Oscar Vault Monday – Tootsie, 1982 (dir. Sydney Pollack)

I’m not sure when I first saw this film, but I think it was probably on television some time in the 90s. I didn’t do a good rewatch of the film until my first  semester of film grad school. One of my instructors used it a lot in his teaching screenplay form (it really is a great model), so on the last day we watched the entire film. Having just rewatched it again, I can’t help but think it really is a perfect film. It’s not the most realistic film (far from it); but it is storytelling at its finest. Tootsie was nominated for ten Academy Awards, winning one: Best Film Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Sound, Best Original Song, Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress Teri Garr, Best Supporting Actress Jessica Lange (won), Best Actor Dustin Hoffman, Best Director and Best Picture. The other film nominated for Best Picture that year were: E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Missing, The Verdict and winner Gandhi.


Although Larry Gelbart, Murray Schisgal and Don McGuire received an Oscar nomination for their screenplay, both Barry Levinson and Elaine May also did uncredited work on the film’s screenplay. There’s a lot of production history on this film, from its inception in the 70s through the film’s final state in 1982, but I won’t be going much into that. I just want to share some of my favorite parts of it. In 2000, the American Film Institute named Tootsie the second funniest American film of all-time, just behind Some Like It Hot.


The film begins with its protagonist Michael Dorsey (Hoffman) on a series of auditions and gigs where he walks out, establishing him as an actor with an irascible attitude.


We then see him at his day job as a waiter, with his friend and roommate, playwright Jeff (Murray). Right away you love Jeff. Just look at him! How do you not like Bill Murray? So far, Murray has only been nominated for an Academy Award once: Best Actor for Lost in Translation (2002).


Jeff takes Michael home giving him a great piece of advice: “Instead of trying to be Michael Dorsey the great actor or Michael Dorsey the great waiter, why don’t you try to be Michael Dorsey?” This is the crux of the whole film and the goal he will be working towards (whether he knows it or not). At the party we are introduced to Michael the womanizer, who hits on every woman at the party that he doesn’t know (and a few that he already does). This was Hoffman’s fifth Oscar nomination out of a total seven: The Graduate (1967), Midnight Cowboy (1969), Lenny (1974), Kramer Vs. Kramer (1979, won), Tootsie (1982), Rain Man (1988, won), Wag the Dog (1997).


God I love Teri Garr. She is the best thing about so many films. This was Garr’s only Oscar nomination despite giving many fine comedic performances in the 70s and 80s. She plays Michael’s good friend and student Sandy, who is also a struggling actress. It’s clear early on that she has had a thing for Michael for the past six years, though she’s never done anything about it. At the end of Michael’s birthday party, she’s the last one there, stating, “Goodnight Michael. It was a great party. My date left with somebody else. Do you have any Seconal?” Michael then walks her home and helps her run lines for an audition she has the next day. She’s nervous and she’s really not that great, but Michael is determined to help her. However, when he gets to the audition, he abandons her when he finds out one of the stars of the soap for which she’s auditioning is doing The Iceman Cometh.


He runs to his agent George Fields (Pollack). There’s one line in particular that I really love, after Michael tries to persuade him of his value as an actor: “God forbid you lose your standing as a cult failure.” Pollack, who died in 2008, has been nominated for seven Oscars, winning twice: Best Director: They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969), Tootsie (1982), Out of Africa (1985, won), Best Picture: Tootsie (1982), Out of Africa (1985, won), Michael Clayton (2005), The Reader (2008, posthumous). The role was originally written for Dabney Coleman, but Hoffman thought Pollack should play the role of his agent. I’m glad this happened, as Pollack is so wonderfully funny in this role. Coleman gives a fine performances as well, as the sexist director of the soap opera, which we will see in a bit. Field then delivers that line that works as the inciting incident, telling Michael: “No one will hire you.


We then cut to Michael as Dorothy, walking through the streets of New York City, prepared to prove everyone wrong and ready to go on a journey he could never have predicted.


After getting the part on the show by not taking any of the director’s sexist bullshit and showing up on the first day doing much the same, Michael, now know as Dorothy Michaels, tells his roommate Jeff about his experience, stating: “I think Dorothy is smarter than I am.” This ties in wonderfully with his last monologue, after Dorothy/Michael learns all that he needed to learn.


Geena Davis has a small part as one of the actresses on the soap. When we first see her, she’s clad in nothing but a bra and panties – she’s in the dressing room she shares with Dorothy – and stays that way for much of the film. It shows the immediate intimacy women tend to have with each other. Michael, as Dorothy, immediately looks away from her (though you can tell all he really wants to do is stare). Davis went on to win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for The Accidental Tourist (1988) and was nominated for Best Actress for Thelma and Louise (1991).


Prior to this film, Lange was mostly known for the disastrous 1976 remake of King Kong and the 1981 remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice. In Tootsie, Lange plays the object of Michael’s desire: Julie Nichols. Julie plays a nurse on the soap who sleeps around and in real life is in a relationship with her director, and has a 14-month-old child (the father of whom is never mentioned). Lange plays a woman who isn’t good at asserting herself and takes a lot of crap from the men in her life (something Michael as Dorothy observes, but probably would never have noticed as a man), who learns a lot by being with Dorothy, who always stands up for herself. I’m not really sure what that says about women in general, or if you should just take it on a case by case basis. But I’ll probably never be 100% okay with the message that it took a man to get the women to stand up for themselves (even if that man had to learn how not be a jerk by being a woman). It’s a complicated idea and probably the way you see it comes from generational issues. Lange received two Oscar nominations for 1982, and has been nominated six times, winning twice: Best Actress: Frances (1982), Country (1984), Sweet Dreams (1985), Music Box (1989), Blue Sky (1994, won), Best Supporting Actress: Tootsie (1982, won). I’m also not really sure why Lange won this Oscar; if it were up to me, this award would have gone to Garr, hands down.


