★★★ / ★★★★
Despite the fact that Michael (Dustin Hoffman) is a good actor, he finds himself unable to book an acting job in New York City. Casting directors tell him that they need someone a little older, a little younger, or that he has the wrong height. The truth is he has the tendency to argue with whomever is in charge and eventually no one wants to work with him. George (Sydney Pollack) knows this and, as Michael’s agent and friend, he tells the frustrated actor the reality of the situation: Michael Dorsey is not bookable. Taking this to heart, Michael creates a new identity: Dorothy Michaels, an aging actress with a personality so forceful and confident, right away she snags a role in a soap opera.
I think cross-dressing is difficult to pull off in the movies. In good hands, genuinely funny situational comedy can be created through mistaken identities coupled with inspired physical gags. On the other hand, the material might end up cynical, offensive, and hateful. Many people equate cross-dressing with homosexuality, the latter often being feared and reviled. But director Sydney Pollack fills “Tootsie” with a lot of positive energy. It is not just a movie about a man dressing up as a woman. It is also a farce. It comments on lives of actors who are struggling to make it in the big city, it shows what might happen behind the screens of a soap opera, and it underlines the unfair treatment of working women.
The script glistens with terrific dialogue. What is projected onto the screen and what can be heard from the speakers pop because the performers are backed by strings of words that someone might actually say. Because the exchanges have verve, a few jokes that do not quite work, for instance, are easily overlooked. I smiled through them because I know that sometimes people try make jokes but the jokes are only funny in their heads or their way of delivering punchlines are a bit off. Since the dialogue is realistic but fun to listen to, some of its flaws become part of the charm.
Hoffman’s performance amused me. I would not say that he makes a very convincing woman, but I could not stop staring at him. In my eyes, he gave two performances: as a man who is angry that no one will cast him and as a man dressed up as woman who has a genuine fear of being found out. The anger and the fear are played for laughs, but there are enough details embedded in Hoffman’s carefully calculated performance that serious undercurrents are detectable by perspicacious audiences. Both Michael and Dorothy are enjoyable to watch because Hoffman’s approach is fresh: he does not turn them into caricatures.
What did not work for me is the subplot involving Julie (Jessica Lange), Dorothy’s co-star in the soap opera. While the progress of the friendship between Julie and Dorothy is occasionally interesting, I grew tired of Julie’s constant whining. Most annoying is the problem between her and her boyfriend—their situation is not only stereotypical, it is also underwritten. As a result, I did not buy into Julie’s inevitable changes. Also, there is a line uttered somewhere in the middle that should have allowed Julie to figure out Dorothy’s true identity. It is a glaring misstep because Julie is not stupid but she is treated like she was. It would have been surprising and more challenging if Julie had known earlier that Dorothy was a man. It would have provided an additional twist to the story.
And yet despite the miscalculation, “Tootsie,” adapted to the screen by Larry Gelbart, Barry Levinson, Elaine May, and Murray Schisgal, remains entertaining because it continues to move forward, never allowing a joke to go stale while on the plate. It juggles several funny assumptions, implications, and situations without drawing too much attention on how clever it all is. If it had felt too self-aware, the point might have rested on the cosmetics, the wig, and the outfits instead of the man underneath the disguise.