The Contender: Tootsie (1982)
Number of Nominations: 10 - Picture, Actor (Dustin Hoffman), Supporting Actress (Teri Garr and Jessica Lange), Director (Sydney Pollack), Original Screenplay (Larry Gelbart, Murray Schisgal & Don McGuire), Cinematography (Owen Roizman), Sound (Arthur Piantadosi, Les Fresholtz, Dick Alexander & Les Lazarowitz), Original Song (“It Might Be You,” music by Dave Grusin, lyrics by Alan & Marilyn Bergman), Film Editing (Fredric Steinkamp & William Steinkamp)
Number of Wins: 1 (Supporting Actress, Jessica Lange)
It’s a commonly held belief that when it comes to the Academy Awards, comedies get no respect. There’s an element of truth to that. Comedic actors are rarely recognized for their performances, at least in comedies. The best way for a comedian to nab an Oscar is to get serious, as in the cases of Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg, and Mo’Nique. There are a handful of examples of actors winning for a comedy, Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda leaps to mind, but these are rare.
When it comes to Best Picture, comedies are infrequently nominated and almost never win. The last comedies to win were The Artist in 2012 and Shakespeare In Love back in 1999. Neither of those movies are exactly what you’d consider typical contemporary comedies. Prior to them, comedy winners included Annie Hall, The Sting, Tom Jones, The Apartment, You Can’t Take It With You, and It Happened One Night. You might be able to make a case for a couple others but not many.
The Academy seems to think that making comedies is easy. After all, they’re fun, right? They look like everyone was having fun. So making them is a lot simpler than recreating World War II or showing someone suffering from a debilitating disease. The reality is that making a great comedy is extraordinarily difficult. Every single element has to work in perfect harmony, from the script to the performances to the direction to the cinematography to the editing. If just one thing is out of sync, the whole operation falls apart.
In 1982, the Academy momentarily recognized how much work went into crafting a great contemporary comedy and honored Tootsie with 10 nominations. If you haven’t seen the movie in a while, that may seem excessive. But rewatching it again recently, it struck me as entirely appropriate. Tootsie is indeed a great comedy, one of the best of its decade, and it more than holds up over 30 years later.
The movie was a passion project for Dustin Hoffman and he spent several years developing the script with playwright Murray Schisgal and Larry Gelbart, among other, uncredited writers. The attention to detail pays off. The movie could easily have been an unbelievable, cross-dressing farce. But the characters are so richly developed that the movie strikes a chord. You never for one second doubt Hoffman’s decision as difficult actor Michael Dorsey to put on a dress and audition for a role on a soap opera as Dorothy Michaels.
Both of Hoffman’s performances are relaxed, engaging, and hilarious. The movie cannily plays off the star’s own reputation as an intense, difficult method actor. Tootsie features him at his warmest and most sympathetic. Hoffman takes what could have been a broad caricature and creates a wholly relatable human being.
The film’s supporting cast is no less perfect. Stalwart character actor Dabney Coleman has one of his juiciest roles as the lecherous TV director. Bill Murray graciously removed his name from the opening credits and advertising so audiences wouldn’t expect a Bill Murray movie along the lines of Stripes. But his appearance is crucial. Hoffman needs a foil that’s his equal and the two of them have an easy rapport that immediately conveys the characters’ history.
Perhaps the movie’s shrewdest casting was director Sydney Pollack’s appearance as Michael’s agent. Hoffman had to persuade Pollack into taking on the role. In fact, Dabney Coleman was originally cast in the part. But Pollack turned out to be the right choice. His incredulous reaction upon meeting Dorothy Michaels for the first time is worth the price of admission.
In particular, Tootsie was a tremendous vindication for Jessica Lange. She’d made her film debut in Dino De Laurentiis’ disastrous 1976 remake of King Kong. After that debacle, she found it almost impossible to find work. She subsequently made only a few film appearances until returning with a vengeance in 1982 with acclaimed performances in both Tootsie and Frances, eventually winning the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.
Her win was not without controversy. After all, her role in Tootsie was the leading lady. It was widely assumed she was promoted in the Supporting Actress category so she wouldn’t be competing with her own work in Frances for Best Actress. Sure enough, she was nominated in both categories, much to the annoyance of costar Teri Garr. When both women were nominated for Best Supporting Actress, Garr resigned herself to the fact that she would probably lose to Lange, especially since it was widely (and correctly) assumed that the Best Actress race already belonged to Meryl Streep for Sophie’s Choice.
Sydney Pollack would go on to win Best Picture and Director a few years later for Out Of Africa, an interminable slog of a movie which is nevertheless exactly the kind of prestigious, sweeping epic the Academy loves to throw Oscars at. Tootsie is a far superior movie but despite its many nominations, it never had much of a shot. It’s funny, it’s contemporary, and it makes it all look easy. That isn’t the kind of movie that wins awards. But it is the kind of movie that has a legacy far beyond its initial run.
Tootsie is currently available on DVD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment and will be released on Blu-ray and DVD on November 25 from The Criterion Collection.
- Adam Jahnke