Tootsie: The Criterion Collection Review
Sydney Pollack’s gender-bending comedy stars Dustin Hoffman as Michael Dorsey, a struggling New York actor with a reputation for being so passionate about his craft (read: difficult) that no-one will hire him. To prove his versatility he secretly assumes a new identity of southern belle Dorothy Michaels and he immediately lands a plum role on a popular soap opera as a result, striking up a friendship with co-worker (and single mum) Julie and becoming an empowering female role model thanks to 'Dorothy's' no-nonsense attitude. But as 'her' career skyrockets Michael struggles to keep up the charade amongst his friends and colleagues, piling on the pressure until finally something's got to give...
Tootsie was a smash-hit upon release in 1982 finishing second only to E.T. in the year’s box office rankings, garnering widespread critical acclaim including a staggering 10 Oscar nominations (Jessica Lange taking home the only win, for Best Supporting Actress), and it remains a cracking comedy nearly 35 years later. While the film's most obvious conceit - that of a straight man dressed up as a woman teaching the real women in the film about themselves - would have the social media brigade foaming at the mouth if it were released today, that only scratches the surface of the film because it really is about Michael's journey of discovery. During his transition from womaniser to woman he learns first-hand about what it's like on the flip-side of the gender divide and, crucially, he becomes a better person for it, having literally walked in Dorothy's shoes.
As dated as some aspects may be, the movie still has a sizeable amount of value as to the lot of the jobbing artiste and what it really means to be in the business called show. The opening titles leave you with no illusions as Michael is repeatedly turned down by unseen casting directors lurking in the shadows, which was somewhat autobiographical according to Hoffman. He’s flanked by friends who are doing just as badly as he is, like flaky actress Sandy and laid-back screenwriter Jeff, and his antagonistic relationship with his agent provides some of the film’s sharpest moments as they verbally spar with each other. Not only that, it's also intent on skewering the inherent silliness of daytime soaps which bestows upon it a sitcom sensibility at times (Friends would later exploit such a setting in a similar way), and it's all held together by a superbly attentive screenplay which isn't afraid to set things up and pay them off - a rare treat in this modern age of half-assed "magic box" storytelling.
Some of the greatest comedies have resulted from the cast playing to the core of the material instead of playing up their own comedy chops, and Tootsie hews to the former as the performances are adept at rendering believable characters and bringing the funny. Hoffman excels in his dual role as the exasperated Michael and the brass-balled Dorothy, with able support from Teri Garr and Bill Murray as his low-flying friends, and Jessica Lange gives the movie a real sense of heart with her sensitive – but not overly sentimental – performance as Julie. Dabney Coleman plays to type as a lothario TV director, though he's given an extra dimension over the slimeball that he played in Nine to Five, say. The recently departed George Gaynes steals every scene he’s in and gets the best line in the film as a dim-witted - and very 'hands on' - TV actor. Charles Durning is also worth a mention as Julie’s father, smitten as he is with Dorothy, and Pollack pulls some double duty of his own by appearing as Michael’s irascible agent and their scenes together fizz with genuine friction.
When not acting, Pollack’s direction keeps things moving at a steady pace but he also lets scenes find their own rhythm, allowing the more improvisational cast members to do their thing without disrupting the flow of the piece. By Pollack's own admission he wasn't a comedy director so he delved deeply into the story to make it work as a dramatic narrative first and foremost, using an uncredited Elaine May to polish the script, yet the timing is so crisp and the editing so keenly observed that the laughs zing off the screen. His films rarely look ‘pretty’ in the conventional sense but nor are they often outwardly grungy, Pollack preferring realism with a twist rather than an overtly affected appearance either way, and that approach suits both the harsh realities of Michael’s life and the more artificial TV-studio surroundings that he finds himself in as Dorothy. The constant use of diffusion – in keeping with the usual ‘glamour’ treatment for women on-screen over the years – gives his scenes (as her) something of a slightly more ethereal glow, and the more theatrical top-lit lighting style also plays up that effect.
All told, Tootsie is a subversive comedy gem which may have lost some of its edge in this "gender fluid" post-modern world, but it's lost none of its heart.
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment UK and celebrated US label The Criterion Collection have joined forces to provide Criterion’s first official foray into foreign waters. It’s been long in coming – during which time local UK labels like Arrow Video and Masters of Cinema have built up their own reputations as Criterion-esque purveyors of cult favourites – but just mention the name ‘Criterion’ to any self-respecting movie geek and they’re still likely to go weak at the knees, so there’s plenty of room left in the UK market for the original cineaste's label of choice to make some headway. Welcome to Blighty, Criterion. We hope you enjoy your stay.
