It’s apt that for their first venture on UK shores the Criterion Collection, a label renowned for only picking out the most iconic films to add to their list, should choose Tootsie. Because there is something quintessentially American comedy about it. It’s up there with Billy Wilder, who is clearly a heavy influence here with Some Like It Hot, in terms of its perfect balance between laugh-out-loud comedy and genuine character driven pathos.
Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman) is an actor who takes his craft very seriously. So seriously in fact that he is no longer employable in New York, or LA for that matter as his long suffering agent George (Sydney Pollack) tells him. So teaming with his roommate Jeff (Bill Murray) Michael decides to raise some money to put on a play. But with no one willing to hire him Michael is at a dead end. Until he takes his friend to an audition and realises that maybe he can make a living as an actress instead of an actor. And so he creates Dorothy Michaels who lands herself a part in a popular soap opera. As Dorothy helps her audience and female co-stars break free of male oppression so Michael is slowly falling in love with his co-star Julie (Jessica Lange).
There is a wonderfully powerful feminist message to Tootsie. And on the surface that might sound irresponsible, that a film about a man pretending to be a woman could somehow inspire equality. But such is the way that Larry Gelbart and Murray Schisgal’s script unfolds that it allows an ego driven man, who doesn’t treat women with much respect, indeed much of anything, is suddenly able to see through their eyes. And in doing so he realises they are often prevented from being their true selves.
When you first meet Michael he’s not the most likable of characters. He’s casually chatting up women at a birthday party, sleeping with his good female friend for no other reason than to hide his secret from her. But Dorothy is adorable. She’s like your mum’s best friend, sweet, always good with advice and, despite her timid demeanor, tough as hell.
As if that isn’t enough though Tootsie’s real take home message – as Dustin Hoffman so perfectly puts it in the accompanying retrospective making of documentary – is that it takes becoming a woman for Michael to become a real man. It’s in these two themes that Tootsie hooks you in so perfectly emotionally. In that same documentary Hoffman genuinely wells up at the realisation of how men look at women, the message is drip-fed throughout the film but seeing Hoffman’s heartfelt story of a group of men longing to meet Jessica Lange while he was dressed as Dorothy and being utterly ignored as a result is devastating. But it captures the essence of the film’s message.
Meanwhile it is one of the very best comedies in cinematic history. The dialogue is effortlessly crisp. It’s often so consistently funny that you haven’t stopped laughing in time to catch the next gag. All those jokes you like in Mrs. Doubtfire, they were done before, better and with less obvious punchlines by Tootsie.
It’s one of those most perfectly cast films. Pollack, who also directed the film, is brilliant as Michael’s agent. His confusion at Dorothy’s emergence, his frustration at Michael’s arrogance, his constant eye-rolling and head scratching are one of the film’s highlights. Jessica Lange is perfect as the object of Michael’s affections but even more so as the real reason he’s able to see himself what he truly is. She’s fragile, innocent but, through great writing and a nuanced performance, is stronger than Michael could possibly hope to be. Because she is unafraid of being herself. Bill Murray is typically dry and endlessly entertaining as Michael’s roommate, in an almost constant state of revelry at Michael’s ridiculous situation.
But Tootsie belongs to Dustin Hoffman. The actor who was famously laughed at by Laurence Olivier on the set of Marathon Man for taking acting too literally is never afraid to send up his craft. Michael is impossible and watching the making ofs it’s impossible to not see Hoffman channeling that. That refusal to ever allow the story be anything other than character driven. But what staggers is that Hoffman is essentially playing two, sometimes three, characters in every scene. His Dorothy is delicate but unafraid, his Michael meanwhile is a slowly thawing arrogant know-it-all. There is a wonderful playfulness going on in the most delicate way throughout and it’s captivating.
A near perfect film Tootsie has aged like a fine wine and is arguably more relevant today than it was back in 1982. It’s a fine way for Criterion to launch their exquisite collection.