There are few actors who can communicate thinking as tangibly as Dustin Hoffman. Watching him, one’s always aware of gears turning, of thought and self-awareness as exhilaratingly tactile curses thrust upon the character in question. Apart from Straight Time, no film has been as directly in touch with this forcefully internal physicality as Tootsie, which actively depends on our awareness of Hoffman’s mythic reputation, most pronouncedly his hyper-perfectionism. Michael Dorsey, the struggling New York actor who turns himself into Dorothy Michaels, a headstrong, generically Southern actress who quickly takes over a daytime soap called Southwest General, is modeled on Hoffman and his talent as well as his legendary proclivity for collaborative difficulty. It’s impossible to watch Michael, say, argue with his agent (superbly played by the director, Sydney Pollack, in the film’s most explicitly meta touch) about the internal motivations of a tomato and not wonder if this is a specific anecdote from Hoffman’s own working life. The tension, and the humor, of such a scene springs from it serving as a sort of subterranean mea culpa: Hoffman can play an actor having a hissy fit about his commitment to the realism of tomatoes, and can acknowledge the absurdity of such a scenario, while apparently indulging such dogged practices, nevertheless, in his actual life. These ironies, of working, of life, and of the uncanny ability to erect political fences between the two, are the subjects of the film.
Tootsie syncs Hoffman’s nearly pathological hunger for artistic profundity up with the genders’ respective urges to understand each other in a society that’s rigged to favor one incomparably over the other. The sentimentality that’s inherent in most straight-male drag fantasies (i.e. that dressing up as a woman makes them better men) is transcended by the precision of Hoffman’s work. Tootsie’s most irresistible fantasy, or, irresistible, at least, for artists, is its depiction of Michael coming into himself purely by accident. His improvement evades platitude because we’re able to specifically discern its source: the work. No longer trapped solely in the mindset of a stymied, broke, unemployable actor, Michael’s flowering as a woman on Southwest General opens his circuitry up to other experiences. His commitment to performance inadvertently becomes a commitment to being an awake and alive human being; ever the dutiful actor, he wants Dorothy to matter and to register as a life force of her own, and, for that, he has to look through her eyes and see himself as she might see him.
Dorothy isn’t merely Michael’s professional disguise; she represents an ironic fullness of creation like Robert Downey Jr.’s blackface soldier in Tropic Thunder. Michael uses his own disenfranchisement, as an unemployed actor, as a way to access the frustrations of women who are treated as objects or as used-up maids (in other words, all of them). This approach could be almost offensively presumptuous and self-pitying, akin to the sentiments of any white dudes who claim to understand the wills of the persecuted, but Hoffman and Pollack are (usually) aware of the troubling limitations of that subtext. Ultimately, Michael has no idea what life as a woman is like, and the film doesn’t pretend otherwise, though his simultaneous empowerment and humbling as Dorothy provides him as much vicarious exposure to female life as any possible experience probably could. But it also weirdly reduces Dorothy to politicize her too much, as she’s stunningly, eccentrically unique—the result of a dialogue between a wronged man and a wronged man’s vision of a wronged woman.
Hoffman’s self-consciousness, which can grow wearying in films like Rain Man, is a gift here. He’s always letting his work show in Tootsie, and that’s the point: One’s forever aware of the high-wire that Dustin/Michael/Dorothy’s walking, and there are moments where you swear you can almost see the shape of Hoffman’s eyes change within a single frame as one role gives way to the other. Even as the film grows sluggish and conventional, Hoffman continues to achieve remarkable physical effects such as differentiating between when Michael looks at a woman and when Dorothy does (or in pointedly refusing to differentiate). Or in offhandedly delivering a line that displays a heartbreakingly astute understanding of the melancholy of aging, lonely women: When Dorothy’s told that some men like the mustache she must hide, she says that the problem is that she doesn’t like the men who like that.
Pollack’s career as an actor is generally more certain than his legacy as a director, but his sturdy, surprisingly lithe and open staging (most notably in the Southwest General segments) provides a framework for Hoffman’s performances that prevents the film from collapsing into an obsessive actor’s solipsistic workshop. The director’s conventionality limits the film’s potential as a truly revealing sex comedy, though it serves as a useful contrast to Hoffman’s escalating sense of invention, which reciprocally informs Tootsie with the wildness that’s otherwise missing. (Certain scenes, such as Dorothy’s near-rape at the hands of a co-star, are more disturbing, and funnier, for Pollack’s obvious skittishness with the material.)
Tootsie is really a character study disguised as a farce, a wandering lonely-hearts movie that’s rendered with an acute eye for the odd quotidian detail (the actors’ party at the beginning of the film is a particular marvel of despairing, telling gestures). The movie is so shaggy it barely has a third act, and the Michael/Dorothy ruse isn’t so much resolved as forgotten, and the already toothless gender politics are nulled by the storybook coda. The film, as a whole, isn’t quite up to the phenomenal dexterity of its lead’s exertions. But there’s a legitimate reason people love this movie so much: Pollack syphoned Hoffman’s ecstatic electricity off into a popular and old-fashioned romantic-comedy formula, bringing it back to life. Tootsie is a remarkably gentle and human pop movie that informs the term “escapism” with an almost cleansing sense of decency.
The image is absolutely beautiful. Colors are warm and unassumingly vibrant, grain is appropriate, and the flesh tones, which actively inform a plot that revolves around an elaborate disguise, are strikingly detailed and subtle. There’s an open airiness to Tootsie that’s practically verboten in large-scale American comedies these days, and that aesthetic has been wonderfully restored and preserved here. The sound mix is similarly graceful: clean and precise, with well-modulated layering between the diegetic and non-diegetic effects.
The supplements include a variety of materials that offer collective testament to Tootsie’s infamously troubled shoot, particularly as it pertained to the creative bouts between Dustin Hoffman and Sydney Pollack. In a surprisingly blunt and moving new piece, Hoffman discusses his obsession with finding the truth of his various characters, while Pollack tended to the big picture of keeping the narrative humming. This collaborative friction is best encapsulated by footage that’s featured in both of the film’s "making of" documentaries, "The Making of Tootsie" from 1982 and "A Better Man: The Making of Tootsie" from 2007, where Hoffman speaks of the challenge of empathizing with women while Pollack tries to nail down practicalities such as locations and secondary casting. It’s clear that Hoffman deeply personalized Michael and Dorothy to the point that the former was symbolic of his fears of failure, while the latter was intended as a representation of his own feelings of physical inferiority and exclusion. The challenge for Pollack, a hired hand brought on after Hoffman’s choice of Hal Ashby fell through, was to keep the actorly obsession at the low boil while mining the best possible performance and film. Both documentaries include plenty of intimate on-set footage that supports these observations, which are affirmed by Pollack’s detailed and unpretentious audio commentary (recorded for Criterion’s laserdisc in 1991). Elaine May, a major uncredited co-writer who invented the Bill Murray and Teri Garr characters wholesale, is discussed plenty by several of the major parties, especially Hoffman, who wanted to indulge some of her wilder scenes at Pollack’s ultimate refusal. Rounding out this fascinating package are the usual odds and ends: trailers, deleted scenes, test footage, and an essay by critic Michael Sragow.
Tootsie contains a great actor’s most personal and inventive performance, and serves as one of the definitive American explorations of the weird and precarious relationship that exists between actor and director.