Monday, November 19, 2012

Sydney Pollack: Tootsie

When films are usually credited with more than two writers, there’s a consensus that something is fishy. The idea that a script needs three or four or sometimes even five writers usually doesn’t bode well for the quality of the film. Generally it is believed that the more writers the film has to its name, the more troubled the process was of getting it ready to shoot. I mean, just look at something like Armageddon: here is a film that many would agree is one of the absolute worst films of the ‘90s; it had more than five writers. Lethal Weapon 4 supposedly had 12 writers; The Flintstones – rumors have it – had over 60 (!) writers take a stab at the screenplay; and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides – one of the worst films in recent memory – had more than four writers to its name (some simply getting credit for “adapting” due to WGA rules). The point? Well, in 1982 Sydney Pollack would try his hand at making sense of the oft-bounced around script for what would become Tootsie. Everything about the film’s pre-production would point towards it being a failure; however, Pollack – the old pro – would piece together the scraps that were left from all of the previous writers who tried their hand at making the script work. Prior to its release, there was no way of predicting that Tootsie would be the second highest grossing film at the box-office (behind E.T.) and would be one of Pollack’s most popular and successful films.

Based on the play Would I Lie to You? by Don Maguire, eventual star (and major proponent of the film) Dustin Hoffman came onto the project after Charles Evans (Robert’s brother) had bought the rights. When Hoffman came on board, he immediately handed the project off to a Who’s Who of comedy writers that included Elaine May and Barry Levinson. When Pollack came on board, he changed the script (no surprise there since, as we’ve established throughout this retrospective, this is what Pollack does), piecing together the parts he liked with what he thought needed to be emphasized. No doubt Pollack valued the things in the script that he values in all of his movies, but Tootsie – aesthetically – feels like the comedic kin of The Way We Were; it’s a call back to the kind of Old Hollywood film that Pollack had so much admiration for.

The plot concerns itself with struggling actor Michael Dorsey (Hoffman) who is out of work and is told by his agent George (Pollack, in a role he begrudgingly accepted thanks to Hoffman’s dogged pestering that he take the role) that he’s too much of a pain to work with. Directors all across the city don’t want to work with him, and so George has to have it out with Michael that he isn’t fighting for him because too damn unemployable. This leads to George and Michael having a back-and-forth argument in his office about how difficult he is to work with. Michael’s reputation precedes him as George reminds him about a commercial he did where he was too dedicated to the role of a tomato, going as far as giving notes to the director.  The argument climaxes as Michael tells George that the director was crazy because he “plays the hell out of vegetables.” That final zinger is one of the best of the film and perfectly punctuates the best scene in the movie. Pollack and Hoffman’s back and forth was rooted in real life tension between the two, and that real life tension helps the scene become the real show stealer.

So, getting back to the plot: Michael accompanies his fellow out-of-work, stressed-out best friend Sandy (Teri Garr) to an audition for a soap opera called “Southwest General.” She doesn’t get the role, but Michael gets an idea: he’ll don make-up and a wig and get in a dress and try out himself as a sassy Southern woman name Dorothy Michaels. The film from there (predictably but never in a non-interesting way) moves through various sitcom situations as Michael as Dorothy gets in all kinds of close-calls, wacky misunderstandings, and zany situations. Some work like the relationship Michael forms as Dorothy with fellow co-star Julie (Jessica Lange, who won an Oscar for her role), and how he has to learn – for the first time – to really begin to love a woman by understanding her rather than just trying objectifying her. Admittedly, this bit of social commentary dates the movie significantly, but it’s still a sweet story. And Lange and Hoffman are great in their scenes together – almost as “can’t-take-your-eyes-off-the-screen” watchable as previous Pollack pairings like Streisand/Redford or Fonda/Redford or Streep/Redford. When the film doesn’t work, it’s mostly in the zany aspects. Charles Durning is great as Julia’s dad, but the scenes surrounding him and Dorothy are predictable and tired even though the performances suggest we should think something different. The writing just isn’t as sharp in those scenes.

Like those screwball comedies from the ’30s and ‘40s that Pollack so greatly admired, the director does a great job of utilizing his supporting cast for big laughs, specifically Dabney Coleman as Ron Carlisle. Carlisle is the sexist director of the soap opera, and his yo-yo like reactions to all of Dorothy’s ad-libs are hilarious. He hates having actors that have a thought in their head, but he loves the ratings that Michael’s (as Dorothy) performance as the hospital administrator is giving his tawdry daytime soap opera. It’s a great balancing act by Coleman, and along with Pollack, is one of the reasons the film flies by as you watch it.

