Writers: Larry Gelbart, Murray Schisgal and Don McGuire

Director: Sydney Pollack

Rating: PG (United States)

Running Time: 116mins


Michael Dorsey is an actor who is totally passionate about his profession. He studies, he immerses himself into his characters and questions their actions and motivations. He’s completely obsessed about understanding every single aspect of the person he is representing. Unfortunately, such strong commitment to his own craft end up terrorizing the people he works with. He asks so many questions and is so relentlessly devoted to giving his all that working with him turns into a nightmare. Even when he is playing a tomato he delays the shooting for half a day because he can’t believe a tomato would be able to sit. He becomes known around town as difficult and as a result, he becomes another unemployed actor who teaches acting to make a living. Even though he loves it, it’s not fulfilling his dreams. He wants to act. When his agent tells him he cannot get him any kind of job – in New York, Los Angels or anywhere – Michael decides to dress as a woman and audition for a role in a popular soap opera. He gets the part and his new persona, Dorothy Michaels, becomes a national sensation.

Few comedies are as smart and poignant as Tootsie. One of the most interesting aspects of watching this movie is to notice how much it addresses and how easy it makes it look juggling so many themes. Michael (Hoffman) is a pain in the ass but when he is that as Dorothy, she gets a completely different reaction from people; she’s respected, and that happens because Michael decides she won’t respond explosively as he does, so she gets things done that he never could. Michael is also a womanizer but he is protective towards his colleagues when he recognizes his traits in the soap opera’s director (Dabney Coleman).

Even though he feels awful, he still treats Sandy (Garr), a friend he’s been sleeping with, terribly. He is learning, yes, but he’s not magically being transformed into a better person. Dorothy becomes a feminist model for women around the country and inhabiting that woman teaches Michael how to become a better man. But he is still a dedicated performer first and he protects Dorothy’s integrity fiercely. He created a real person, he cares for her, and he knows her deepest desires. Michael and Dorothy’s relationship is quite complex; she has a power he never had as an actor, and that bothers him but at the same time it fascinates him because the more praise and popularity she gets means he is delivering a hell of a performance as Dorothy.

Complexity is something you can find in pretty much every main character of this film. They are all rich, they are all complicated and very interesting to watch. Sandy starts as a ditzy character; she’s insecure, she doesn’t have a lot of focus in her life, she’s clinging into Michael and doesn’t seem to notice his pathetic excuses to blow out their dates, but as the movie progresses she becomes more and more alive, demanding our respect (and Michael’s); George (Sydney Pollack), Michael’s agent, has a wonderful relationship with his client; the lead actor (George Gaynes) is just an insecure and lonely old man; Les (Charles Durning) is also looking for love and becomes more understanding that one might imagine.

Then, there’s Julie (Lange). Julie is the most beautiful actress on the soap opera. At first, she seems just the untouchable beauty queen of daytime television, but very quickly we are presented with her true self. She has zero self-esteem (“I’m the hospital slut”, she tells Dorothy when they two meet), she drinks a lot more than she should, she’s in an abusive relationship with the director, one she’s fully aware of and doesn’t do anything about. She has a lot more strength as she gives herself credit for. She has an 18 month-old child whose father is nowhere to be found  – and that, wonderfully, is not addressed at all; the father, like a lot of fathers out there, is not part of the picture and it’s worth nothing more than a small mention. That child is all hers and she is totally fine with that. Being close to Dorothy, seeing her set the example, changes Julie, giving her a lot more confidence than she had before. Julie is a great character and Lange peels her layers one at a time, showing us so much of her soul, her softness, her vulnerability, her desires and so much more it is impossible not to be completely in awe of her when the movie is ended.

Sydney Pollack was an actor’s director and they all contribute with their best; they are all excellent and the movie has such a strong cast, it also gave Geena Davis her first chance and, especially, gave one amazing opportunity to Bill Murray to show us how truly great he can be (“You slut” is a hilarious moment).

Tootsie deals with so many delicate and intimate situations, the transformations are so subtle, we could even forget it is a comedy. But that can never happen because while doing all of the things said here, it is still a sophisticated and laugh out loud comedy masterpiece. There are so many unforgettable moments we lose count. Stop what you are doing and just watch it (for the first or the hundredth time) before Christmas. You won’t regret it.

Score: 9/10

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