Tootsie is presented on a region B locked Blu-ray disc in an aspect ratio of 2.40:1, sourced from a brand new 4K restoration of the original negative. The movie was lensed in 35mm anamorphic by Owen Roizman and the image has a certain amount of grittiness to it, not so much in terms of the overall aesthetic but in the ever-present layer of grain which permeates proceedings, a consequence of the fast, grainy stock of that period. Detail itself is variable, owing mainly to the filtration used to shoot the leading ladies (as mentioned above) which imparts a classically gauzy appearance and the opening & closing titles are opticals, natch, so expect them to look a little rougher than the rest of the movie. Roizman chose to shoot with a higher f-stop than he’d normally do due to the increased speed of the then-new 5293 stock, which imparts more depth but can also make the shortcomings of the anamorphic lenses more apparent, exacerbating the drop-off in sharpness at the edges of the frame and creating some focus issues in general.
All of that said, this 1080p AVC encode handles those idiosyncrasies beautifully. Sony has previously released Tootsie on a European Blu-ray but it’s an older transfer with jittery titles (just compare the opening Columbia Pictures logo if you have both discs), a dab of sharpening and a regular sprinkling of specks and marks. That edition is fine for what it is but this new Criterion restoration is markedly superior, looking less like harsh, overly-sharp video and more like film. The sharpening is gone and the colour has more balance to it, with skin tones displaying more subtlety compared to their slightly jaded appearance on the prior Blu-ray. The underlying photography has extremely deep blacks and fiercely bright highlights which are indicative of Roizman’s preference to slightly over-expose and force-develop his pictures, although this newer transfer rolls off the highlights in a less aggressive way and the gamma has been raised compared to the old edition, to the point of crushing a touch of shadow detail which was previously visible.
This new restoration is spotlessly clean and stable and it’s had some TLC in other areas too; the shots of Michael speaking to Julie at the very end of the film have a pronounced flicker on Hoffman's face on the Euro Blu-ray (perhaps an issue with the lighting ballast not syncing with the shutter on the day?) but his distinctive features are now flicker-free on the new restoration. The encoding itself is competent enough, with only the dark, purple-hued bedroom scene really threatening to break out into outright digital noise. If there’s one other nitpick I have it’s that skin tones occasionally harden up and lose some nuance but it’s a very isolated issue, and overall the image quality is terrific.
The audio is offered up as an uncompressed Linear PCM 1.0 mono track (as befits the original sound mix) and it sounds absolutely delightful, having also been restored from the original DME elements. The 5.0 audio from Sony’s Euro Blu-ray has not been carried over but it’s no great loss because this mono track is as good as it gets. It won’t fill all your speakers but the dialogue, music and effects are balanced well with no one element drowning out the other, and it does little to betray its age with a fresh, detailed sound that’s free of any hiccups. The music in particular is so full-bodied that I have a hard time believing that it is mono, and yet mono it is. Super stuff.
The extras encompass a selection of features contemporary to the movie plus various additional pieces assembled over the years, including some new interviews commissioned by Criterion themselves. There’s a vintage 33-minute making of documentary from 1982 plus a longer 68-minute documentary made by Sony in 2007. The former is a candid 'fly on the wall' type piece, poking its nose in during rehearsals and the main shoot (I love how it deftly intercuts Pollack and Hoffman rehearsing their first office scene with the actual shooting of the same scene), while the latter is a retrospective featuring insights from Hoffman, Pollack, Lange, Garr and screenwriters Larry Gelbart and Murray Shisgal. It's so good that it caught me off guard, having gotten used to the powder-puff EPK crap that passes for special features these days. No, this documentary is the real deal and watch out for Hoffman getting very emotional as he describes how he felt when playing Dorothy.
Pollack’s informative audio commentary from the 1991 Criterion Laserdisc has also been ported across, but new to this Criterion Blu-ray are on-camera chats with Hoffman and Phil Rosenthal, creator of Everybody Loves Raymond. Hoffman's new interview runs for 18 minutes and covers some similar ground (he gets choked up again) but he also provides a brief overview of his early career. Rosenthal speaks for 15 minutes on what makes Tootsie one of his favourite films and such a good comedy in general. The 4-minute interview with Dorothy Michaels and film critic Gene Shalit is essentially an entertaining deleted scene from the film, but it's parked in the 'Interviews' sub-section. Two Dorothy screen tests are similar to what was seen on prior DVD/BD editions but the main test has been freshly transferred from 35mm (complete with sprocket holes) and runs for longer than the hazy video-tape-sourced version seen elsewehere, and the silent costume test also runs for longer but has come from the same Beta tape as before (6 minutes total for the two). A 10-minute selection of deleted scenes (also previously available) and some trailers round off a classy set of goodies.
The Criterion Collection UK has hit the ground running with an excellent Blu-ray edition of Tootsie. It sports a superb new 4K restoration accompanied by robust mono audio, plus a comprehensive set of special features which provide a breadth of genuinely interesting insights. Highly recommended.