Saturday, December 27, 2014

TOOTSIE (Blu-ray) - #738

Interesting fact: Blake Edwards’ Victor/Victoria and Sydney Pollack’s Tootsie, both comedies where actors cross-dress in order get a job, were released in 1982. I couldn’t say what was in the air around that time that two of the biggest hits of that year would involve performers of one sex--namely, Julie Andrews and Dustin Hoffman--pretending to be another sex, but it kind of blows my mind that I had contact with both films in their theatrical runs when I was a wee lad of ten years old. I’m not sure I saw all of Victor Victoria in that outing or just peeked in, later to pick up more of it on cable, but watching it again not that long ago during a visit with my family, I was kind of surprised at how frank the film was about homosexuality. My parents must not have really known what they were taking me to.

And now I am equally shocked by how smart and subversive Tootsie is. I know I saw the entire movie back then, but I also know now that I didn’t understand it. In my head, it was a dumb comedy, one that probably didn’t age well, because it was popular, wasn’t it? Could a crowdpleaser from over thirty years ago really stand up to the scrutiny of today? If nothing else, the politics should be all wrong.

Except that they aren’t, and Tootsie has aged incredibly well. In point of fact, it’s still incredibly funny, laugh-out-loud so. And there is nothing to cringe about while watching it because it lacks any meanness. It’s very human and very matter-of-fact and its characters are largely free of judgment. The comedy doesn’t happen just because Dustin Hoffman is wearing a dress, but rather because of the things that happen to him while he’s wearing a dress and the way it challenges his perceptions and what it exposes about everyone.

Written by Larry Gelbart (Oh, God!) and Murray Shisgal (Luv), Tootsie is essentially a rom-com that also has bits of showbiz satire and a social commentary but without hitting too hard on either. It stars Hoffman as Michael Dorsey, a pigheaded actor who, when told he’s too difficult to get work, decides to prove he can get along by dressing up as a woman and getting a part on a soap opera. I really like how the movie treats that decision. If you were to watch Tootsie without any foreknowledge of its premise, what a surprise you’d be in for! There is no telegraphing the scheme, no announcement that Michael is going to create a female alter ego. Instead, Michael is arguing with his agent (played brilliantly by Sydney Pollack), declares that he’ll prove the man wrong, and the next cut is to Dorothy Michaels walking down the street, fully transformed. No time is spent trying on wigs or getting the make-up right, we are told Michael has a proficiency for stagecraft right up front, during the opening credits. Whatever inspires the change, he hits the ground running.

And Dorothy gets the role, in large part because she stands up for herself, an essential component to the character she is intended to play. Earlier Michael tried to coach his friend Sandy (Terri Garr, who is amazing) for the audition, and she flubs it by being too easy to crumble. Michael has no such problem. Or should I say Dorothy. In fact, once she is on the show, Dorothy becomes a bit of a phenomenon. Her fellow castmates, including the soap’s lead actress Julie (Jessica Lange) and a bit player April (Geena Davis), like her because she doesn’t take any crap from their pig of a director (Dabney Coleman); the audience likes her because her feminist ad libs give them a character they can root for.

Though Tootsie’s comedic tone never quite escalates to the level of farce, its plot bears elements of the genre. Naturally, the deeper Dorothy/Michael gets into the charade, the more complicated it becomes. He has to keep up with the ruse, because getting found out would topple a lot of dominoes, not the least of which is that he’s become good friends with Julie in his Dorothy guise while also deeply falling in love with her. The only person to know what he’s doing besides his agent is his roommate, Jeff, played with typical aplomb by Bill Murray, who serves as a sardonic Jiminy Cricket throughout. Murray’s zingers are sharp and funny, as is Tootsie as a whole. It’s a witty movie, smartly written, timeless instead of timely. Some of the jokes are clever and sneaky, some are broad and altogether hilarious. The biggest laugh in the movie is one of its most obvious, a single line delivered by veteran actor George Gaynes (Punky Brewster) when he learns the truth about the woman he has been wooing. “Does Jeff know...?” I don’t know why it’s not a more famous moment, as it’s akin to the “I’ll have what she’s having” line in When Harry Met Sally...; my guess is it’s too specific.

Which is ironic for a movie that feels so universal. But then, that’s Tootsie.

There’s a fascinating incongruity in that this movie is very much of the 1980s and yet also well enough ahead of its time that you’d easily be forgiven for thinking that it came from some other era. While the technique can be groanworthy--that drippy montage out at the farm, for instance, or Dave Grusin’s score, which is so bad I found myself wishing it was somehow a sly subtextual joke--the portrayal of Dorothy avoids the “Ick! It’s a dude!” clichés one might expect while also making it so she is never the object of ridicule. Sure, there are jokes about Dorothy having to cover a mustache, but that gag is more about practicality and is a comedic red herring, a possible way to expose the truth, rather than anything degrading toward a man identifying as a woman.

