Ask actors what their favorite movie is, and many times, the answer will be “Tootsie.”
That’s not a huge surprise, since not only is the Sydney Pollack-directed 1982 Oscar winner (which Turner Classic Movies shows Saturday, June 11) a very smart and genuinely funny comedy, it’s also a very incisive look at the challenges often faced by those in the acting profession. Certainly, not everyone goes to the extent of Dustin Hoffman’s character to land and keep a job in front of audiences, but there’s still plenty of truth to the humor that’s involved.
Hoffman plays Michael Dorsey, a struggling performer trying to help a friend (Teri Garr) land a role on a daytime-television serial. When she’s doesn’t get the part, he decides to pursue it himself … as “Dorothy Michaels,” disguising himself to convince everyone else on the show that he’s a woman, and one capable of playing very conservative new hospital administrator Emily Kimberly. The charade prompts a series of great one-liners from Bill Murray as Michael/“Dorothy’s” perplexed roommate.
If it took its premise only that far, “Tootsie” would be a terrific comedy, but it cleverly reaches beyond that to be a telling commentary on the so-called battle of the sexes as well. Through his masquerade, Michael gets more in touch with his feminine side … particularly as he falls for his soap-opera co-star Julie (Jessica Lange, in an Academy Award-honored performance), who’s treated callously by her beau (Dabney Coleman), the director of the serial.
Appropriately for its theme, “Tootsie” is a feast of terrific acting. Among other standouts: director Pollack himself as Michael’s harried talent agent; George Gaynes as a veteran star of the soap, who deems himself quite the womanizer; actual soap alum Doris Belack as the show’s no-nonsense producer; Geena Davis, in one of her first prominent roles, as another actress on the soap; and Charles Durning as Julie’s father, who becomes enamored of “Dorothy.” (Start counting the complications.)
“Tootsie” also craftily satirizes Hoffman’s reputation for being a performer with high expectations for material and colleagues, and it’s very much to his credit that he was willing to subject himself to the send-up. That, along with the physical demands of the role, results in one of the very best and most relatable pieces of work of his career.
If “Tootsie” is one of those movies you’ve heard about and never have actually sampled, it’s well worth getting acquainted with, as soon as possible. You won’t be disappointed, and that’s a guarantee.