Tootsie is like comfort food for me; I often return to this simple, endearing comedy when I can think of nothing else to watch. It reminds me of a little of the comedies by Sturges or Hawks or Cukor. Pollack was quite fond of these filmmakers and the classic Hollywood system they worked in; we often see Pollack trying to reach for that simple aesthetic and tone in his pictures because it’s what interested him most – this idea of the loss of innocence found in the films he grew up with. It’s why it’s easy to say that there’s nothing in particular that jumps out at us when we look at Pollack’s career – or when someone says they’re going to do a retrospective on him; I’m sure there many people just kind of shrug at this project of mine – yet there’s something to be said about the consistency and workman-like way Pollack churned out these films indebted to the old Hollywood style. When one tries to deconstruct Pollack, there are only a few things they’re likely to find, and I think that’s because Pollack preferred it that way: Simple stories involving characters with simple motivations.

When comparing the thematic motifs of Tootsie with Pollack’s other films, we see some similarities even though this was the first time the director worked in the comedy genre. We know Pollack was fond of male/female dynamics – they were the crucial metaphor to understanding opposing worldviews – specifically in regards to relationships. Here, Pollack does something a little different in that he implements the same conflict that he has in other films but does it with just one person: Michael/Dorothy. It’s interesting because Pollack is very much making a movie that he’s made before, but he’s also flipping the conventions of the romantic comedy and making it about something more. We also know that Pollack knew how to work with big actors. Hoffman, allegedly, was a thorn in Pollack’s side on the set; however, Pollack was still able to rein him in enough and get a great performance from not just his leading man but from the entire supporting cast (which includes a great snarky performance from an un-credited Bill Murray as Michael’s roommate).

Another favorite of Pollack’s: the ambiguous ending. One of the things Pollack wanted to change about the ending was that it was more about Michael’s epiphany regarding his relationships with women rather than the success of his Dorothy character and the revelation that Dorothy was really a man. So, Pollack still gets his ambiguous ending in; however, unlike his previous dramas, the ending in Tootsie – although ambiguous which is not what Hollywood or audiences would have preferred – is still a happy one regardless of whether know that Michael and Julia are going to end up as more than friends. What I appreciate about Pollack, and in in particular what he does in this film, is that he’s never concerned with the “will they/won’t they” dynamic. For Pollack, it goes much deeper than that; it’s journey – a necessary and cyclical one but one where the protagonist returns to where they started a little wiser and more self-aware – not just a fluffy little romantic comedy/drama for Pollack. He’s interested in the arc these characters go on. So, with Tootsie the wacky, cross-dressing comedy, it seems that he’s kind of sneaking these other elements that were so prominent in his previous films so that we become not enamored with whether Michael will get the girl but whether or not he actually learns something about his relationships with women in general. 

And so even though there may not be a lot to deconstruct with Tootsie that we haven’t already covered with Pollack’s other films, and even though certain scenes like the magazine montage date the film, there’s a lot to love and admire about the film. If you allow it to, Tootsie can work its charm on you and win you over. It’s arguably Pollack’s broadest film – They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is the only thing I can think of that would be as overt – but it was also a huge success with audiences (and critics) and is one of Pollack’s most successful films.  It’s a pleasant change of pace for the director of such languid, deliberate films that often test the patience of the audience. Tootsie is smart and fast-paced and filled with some of Pollack’s strongest scenes as a director. It’s a shame that his next film, Out of Africa, is the one that won Pollack Oscars for Directing and Producing because I think that Tootsie is ten times the film that his more serious “prestige” period piece is. But we’ll get to that film next time. 


  1. I greatly enjoy this movie, actually it´s one of my all time fave comedies. Great actors elevate the script and who could ever forget that shot when we first see Dorothy walking down the crowded street. Great summation of the film and I look forward to reading about Out of Africa, another fave of mine...though perhaps a little bit of a guilty pleasure.
    Anyways, directors like Pollack are undervalued and almost extinct in the studio system today when it´s all about the BIG movies, nothing wrong with that but the "smaller" movies and directors tend to get a bit lost.