Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Jessica Lange, Terri Garr, Dabney Coleman, Charles Durney, Bill Murray, Geena Davis and Sidney Pollack.
Directed by: Sydney Pollack
Released by: Columbia Pictures
Synopsis: Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman) is a talented actor that simply can’t find a job. In lieu of this predicament, he does the unthinkable… He becomes Dorothy Michaels, a soft spoken actress that quickly dominates the soap opera scene with her strong personality and charisma. But, will people begin to suspect who she really is?
Review: Tootsie has been hailed as one of the greatest comedies of all time. Dustin Hoffman’s inspired performance in drag has won the hearts of critics and film audiences alike, and it’s constantly parodied and referenced in the modern media. To me, though, Tootsie is a tad overrated as a comedy as I feel it’s more of a character study film than a full blown comedy. The idea of Dustin Hoffman in drag may inspire laughs in the same manner as Robin Williams’ “Mrs. Doubtfire” and Billy Wilder’s classic “Some like it Hot”, but Tootsie aspires to be something more than that.
That’s not to say, though, that Tootsie isn’t a great film. Tootsie is a film that works thanks to great performances, especially Dustin Hoffman as both Michael Dorsey the struggling actor and Dorothy Michaels the inspiring actress. He is very believable in both roles, giving us a confident but not cocky portrayal of a man who just wants to get ahead in life, but there are far too many obstacles to overcome. When playing a woman he does a surprisingly convincing job thanks to his mannerisms and vocal tone. Both characters, however, undergo a similar personal transformation. As a man he learns to love and appreciate the affection of a woman while as a woman he learns that it’s not easy being part of the opposite sex due to all the baggage that comes with it (such as sexual harassment in the workplace as well as gender discrimination). It makes for a fascinating character study that’s handled very professionally.
The biggest problem here is that he does too good of a job. At times Dustin Hoffman does such a great job in either role that the supporting characters get overshadowed. Jessica Lange is a decent love interest that is believable as the best friend and the lover. It’s just that she doesn’t stand out very well due to the fact that Dustin Hoffman steals the show in this. Much to my surprise, Bill Murray plays Michael Dorsey’s roommate and best friend. He is not overly comedic, but he doesn’t have to. He provides the right amount of support so that Michael Dorsey as a character can vent his frustrations on him.
Charles Durney as Les fares a little better, mainly because he falls in love with Dorothy without knowing who she really is. His performance is very earnest due to his character being a lonely widow. Once again, this is seriously presented rather than being part of the grand comedy.
The story is very solid, managing to hit the right tones and giving us enjoyable characters. The problem is that at times it takes itself very seriously to the point where it forgets it’s supposed to be a comedy, and this is where my problems with the films begin. We see him undergo through a transformation that makes him realizes that being a woman has its virtues as well as its challenges. Sure, there are a couple of awkward scenes that are ripe for comedy gold picking, many caused by the gender change, but it’s all about character growth than it is about the comedy. This is continued all the way till the end. It makes a very feministic statement about equal rights and love. The comedy could come from the fact that this is all expressed through a man that is disguised as a woman, but once more, Tootsie takes itself very seriously and thus any comedic value is lost.
As an example of what I am talking about, let’s compare this to “Mrs. Doubtfire”. In that film, Robin Williams is also an actor that dresses in drag in order to get what he wants. But rather to look for a job, he is trying to see his kids more often after a painful divorce process separated them. Throughout the movie we see a lot of funny scenes caused by the difficulties of being a believable woman, but it can be very sad and heartwarming when it needs to be, giving us both moments of high drama as well as great comedy. Tootsie could have been a lot like this, but instead it decides to go down a far more serious road, which isn’t a bad decision but when this has been hailed as the greatest comedy ever made you are bound to be disappointed.
Finally, I can’t talk about Tootsie without mentioning the make-up effects that transformed the Oscar winning actor into a believable woman. It’s true that what truly makes the character so convincing is Dustin Hoffman himself, but on a visual standpoint he truly does look like a woman. This is thanks to small details that complete the package, such as using the actor’s unique physique to make him into a middle aged woman, using dresses that cover up most of the most telling parts (like arms and the Adam’s apple). It might be weird to be praising such a technical aspect in a comedy film, but this is very important considering the subject matter and the basic premise.
In spite of its flaws regarding themes, Tootsie does a good job with its story. Never in any way does it feel very preachy but still manages to get the point across. It makes the characters far stronger and memorable, and handles its cross-gender subject with finesse. It is a film worth watching, even if in my honest opinion it is not the greatest comedy ever made.
Rating: 3 and a half filmstrips out of 5