I had to include a bit of the crazy photoshoots that Dorothy does after the midpoint of the film. Up to this point, Dorothy has been praised by her co-workers and other women for her strong personality and self-worth, but after Michael has a conversation with Sandy, who points out that Dorothy’s dialogue is still a load of crap, Dorothy/Michael begins making up her own lines and creating a truly strong woman in herself and on the soap opera. 


It’s after this change, and a quick trip to the country, that Julie decides she’s had enough of her boyfriend, director Ron Carlisle (Coleman) and his crap ways. While Julie gets ready, Ron and Dorothy have a heart to heart, during which Ron asks Dorothy, “You don’t like me, do you? I can respect that. There’s not many women I can’t make like me. Why don’t you like me?” Dorothy tells him that she doesn’t like the way he treats Julie, to which Ron replies: “Look, I never promised Julie I’d be exclusive and not see other women. But I know she doesn’t want me to see them, so I lie to her to keep from hurting her,” which is almost verbatim what Michael had said earlier to Jeff about the way he was treating Sandy. Hmmm. Ron then continues: “Look at it from my side, see if a woman wants me to seduce her – I usually do – but then she starts pretending like I promised her something. Then I start pretending I promised her something. In the end, I’m the one that’s exploited,” to which Dorothy replies: “Bullshit, Ron. I understand you a lot better than you think I do.” We the audience know just how true this is. Ron is an important character because he is a mirror for Michael. He behaves towards woman in a similar way to which Michael had earlier in the film, albeit slightly more ruthless. By observing men at their worst, through the eyes of a woman, and by being confiding in by women when their guard is down, Michael learns more about both sexes than he eve know he could.


Julie comes home after breaking it off with Ron and the two have a heart to heart wherein she says to Dorothy: “It’s as though I want something I just can’t have.” This is the moment where Michael knows that Julie feels for him what he feels for her, only she thinks he’s a woman. A botched attempt to tell her the truth winds up with Julie thinking Dorothy is a lesbian. Which is a problem because. . .


. . .Julie’s father Les (Charles Durning) has fallen in love with Dorothy. He even asks her to marry him. It’s a sweet proposal and the next day when Michael is telling his agent about it, the scene is reminiscent of the similar scene in Some Like It Hot. Everyone likes getting proposed to. Everyone wants to be wanted. It’s society that dictates who should do the asking. Durning was nominated for Best Supporting Actor twice: The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982) and To Be Or Not To Be (1983).


Michael comes home that night only to find one of the leads from the soap John Van Horn (George Gaynes) waiting for Dorothy. He’s fallen for her as well (because she doesn’t let him get away with any shit, and deep down people like that). This leads to a disastrous trip upstairs, where Dorothy/Michael is saved at the last time by Jeff. Murray barely says a word in this scene, but he steals the show. It must be exhausting acting with someone like him. He’s like Lionel Barrymore; if he’s there, you know all eyes are on him.


To top off the night, Sandy’s finally had enough of Michael’s shit (she almost caught him trying on one of her dresses, so he slept with her to get out of the situation, then continued to string her along and break dates) and comes to confront him. She gives a wonderful speech: “I don’t care about “I love you!” I read The Second Sex. I read The Cinderella Complex! I’m responsible for my own orgasm! I don’t care. I just don’t like to be lied to!” Michael tries to smooth it over with, “What can I do for you?,” to which she replies, “There’s nothing you can do for me. I just have to feel like this until I don’t feel like this anymore and you’re gonna have to know you’re the one that made me feel this way!” He then asks if they can still be friends and she says, “No! I don’t take this shit from friends, only from lovers!” and slams out. I love this scene, because it shows that Sandy has grown as well, although she had to learn her lessons through pain.


Michael then decides to reveal his true identity when the show is forced to re-do a scene live (there’s a great running gag about the tapes being erased by an idiot video editor). The reveal is everything you expect a twist in a ridiculous soap to be – all of which Michael does off the cuff – surprising everyone as he goes.


“That is one nutty hospital!”


The film ends on a wonderful note. Michael reconciles with Les, then tries to mend things with Julie. After Julie says she misses Dorothy, he says she misses her, too, and that she’s right here. This leads to one of the film’s most famous lines: “I was a better man with you, as a woman than I ever was with a woman, as a man. You know what I mean? I just gotta learn to do it without the dress.” Julie is a little hesitant – and I still don’t fully believe she would forgive him so quickly – then the two walk off together discussing a little yellow Halston dress that Julie wants to borrow. Will they be friends? Yes. Will they be something more? Possibly. Has Michael become a person who knows how to love others like he loves himself? Yes. Now that they both know how hard it is to be a woman in the 80s, maybe they can be a successful couple in the 80s as well.


About Marya E. Gates

Cinephile to the max.

Posted on May 20, 2013, in Oscar Vault Monday and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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