Monday, December 17, 2007
Power Making A Woman Masculine
December 17th marks the 25th anniversary of the release of TOOTSIE. To put that into appropriate perspective, it means that the film is now several years older than SOME LIKE IT HOT was when TOOTSIE came out. That’s how much time goes by. Directed by Sydney Pollack, it’s been a favorite of mine ever since it first came out. I'm sure I thought it deserved to win Best Picture even then and now I’m absolutely certain it deserved the prize. After many, many viewings over the years it remains an example of a film which has what is pretty close to a perfect screenplay but it's well known that there were many hands involved in that script through years of development and well into shooting. Don McGuire, Murray Schisgal and Larry Gelbart are the writers credited, but there were reported contributions by numerous other scribes including Elaine May, Barry Levinson and Pollack himself.
The film was made under what were apparently strenuous conditions—it wasn’t a happy set—but whatever Sydney Pollack did was absolutely right. He wasn’t the first director on the project, but he turned out to be the right one. Hal Ashby was involved at one point, but it’s possible that the relaxed nature of plotting in his films meant that he wasn’t the right fit. Blake Edwards made his own gender-confusion comedy the same year with VICTOR/VICTORIA, one that was strictly his own style. There’s an irony in that Sydney Pollack, a director not known for comedy and who never directed another, turned out what is undeniably one of the best comedies of all time. Maybe this rogue entry in his filmography works to such a large extent because it seems to demand absolute realism in its outlandish premise. It’s something that seems to be missing from many comedies these days, which usually look like crap and force characters to suddenly act stupid for lame reasons while taking lame pratfalls.
Everyone in TOOTSIE is believable in their own comedic way, from the bit players at the opening party to Bill Murray’s (presumed) ad-libs which are always funny but he correctly plays it as part of the movie and his character, not just as ‘Bill Murray’ doing a cameo. In fact, there’s not a false note to be found in the cast, from Hoffman, Garr and the Oscar-winning Lange, to Charles Durning, George Gaynes, Doris Belack and Geena Davis in her film debut. Even when Dabney Coleman’s Ron attempts to explain himself to Dorothy Michaels, he never actually becomes likable, but he does come off as believably human. And Pollack himself as George Fields is phenomenal as well. Too often comedies seem to force characters to act unbelievably stupid, making it seem as if it doesn’t take part in any world we are familiar with. If it is allowed to be grounded in some version of reality, the story can work better and the jokes can be funnier. TOOTSIE is one of the best examples of that imaginable.
Outside of the numerous musical montages, which I’ll admit do lock the film back in the 80s, very little about TOOTSIE is dated and however much it is used as an example as a screenplay to emulate in quality, it’s not used enough. One episode of 30 ROCK from earlier this year had a TOOTSIE-watching Liz Lemon waking up one morning to the TOOTSIE DVD screen presumably after having fallen asleep watching it the night before. Liz has the right idea. It’s such a great film.
However, I still sometimes wonder how Michael Dorsey was able to square things with the Southwest General people and presumably avoid a massive lawsuit. That and the eventual response to RETURN TO THE LOVE CANAL will have to remain a mystery.