17 December 2011

17. TOOTSIE




It plays like an old studio film from the 30's or 40's, in that there is a high-concept premise ("Out of work actor acts like a woman to get a role"), an economical set-up (he's teaching acting because he can't get any roles, dresses up as a woman to audition for a role his female friend wasn't right for), and it consists of a series of set-ups and pay-offs, many of which confirm with the 4-act structure. finally, there's a "moral", a thematic throughline that pervades.

Dustin Hoffman is a struggling actor in New York, who can't seem to land any roles. We watch him audition, but he doesn't get called back. To pay the bills, he teaches acting, but it isn't fulfilling. And then comes his surprise birthday party, which messes with his head, because now he's acutely aware that he's getting older and his chances of "making it" are getting worse and worse. On top of that, his roommate, Bill Murray, is trying to put on a play. It will cost $8,000, so money is pressing, too.

He talks to his agent. Nothing. He helps his friend, Teri Garr, audition for a part, but they are looking for a different type. Here's the most interesting choice of the movie: abruptly, with almost no fanfare, we see Dustin in drag, auditioning for the role that Teri Garr was not right for. Unlike the setting up and laying pipe that SOME LIKE IT HOT did to make us aware that Curtis and Lemmon had NO choice (they were completely broke and on the run from the mob), we get almost no insight into Hoffman's thought process, and we certainly know he's not doing this just to survive.

But that's how act 2 begins, with a flowering of the premise: the out of work male actor is knowing at work acting as a woman, and it's on a soap opera TV show.

The remainder is a series of set-ups and pay-offs: Hoffman is supposed to kiss a man on the show, improvises his way out of it -- the twist is that the actor kisses him anyway after they yell "Cut!". He has girl talk with Jessica Lange, his co-star on the show, who tells him what she would love a man to use on her as a pickup line; he meets her out of drag at a party and uses that line -- the twist is that she rejects him anyway. Jessica Lange's dad wants to fuck him, he is coy -- the twist is that he proposes to Hoffman anyway. And finally, the improvisations that he begins on the first day come to a head when they do a live taping of the show (in itself a set-up that is paid off here) and he improvises taking off his wig and make-up, coming out as a man, both to the cast and crew of the show and to the audience of the show.

It's about honesty. The whole movie is about acting like someone you are not, and how that is going to get you in trouble no matter how big or how small. Every character grapples with it to some degree: the show's director is a philanderer, Lange lies about what she wants a man to say to her as a pickup line, Hoffman has to have sex with Teri Garr to cover up that he was admiring her dress, not checking her out.

It makes sense that a film about honesty revolves around an actor. The very idea of inhabiting a fictional character is lying using your entire body. But he has to give that up, give a piece of himself away, to learn about how to live correctly, to become whole again. To wit: he only gets the girl at the very end when he comes clean about who he is and insists he'll never lie to her again. He has to stop acting.

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