Still from 1982's "Tootsie."

Auntie Mame (1958) and you’ll know what I mean. Such shouldn’t suggest that the movie is without its uproarious moments; what it should suggest is that it is a smart, amiable feature. A film befit with a premise as wired as Tootsie’s has tremendous potential for grating silliness, birdbrained farcicality that might sour with time. The most obvious thing to do, of course, would be to create a film costumed in not much more than physical and sight gags, a couple spoonfuls of human drama plopped onto the shenanigans once in a while to provide depth.

 

But nothing in Tootsie is ever too obvious. We think we know exactly where it’s going, given that it’s about a frazzled, aging actor named Michael (Dustin Hoffman) who somehow manages to make it big as a soap opera star — in full drag. Certainly, a lot of what we expect to happen does happen. Snags come around when Michael has to keep his real identity hidden from his employers and co-workers. Lots of cracks are made about how dedicated Michael is to his role (now he’s suddenly concerned about which blouses go well with which pencil skirts). There is also an assortment of other sitcom-ripe subplots, from the way two older men fall in love with the woman Michael’s pretending to be, to the way Michael becomes a magazine-covering, much-recognized international sensation. Inevitably, he even develops a debilitating crush on the soap’s leading actress, the vulnerable Julie (an Oscar-winning Jessica Lange), which starts making his heavy makeup and padded clothing feel increasingly imprisoning.

 

All these plot points garner big laughs, especially because they’re all delivered with a certain nervousness, a dash of life-is-funny naturalism. But so much about Tootsie is tender and winning, too. Its greatest accomplishment is not the soufflé lightness of its humor but how wonderful its characterizations, along with the performances that allow them to breathe, are. As seen in the best films residing within the comedic zeitgeist, with Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987) and Moonstruck (1987) coming to mind, jokes fly better when the individuals delivering them are ones we care about. And care about the characters in Tootsie we do.

 

Michael, even with his head-scratchingly short temper and his inability to give up his dignity every once in a while, is someone we like as well as admire. In him we have a struggling actor who would rather be unemployed than take on a part unworthy of his time. When he gets this particular part, it challenges him far more than any role ever has. So our hearts warm when he actually becomes a better man as a result of living in someone else’s shoes. Hoffman, among the few actors whose main appeal is their everyman charm, is dynamite, believably topsy-turvy when he’s Michael and brassy and lovable when he’s Dorothy. (As the cliché goes, Hoffman almost disappears when he’s in curls.)

 

The individuals opposite him are just as sympathetically rendered. Julie starts in disarray, drinking on the job and consistently let down by her relationship with the soap’s director (Dabney Coleman). So we find a sort of delight in how she eventually learns to stand up for herself, and take pride in her talents, as she befriends Dorothy. Michael’s friend and occasional lover Sandy (a splendid Teri Garr) is the right kind of fuzzy-headed, eccentric without the caricatured edge, and we’re just as frustrated as she is by her failing acting career and by the way Michael refuses to commit to her. Other supporting players, like Michael’s sardonic director roommate (Murray), Julie’s kindly, widowed father who falls for Dorothy (Charles Durning), and Michael’s exhausted agent (Pollack), are all characters who could have been joke-spurting second bananas and yet are written with clear eyes and performed with plenty of sensitivity.

 

The screenplay, written by Larry Gelbart and Murray Schisgal, with the help of the uncredited Barry Levinson and Elaine May, is near perfect, after all: What an unanticipated development it is that a film so silly at heart contain such fully-formed characters and such intelligently realized comedic understandings. But the plump cherry resting atop this already scrumptious sundae is how well it additionally works as social commentary, using Michael’s experiences as a woman as a surprisingly effective catalyst to touch on sexism in the workplace and the inherent misogyny of men (and how it affects the women who fall victim to it).

 

Tootsie’s reputation as one of the greatest comedy films ever made is well-earned (the American Film Institute puts it at number two on their list of the 100 finest comedies). Just don’t expect a storming of laughs a la Blazing Saddles (1974). 

What Tootsie’s good at is being steadily witty and, above all, very, very charismatic. The laughs are big when the screenwriters push a seismic joke forward. But the movie is unusual in that it turns the basis of a romp into something more spirited and human. A

DIRECTED BY

Sydney Pollack

 

STARRING

Dustin Hoffman

Jessica Lange

Teri Garr

Bill Murray

Sydney Pollack

Charles Durning

Dabney Coleman

Geena Davis

 

RATED

PG

 

RELEASED IN

1982

 

RUNNING TIME

1 Hr., 56 Mins.

Tootsie September 27, 2017        

ydney Pollack’s Tootsie (1982) is very 1959, and not just because it’s something of a distant cousin of that year’s Some Like it Hot. It’s also reminiscent of the comedies of the Hollywood Golden Age in general. The movie resembles the then-commonplace lark that more often played up to our need for feel-good escapism than to our need to have our funny bones tickled. Look in the direction of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) or

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