Tootsie opens with Dustin Hoffman giving acting classes. He’s a failed New York actor–but a well-employed waiter–who must be giving these classes on spec. It seems like Hoffman being a beloved acting teacher might end up having something to do with the plot of Tootsie, which has Hoffman pretending to be a female actor in order to get a part, but it doesn’t. Save a throwaway scene where he’s helping love interest Jessica Lange work on her part.
The film, with its two (credited) screenwriters and two story concocters (though Larry Gelbart is both), is a narrative mess. Teri Garr, as Hoffman’s student and good friend, disappears somewhere in the second act, once Lange gets more to do. Bill Murray (in an uncredited, main supporting role) at least provides some continuity, which not even director Pollack (who also acts as Hoffman’s agent) gets to do. The conclusion of the movie is this swirl of contrivances, all forcefully introduced earlier in the picture, and no one who should be there for it has a scene. Tootsie just ignores the previous couple hours to get the coda to work.
And it does. Tootsie does, despite all the narrative problems and missed opportunities and dropped characters, come through for the finish. It helps having Owen Roizman’s photography, it helps being shot in New York City, it needs stars Hoffman and Lange. No matter what story problems, Tootsie never fails its actors. Even with it’s Pollack–Tootsie, the film, never fails Pollack, the actor, even if Pollack, the director, doesn’t quite have the film under control. Pollack’s got a great rant towards the end.
I’ll start from the bottom of the cast and work up just because I’m not really sure what I’m going to say about Hoffman yet.
George Gaynes is hilarious as this lech actor on the soap opera where Hoffman gets his job (as a woman). Gaynes just has to be a believable buffoon, but he does it with such ease, he calms Tootsie a bit. It never seems too extreme just because Gaynes’s so sturdy. He tempers it, along with Dabney Coleman. Coleman’s the jerk director of the soap. He’s also dating Lange. He also doesn’t have a big enough part in the story during the second half. Coleman’s still good though. He’s got the right energy–and right buffoonery–to keep it going.
Charles Durning is about the only actor who doesn’t get anything to do overall. He gets a lot to do in the story, he’s just poorly written. He’s Lange’s dad, who gets a crush on Hoffman when Hoffman’s “in character” as the female actor. It’s a sitcom foil, which wastes Durning; there’s also some continuity issues regarding Durning’s supportive dad when Lange’s character is initially introduced as an alcoholic because of being an orphan? Maybe I missed some exposition, but I was paying attention.
Murray’s good. He’s dry, he’s funny, he’s Hoffman’s conscience if Hoffman had a somewhat disinterested, bemused conscience. He’s present through most of the film, though, which is important. Most other characters just evaporate when the story doesn’t need them. Tootsie keeps Murray around even when it doesn’t.
Now, Teri Garr. She’s great. She also gets one good scene and it’s after the movie’s been ignoring her for an hour. It’s not a great part, either. She’s such a function in the script, she and Hoffman’s subplot literally kicks off just because his particular lie to her. Any other lie and it would’ve been fine. But her great scene is great. It’s a shame she’s not around more.
The same sort of goes for Jessica Lange, who shares the same space in the film as Garr, at least until Garr leaves. Then Lange gets to be around and sometimes she gets stuff to do, sometimes she just gets to sit around. Lange’s best acting moments are far superior to the script’s moments for her as an actor. Pollack works on directing Lange more than anyone else in the film.
Including Hoffman, who Pollack sort of lets do his own thing, to great success. Hoffman’s performance, as an example of comedy Method acting, is outstanding. There’s not much of a role past the MacGuffin–Pollack relies way too heavily on montages after a certain point, including a completely nonsensical one–but it’s an outstanding performance. The film positions Hoffman front and center, then transforms him into his new role–an actor playing this female actor–on screen. It’s awesome. It also is nowhere near enough to fix the script problems because Tootsie’s a fairly shallow movie overall.
And it shouldn’t be. There’s so much potential, not just for Hoffman, but for everyone in the cast. Lange, Garr, Murray, Coleman… okay, not Durning, but everyone else and a lot with them. And maybe even Durning if the film remembered Lange’s alcoholism subplot instead of forgetting it immediately.
Tootsie’s all right. It should be better, it could’ve been a lot worse. It’s well made, has a nice pace, has a nice Dave Grusin score–and a nice original song from Stephen Bishop–and some phenomenal acting. Hoffman and Lange are excellent and Garr ought to be. She just doesn’t have enough material. Because Tootsie’s a tad thin.
Directed by Sydney Pollack; screenplay by Larry Gelbart and Murray Schisgal, based on a story by Don McGuire and Gelbart; director of photography, Owen Roizman; edited by Fredric Steinkamp and William Steinkamp; music by Dave Grusin; production designer, Peter S. Larkin; produced by Pollack and Dick Richards; released by Columbia Pictures.
Dustin Hoffman (Michael Dorsey), Jessica Lange (Julie Nichols), Teri Garr (Sandy Lester), Bill Murray (Jeff Slater), Dabney Coleman (Ron Carlisle), Sydney Pollack (George Fields), George Gaynes (John Van Horn), Doris Belack (Rita Marshall), and Charles Durning (Les Nichols).