Twenty-five years before Katy Perry, Jessica Lange kisses a girl and it feels good, even if it is Dustin Hoffman.
Dustin Hoffman’s hilarious performance in Tootsie is being somewhat hilariously overanalyzed in the press. The movie is a knockabout farce, based on the not unfamiliar theme of the desperate chap who tries to escape his particular predicament by donning wig, skirts and a conspicuous pair of falsies. It may be more profound than Charley’s Aunt or Some Like It Hot, but it hardly demands elucidation.
The reason for the probing is that, in the manner of Woody Allen, Hoffman is here spinning a yarn which, if it does not parallel, at least impinges upon aspects of his own life. Michael Dorsey (Hoffman) is an actor who, though well regarded in the profession, cannot get a job in anything from soaps to Shakespeare. The trouble is that Dorsey is a perfectionist – and an outspoken one. He can be counted on to destroy any production schedule by repeated arguments on fine points of psychological probability or narrative logic. Hoffman has that sort of reputation, and in his early days, before The Graduate won him a following that has since become an army, it cost him many jobs. Early in Tootsie, Dorsey’s agent tells him that he is unemployable on any stage in the country and that he’d better get a job as a waiter. The agent is played by Sydney Pollack, who also directed the film, and the scene fairly jumps from the screen because you sense that the two men are shouting at each other through their characters. A few minutes later, shadow-boxing his way downtown, Dorsey suddenly yells, “I’m a great character actor; I can play anybody!” In Tootsie, Hoffman proves that he just about can.
Because what makes the movie such fun is that his Dorothy Michaels is not just Michael Dorsey in drag. She soon becomes an authentic, if bizarre, character in her own right, one who for long stretches dominates the action and turns the story on its ear. Having landed a job on a daytime TV serial, she rewrites the script as the cameras roll. This confuses the other actors and enrages the male-chauvinist director (Dabney Coleman), but the delighted viewers flood the studio with fan mail for Dorothy. And, unused to the indignities suffered by her sex, she instructs the men with whom she deals in the virtues of equal rights and mutual courtesy. No one on the screen doubts that the crusading Ms. Michaels is quite a dame, and the audience in the movie theater comes to much the same opinion.
Of course, the picture resounds with the clatter of slapstick. I won’t spoil it by going into detail, but to give an idea of the suffering imposed on Dorsey by his unflappable doppelgänger, there comes a moment in the action when a new friend (Jessica Lange) becomes convinced that Dorothy is a lesbian, while his longtime friend (Teri Garr) is persuaded that Michael is gay. Problems of identity, as well as principles of equality, predictably arise in the movie, and these may well relate to Hoffman’s own convictions. But they could sink a farce if they got the upper hand. What makes Tootsie take off and fly is his almost absurd dexterity as a character actor.
The story is by Don McGuire and Larry Gelbart, the screenplay by Gelbart and Murray Schisgal. I suspect that Hoffman was not bashful with advice.