"I think we're getting into a weird area here."
I'll never forget, as long as I live, the day my dad brought home our first VCR. To film-geek children of the 80s, I can think of no other moment in our lives more seminal than the entry of a VCR into the house. We had one of those RCA Selectavision players where you put the disc in, pulled out the housing, and after an hour you had to flip it over, but that thing sucked. Now we could watch a two hour movie without having to be interrupted. The only two movies that we owned on VHS that first few months were The Empire Strikes Back and Tootsie. Needless to say, Empire got a lot more playing time from me, but I am haunted by that old VHS copy of Tootsie, with that weird looking lady in the sparkly red dress staring at me. I don't know that I ever actually watched it to be honest. Watching it last night, I didn't remember any of it, so it was like seeing it for the first time.
I love Dustin Hoffman, I really do. I think he's probably one of the top five actors that have ever lived. He's absolutely amazing in almost everything he does, and his dominance from the time The Graduate was released through the release of Ishtar is undeniable. Tootsie is one of his most beloved movies, and maybe because I'm seeing it for the first time now, thirty years after it was made and became a box office juggernaut, I just don't understand why. It's not a bad movie, by any stretch of the imagination, but it really isn't as good as the sum of its parts.
Hoffman plays Michael Dorsey, a struggling New York actor who has developed a reputation of being impossible to work with. Desperate to raise money so he can produce a show written by his roommate Jeff (Bill Murray) that features a great role for him and a woman from one of his acting classes, Sandy (Teri Garr), he resorts to dressing as a woman to earn a role on a soap opera. Using the pseudonym Dorothy Michaels, he lands the role on Southwest General, a General Hospital knock-off, and finds himself employed and making a decent living. Complications arise when he falls in love with the young star of the show Julie Nichols (Jessica Lange, in an Oscar winning performance), and finds himself pursued by every horny old goat he comes across from Julie's father Les (Charles Durning) to the other star of the soap, John Van Horn (George Gaynes, wonderfully aloof).
Michael finds himself trying to keep both sides of his life secret from everyone except Jeff and his agent (Sydney Pollack), but finds it a delicate balancing act that threatens to implode on itself at any moment. All of the comedy is situational of course, with the laughs coming from the ridiculous predicaments Michael continues to find himself in. Mrs. Doubtfire would mine eerily similar territory a decade later, but Robin Williams' antics make that much more of an outright comedy as opposed to Tootsie, which plays everything straight, so to speak.
The biggest issue I have with the film is its running time. This should have been a breezy ninety minutes, but because it's essentially a drama that plays out as a comedy, it runs a bloated two hours. There's way too much filler, and the second hour of the film gets bogged down in repetitious scenes of Michael struggling to win Julie over, but not being able to because she thinks he's a woman. I genuinely like Sydney Pollack as a director, but it's funny to me how his most bloated films are his best regarded. This film and Out of Africa are lauded and fawned over, but nobody mentions Three Days of the Condor or They Shoot Horses, Don't They? which are lean, intense and focused.
Tootsie is a film that's above reproach though. It's so beloved that there's no way to argue with the people who love it. Jessica Lange is very good, and she was so beautiful it makes me sad to think of how she looks now, having had all that work done. Bill Murray is also fantastic, and Hoffman's lead performance is more admirable than it is a great performance. There's too much work being done to let you know how good he is, and the effortlessness that made Ratso Rizzo & Benjamin Braddock such great performances is sadly missing here.
But like I said, my opinion doesn't really matter. The verdict is already in on Tootsie, I just don't see it being a film I'll revisit. I don't know what happened to that old VHS copy of it, but I'm sure it got tons of mileage from my parents, and at the end of the day, I guess that's all that matters is that they loved it. I'm just a fussy old bastard that refuses to get caught up in the hype.