- Movie Rating -

Tootsie (1982)

| December 17, 1982

Tootsie is a great American comedy, a throwback to the screwball comedies of the 1930s, movies like Twenties Century and My Man Godfrey, in which a lot of high comedy was laced with a social message that didn’t spoil the fun.  Sydney Pollack has taken the most common comic premise and given it a modern twist and employed Dustin Hoffman who gives one of his best performances.

He plays Michael Dorsey, a New York actor who is talented and driven, but has earned a reputation of being impossible to work with.  He fights with directors, he throws tantrums on the set and his agent George (Sydney Pollack) assures him that “No one in this town will hire you” but also adds “no one in Hollywood wants to work with you either.”  Unable to find work and needing to fund a play written by his roommate Jeff (Bill Murray) called “Return to Love Canal”, a bombshell goes off in Michael’s mind after his friend Sandy (Teri Garr) loses an audition to play a hospital administrator on a daytime soap “Southwest General”.

Putting on make-up, a wig and a dress, Michael Dorsey turns himself into Dorothy Michaels and auditions for the role.  The pig-headed director Ron Carlisle (Dabney Coleman) immediately assures him (her?) that he is looking for “a certain type” but with an assertive jab and some quick ad-libbing, he (she?) gets the job. Dorothy becomes a sensation to the female viewers for her assertive, no-nonsense feminist stance and, from this, Michael becomes a better actor (he is, after all, giving two performances at once).  He also begins to understand that sometimes its hard to be a woman.  He quickly understands having to get up three hours earlier to get ready for work, dealing with dresses and underwear and make-up and nails.  He also feels pangs of being an unattractive middle-aged woman vying for space in a business that wants youth and beauty.  He finds himself fussing over clothes, over his looks, over the prospect of going out and not wearing the same outfit twice.  Michael is a good looking guy, but Dorothy is not a beautiful woman.  From this, Michael gives Dorothy a strong personality. She is sweet but assertive, and doesn’t hesitate to tell the chauvinistic director where to go.

He also has a problem when he falls desperately in love with Julie, a pretty co-star (Supporting Actress winner Jessica Lange) but she only knows him as Dorothy and considers Dorothy to be a great listener and a great friend.  It gnaws at him that he cannot express how he feels without revealing himself especially when he learns that her boyfriend is Ron and that Ron doesn’t feel that he needs to be faithful.  When Dorothy confronts Ron about his infidelity, we see that this is eating away at Michael.

The situation gets weirder as he has to keep his identity separate, while not letting Julie know that he is really a man (though he desperately wants to tell her).  He contends, also, with Julie’s widower father Leslie (Charles Durning) who falls in love with Dorothy and eventually proposes marriage.  Then he has to keep up with Sandy, who knows Michael but not Dorothy and there is a hilarious scene in which he arrives home as Dorothy while Jeff has to keep her at bay while Michael gets out of Dorothy and becomes Michael again.  It gets so complicated that it leads to a brilliant moment in which he gets tongue-tied trying to explain it all to George.

Hoffman explores every single possibility with the dual identity, but what makes the performance work is that Michael doesn’t give Dorothy a lot of feminine actorly mannerisms other than a high-pitched voice and a southern accent.  He doesn’t try to act like a woman.  He allows Dorothy to react to those around her with a newfound personality all her own and, for the most part, it becomes a 24 hours ad-lib.  He is able to create a character who adheres herself to what is going on around her.  The result is that Michael becomes, not a just better man, but a better listener and a better actor.  He has pulled off the ultimate acting job.  When we see in the closing credits that Michael and Dorothy are credited separately, it feels right because the movie has earned it and Hoffman deserves all the credit.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1982) View IMDB Filed in: Comedy