Have you ever pretended to be someone other than yourself? And did that other person seem to be a better you than before? More confident, smarter and more compassionate? It's a nice idea, isn't it, but not one that many of us (except those in witness protection) get to try out. But most of us would love to give it a shot, in some form or another. Would we be able to pull it off? More importantly, what would it mean to our former selves?
Luckily, stuff like that happens all the time in the movies, with 1982's Tootsie marvelously taking us down the 'new identity' road. Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman) is a desperate out-of-work actor hoping to keep himself in Top-Ramen and to help produce a script by his roommate Jeff (Bill Murray). Meanwhile coaching his sort-of girlfriend Sandy (Teri Garr) to audition for a role on a soap opera, he realizes he'd do a better job himself (and score the dough if he gets the part). One music-video-makeup-montage later and he's landing the role with his feisty alter-ego, Southerner Dorothy Michaels. Do hilarious and poignant complications ensue? Absolutely!
Big-name producer Sidney Pollack, who also acts as Dorsey's agent, is a pretty mean director, able to move from weird-beard movies like the Native American revenger Jeremiah Johnson and gritty Three Days of The Condor to this, his watershed triumph. Through Pollack's masterful pacing Tootsie seems a lot more brisk than its two-hour run-time leads on. The director keeps a firm grip on the drama, never short-changing it for comedy, which is not an easy trick considering much of the drama comes during scenes with Hoffman in drag. But there's something weird and potent about Dorsey as he improvises his disingenuous reality through other people's lives, realizing things about himself and what he finds important. He latches onto the truth-to-power thing when ad-libbing away from blatantly sexist lines on the soap opera. Dorothy's discoveries are like populist, spontaneous realizations, almost as if Hoffman the actor were making the connections. It's a smart way to work the material.
But this is also a movie where '70s realism breaks all over the shoals of '80s feel-good, audience-pleasing comedy. Dorsey and Fields striding the New York Avenues bantering about the colossal confidence game Dorsey is playing almost takes us straight back to Midnight Cowboy. The snappy dialog, though, heads also into zingy one-liners (how far can the camera pull back to avoid Dorothy's unusual looks - "How do you feel about Cleveland?" - for instance) that have entered the lexicon of film humor. Garr and Murray also get their fair share of juicy quips, broadening Tootsie's appeal and evoking its other roots as a screwball comedy. Nowadays their inestimable talents would have been used more, but we're quite happy with what we've got.
It's obviously Hoffman's show, and the snow job Dorothy pulls on soap co-star Julie Nichols (Jessica Lange) is the romantic meat. Lange's fragile, wanton, girl-next-door laps up Dorothy's homespun truisms like a kitten at a milk bowl. The two really take a shine to each other, which vexes Dorothy/Michael for many reasons. It raises interesting, unanswered questions; since Dorothy herself is a lie, what's the value of her truisms? Not to mention that this strong, smart groundbreaking woman is actually a man? For Tootsie, those questions are brushed aside by the mysterious truths of friendship and love.