Credit due to Hoffman, who likely can identify with Michael Dorsey’s commitment to method and craft, and so can play Dorothy Michaels with the same seriousness. It’s a marvelous performance, heartfelt and honest, and yet also...well, it seems wrong to say it’s not entirely convincing, because I am not sure it’s supposed to be. While it’s pretty much impossible to forget that it’s Dustin Hoffman under the wig and eye shadow, we’re not expected to. Pollack smartly lets context do the heavy lifting in terms of convincing us that Michael could be Dorothy without us ever forgetting that he’s also Michael. The other characters in Tootsie believe that Dorothy is a woman, and they treat her as such, and so we buy into the illusion. And because Dorothy has this dissociative confidence, this belief in herself, the folks around her actually treat her better than they would other women. Which is also part of the point.

Remember above when I said Tootsie was both timely and timeless? There’s something very casual about how the film portrays gender politics, and whether they meant to or were even aware of it, the filmmakers somehow collapse a lot of issues into what is essentially a very human portrayal, achieving a kind of “oneness” rather than a “one-or-the-otherness.” There is a surprising progressiveness in the fact that it’s not Michael’s masculinity that gives Dorothy added courage or strength, but something about Dorothy that makes Michael better. As a woman, he becomes free of his own hang-ups, and it changes his perception. His own battles as a self-involved male actor come into focus, and he somehow channels those frustrations so that he is now reacting as an actress coming up against all kinds of obstacles he never realized existed. In this, Michael manages the best possible trait a performer can have: empathy. He sees what women have to deal with constantly, and he pushes back. Absent of the go-along-to-get-along attitude that results from habitual oppression, he is able to react as any common sense person would and call bullshit everywhere it appears. In other words, he’s not better at being strong because he’s a man, but because it’s the first time he’s having to deal with things that women deal with every day and that he’s otherwise been blind to.

The great thing is that Sydney Pollack and his writing team (which also included several uncredited script doctors, including the legendary Elaine May) avoid the cardinal sin of allowing Michael to have his cake and eat it, too. They overturn the standard for this kind of romantic comedy--or any where the male goes undercover and is privy to the woman’s secret desires--so that when Michael tries to act on the things that he learns as Dorothy, it blows up in his face. Or, more accurately, it’s thrown back at him. Julie may have laid out the perfect pick-up lines to win her heart, but when put into practice, Michael ends up doused in champagne. He can’t benefit from his deceit. (And, honestly, how did you not know that, dude? In practice, the non-line becomes just another line!) In other instances, he’s desexualized. “My mother used to do that to me sometimes,” Julie says to him when Dorothy pets her hair in bed. And one senses that, underneath, Michael is not turned on, he’s legitimately expressing comfort and love. He’s forced to behave toward another human being without taking his own desires into account.

Hell, they even take it one step further: when thrust into the “traditional” feminine roll, like babysitting Julie’s kid, he’s terrible at it. You can put on the uniform, but you have to walk the walk, it’s not just about your undergarments.

It’s not just Michael, though; Tootsie is full of empathy through and through. Dorothy defends battered women in a brief scene on the soap. Julie’s lifestyle as a single mom with a career is never called into question. When the idea of being a gay man or a woman is introduced, no one denounces it. Julie says she’s not able to return another woman’s affection because she’s not together enough to experience broader emotions, and when Michael is asked if he’s gay, he responds, “In what way?” rather than outright refusing. Even Julie’s father (Charles Durning), who falls for Dorothy and then has to deal with finding out he proposed marriage to a fella,  is shown as a quaint old man who tries to see equality for what it is even if he has certain fundamental beliefs that can be seen as antiquated. They aren’t harmful even if they are somewhat wrong. He means well, and he’s trying, and frankly, isn’t that sometimes enough?

It’s that empathy, I think, that allows Tootsie to pull off what otherwise might be a hokey ending. Without giving too much away, the key to Michael making amends is not really explaining Dorothy away, but accepting that she was a part of him. She wasn’t an invention, but an extension. Amusingly, Hoffman gets two credits at the end. He is Michael and he is Dorothy, and both are important enough to get their own byline--even if it is slightly counter to the message that they are inseparable halves.

Which in itself feels rather simplistic now, but we can’t watch such things and judge by modern standards. To do so would be to miss how ahead of the curve Tootsie was and fail to acknowledge that, when it comes to smuggling such a lesson into the mainstream, simplicity is the best disguise. Hell, that’s right there in the movie, too. Michael could be more elaborate or more vain in creating Dorothy, but  instead he basically hides in plain sight. When it comes down to it, Tootsie is so triumphant in that it never really seems to try. All of the above are just natural components of a supremely entertaining movie. The politics are something we put on it as opposed to something Tootsie foists upon us. Like Dorothy, it just is what it is, and that’s also what Pollack and Co. are encouraging the rest of us to be.

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