Thursday, March 5, 2015

AFI Top 100: #69 "Tootsie"

Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie (1982)

After the last two months of probably the longest string of "oh my god, so serious" movies on the AFI Top 100 list, I cannot even begin to explain how desperately happy I was to be watching a lighthearted comedy in the vein of Tootsie, our #69 film on the countdown. (Side note: Can you believe we've made it through over 30 movies so far? I certainly can't!) One of only six comedies on the list [so far!], this delightful story is usually referenced for its iconic "man dressed as a woman" sequences... but it is remembered for it's intelligence.

Dustin Hoffman stars as Michael Dorsey, a talented New York stage actor who simultaneously runs circles around other actors with his talent all while being unable to keep or land a paying gig. His reputation precedes him in many cases, and that talent he touts ends up being held against him, because no one can stand a know-it-all actor who argues with directors all the time. More often than not, though, he's just "not right" for the part. His agent George (director Sydney Pollack) dissuades him making a fuss about not being cast in things, and tells him frankly: "No one wants to work with you. Anywhere."

Challenge accepted! Determined to collect enough money to direct a play written by his roommate, Jeff (scene-stealer Bill Murray), and cast his best friend, Sandy (Teri Garr), Michael is next seen waltzing down the street in drag, dressed as his new alter-ego, Dorothy Michaels. Dorothy is determined to win the role of the hospital administrator on a popular daytime soap, whose bit role pays out exactly what Michael needs. Despite getting the "Michael Dorsey" treatment by the misogynistic director (Dabney Coleman) for "not being tough enough," Dorothy throws a public tirade to prove just how tough she can be. Needless to say, she gets the role. The rest of the film focuses on Michael's struggle to balance Dorothy's rising popularity (on and off screen), and his own nagging knowledge that his days as Dorothy are numberedespecially when he begins to fall in love with his soap cast-mate, Julie (Jessica Lange).

To say that Tootsie does something groundbreaking by putting Hoffman in drag to experience the everyday struggle that women have to endure is short-sighted. Usually people compare it immediately to 1994 comedy Mrs. Doubtfire, which relied more heavily on the slapstick when it wasn't tugging at heartstrings... But no, Tootsie is more reminiscent of the film that likely inspired it: Some Like It Hot (which we will be viewing for this list when we hit #22). That film says a lot of the same things, despite being filtered through the censorship board of the 1950s. The difference really lies in the character motivations. While Some Like It Hot had male characters dolling up to hide their identities while on the run from gangsters... Michael has much more selfish motivations. His ego is his driver, and it is also his biggest obstacle.

While the originality of Tootsiewhether speaking to the social commentary or the comedyis usually overstated, credit should be given to its character development. Michael is forgetful, selfish, and brazen, and that doesn't immediately go away when he transforms into Dorothy. He learns to adapt and navigate these traits, at first to benefit himself... and then to benefit the people he loves. The transformation from Michael to Dorothy, or the idea of being caught, doesn't become an enormous sticking point in the film, which makes me endlessly happy. There are sequences where you think Michael hiding his secret is all its going to be about, but the script surprises you by focusing instead on the story, the characters. The gimmick doesn't become the crutch.

Now, all of that isn't to say that Tootsie isn't funny. Quite the contrary, it is hysterical, sometimes uproarious, mostly due to the wonderfully cast side characters. Bill Murray's small role is highlighted perfection with his randomly improvised lines, Teri Garr pulls out her best Phoebe Buffay impression, Pollack's turn as Michael/Dorothy's 'straight-man' agent is inspiredeven Geena Davis' small part as a cast member on the soap offers up snarky brilliance. They are where the comedy lies in this film. In my mind, Michael and his turn as Dorothy is where the film's heart resides.

Watching this movie was like a breath of fresh air. I could even (sort of) get past the cheesy 80's score, which almost pushed it over into "hokey" territory. The script is just too good. It shocks me sometimes to think of this as an "AFI Top 100" movie, though, maybe because it's special in a different way than other movies on the list.

Do I think it belongs in the Top 100? ... I'm not sure. My love for it doesn't hinge on that distinction, but I do question its staying power. It isn't timeless, and it's my feeling that AFI's selections should be. What makes it so special is that it does something that is familiar to us now, but wasn't familiar then. It is also endlessly delightful, and surprisingly smart.

Rating:  ★★★½ / 5 stars

[Watch the Trailer] | [Read More AFI Top 100 Reviews] | [images © Columbia Pictures]

Check back next week for #68 on the list, Unforgiven — or better yet, have your own viewing party and watch along with us!

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