May 27, 2010

#69: Tootsie

Liz Lemon says that Tootsie is the movie that is used as an example in all the screenplay books, and Liz Lemon ain't no fool. Well, at least not when it comes to being funny. All those performances, all those stars! And Dorothy Michaels. C'mon. She started everything.

And let me start everything by saying, how adorable is Teri Garr under that title credit? More about her performance later.

Company: my roommate Kecia on Benadryl. Everything was a little funnier.

Cuisine: sauteed beef tips and scrambled eggs. Protein fiesta!

The film opens, accompanied by an early-80s pop-synthesizer score that I want for my life, on an audition montage spliced with the auditioner, an out-of-work character actor named Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman), teaching acting classes, specifically to his friend and sometime lover Sandy (lovely, hilarious Teri Garr). The business is a bitch, and the business of teaching it is no consolation. Rejection is his middle name:

CASTING DIRECTOR: We're looking for somebody ... different.
MICHAEL DORSEY: I can be different.
CASTING DIRECTOR: We're looking for somebody else.

He comes home after a grueling day to find his friends and students awaiting him with a birthday cake, setting up the character as a social butterfly well-loved and -liked.

But things aren't actually so sunny for Michael, and Pollack's choice to frame him in perfect symmetry with Samuel Beckett is a subtle hint that he's maybe not so sunny. He can't get work, because no one likes him because he's difficult. A difficult character like him would be difficult to like if we didn't see the neuroses so specifically played and the hard work he puts into all of it. He is a talented guy, just doesn't like putting up with crap.

He coaches Sandy for an upcoming soap opera audition, and hits upon an idea: to go for the same part, dressed as a woman. Plot!

When we first get a glimpse of the finished product, we can barely recognize Hoffman under the outfit that makes him look like a librarian. With some fake eyelashes and a ridiculous Southern accent he's transformed into Dorothy Michaels, who lands the job as hospital administrator Emily Kimberly.

Soon, he theorizes that an actor's life is quite like a woman's life: you sit by the phone waiting for it to ring, and when you get a job, you've got no power. An interesting and subtle way to combine the plight of both men and women, and magically make a movie equally accessible to both sexes. Show me a contemporary example.

"You are psychotic," his agent tells him. "No I'm not," he replies. "I'm employed."

But with deception alone at its core, the film would be little more than a joke-fest. But Tootsie's genius is taking a simple plot element and exhausting all possible embarrassments for our hero(ine). Luckily, we're treating to so many outstanding supporting performances, all doing only what's necessary to make the most of their dialogue. Could anyone have delivered the line "I think we're getting into a weird area" better than Michael's roommate as played by Bill Murray? I doubt it. Plus, his rant when Sandy's trying to get into the apartment about the dream. I could just die.

Michael is very comfortably straight, and puts the audience at ease with his need to dress up as a woman, especially during a time when people just weren't comfortable with cross-dressing yet, and especially during the beginning of the AIDS scare and the demonization of gay people. WOAH tangent. But my point is, we accept Michael Dorsey (and Hoffman) as straight, and understand this Dorothy Michaels is not a drag persona but an alternate reality.

Dorsey's charm and verve on the set empowers the show's women actors and staff, and eventually the audience. Her fame skyrockets, and seemingly nothing can go wrong ... until, of course, everything does. He falls for his costar, Julie (Oscar winner Jessica Lange), whose father falls for Dorothy. But he also falls for his student, Sandy.

I never said I love you, I don't care about I love you! I read "The Second Sex", I read "The Cinderella Complex", I'm responsible for my own orgasms, I don't care! I just don't like to be lied to!

Has anxiety ever been more adorable? In the Neurotic Olympics, Michael and Sandy would come to a photo finish. While Teri Garr gives the most sporatic and wild performance in the film, it's also the most endearing, and in a way, it's Sandy and Julie who end up as the audience's portal to Michael/Dorothy. In a film full of nearly flawless performances, it's a marvel that these women (but I'm partial to Garr) create such memorable characters.

Tootsie just works. Sometimes movies just work. They don't make screwball comedies like this anymore; they may not know how to. Luckily, this one hits all the points on a great comedy checklist: great performances, hilarious dialogue, sticky situations, deception, redemption, change and love. No wonder it's one of the great comedies of all time. So many modern comedies owe a lot to Sydney Pollack's masterpiece.

Onwards and upwards. Next is another Western. Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven. Will I have any more luck with this one? My record so far with Westerns on this list has been lackluster. We'll see. Until then!

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