Top Fifty Films of the 80s — Number Two

2 tootsie

#2 — Tootsie (Sydney Pollack, 1982)
Whenever I write about comedies–especially in the context of celebrating them as prime cinematic achievements–I always seem to get to the end of the piece and realize that I’ve almost completely ignored a key detail. In consideration of that, I’m going to lead with the point I often neglect. Tootsie is a very, very funny movie.

The screenplay–credited to a combination of Larry Gelbart, Murray Schisgal and Don McGuire, but featuring vital contributions from several additional writers, most notably Elaine May–sets up and then dispenses its laughs beautifully. There are clearly jokes peppered throughout the story of a male actor who has tremendous success masquerading as a woman to get a part on a major soap opera, but they always seem to emerge organically from the situations and the amazingly well-drawn characters. Even when the movie approaches pure farce in its third act as all of the various relationships come to a head and the main character takes crafty advantage of an unexpected live broadcast in an ingeniously uproarious scene, the movie is firmly grounded in its own meticulously crafted logic. Lot many of the best movies, Tootsie is a pure marvel of structure, both in the perfection of its construction and in the way its building blocks are virtually invisible as the story plays out. Nothing happens because it’s demanded by the rigors of the plot. Instead, every choice is exactly what the person onscreen would be reasonably expected to do in that moment.

A major component of the film’s success in that regard is the strength of the characterization in the writing and also in the performances. It’s no surprise that the leading role is filled in as well as it is, especially given the ways combative actor Michael Dorsey so joyfully trades in on the well-earned reputation star Dustin Hoffman had at the time. Hoffman was famously exacting in the depth of his commitment and that comes through in the ways in which he plays Michael, and, importantly, his female alter ego Dorothy Michaels, with attention to the the character’s (or perhaps the characters’) inner workings. Twenty years earlier, Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot could wring comic nectar from the mere sight of Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in ugly, shapeless dresses and smeared-on makeup, but Hoffman is going for something far deeper and more convincing in Tootsie. He’s picking at his own insecurities and pushing against the sexism layered invisibly into the various social interactions he encounters in both guises.

The supporting roles are equally well-formed, a pure astonishment given the number of moving parts in the complicated cast list. Jessica Lange, Teri Garr, Charles Durning, Bill Murray, George Gaynes, Dabney Coleman and Doris Belack all give performances that I could individually effuse over at length. Even Geena Davis registers nicely in a role that could be a mere little blip in the proceedings. Special praise is due for the tremendous job director Sydney Pollack does playing Michael’s agent. A former (and, as it turned out, future) actor convinced by Hoffman to reacquaint himself with the other side of the camera for the first time in almost twenty years, Pollack is utterly at ease and engaging, developing a splendid ping-pong banter with Hoffman that winningly recalls the great comedy teams from bygone days. By all accounts, Pollack and Hoffman scrapped continuously during the making of Tootsie and that shared weary, respectful exasperation gives their scenes together a nice added tang.

Pollack is also at his most inspired as a director. Always a genuine craftsman when it came to filmmaking, Pollack is slyly inventive throughout the entire film. The rhythms of the work are exactly right and Pollack is especially good at knowing when to let scenes play out with minimal editing, framing the shot to let the actors artfully play off one another. Working with cinematographer Owen Roizman and editors Frederic and William Steinkamp, the director makes sure the movie looks great and moves with the proper verve. The scene built around the live broadcast is a quiet marvel of movie mechanics. It doesn’t miss a single detail, from the lighting contrast between the television studio and the various homes where other characters are watching the stunning turn transpire to the buckshot blast of different reactions to television character Emily Kimberly’s unscripted announcement at the fictional party in her honor.

Tootsie may not make any profound statements about humanity of prove any shocking points–although Hoffman, who routinely tears up when he talks about this movie, will argue otherwise–but that doesn’t make it any less impressive of a feat. There’s so much going on in it, and there’s nary a misstep. In its frames is the admirable thoroughness of great filmmaking, when every detail contributes to the whole. I can go on and on with great enthusiasm (perhaps tiresomely so, I will concede) about how much much it tells you about Dabney Coleman’s character that he drops a cigarette in the hallway of someone’s apartment building the moment the door is answered. It’s a throwaway moment, not highlighted in the slightest, and yet it completely reinforces everything that’s been established about that character up to that point: his self-regard, his meager hedonism, his incidental callousness. I laugh a lot whenever I watch Tootsie, impressive enough given the number of times I’ve seen it, but I’m just as grateful for the pleasure that comes from admiring a film that’s made with such care, insight and unobtrusive precision.