10.08.2006

Jessica Lange in Tootsie (1982) - Supporting Actress Sunday (1982)

Before diving into 1982's official Supporting Actress pool, StinkyLulu simply must pause to acknowledge the amazing presence of one of StinkyLulu's all-time favorite performers, a woman who spent most of her career actressing at the edge: the much-missed Lynne Thigpen. You, lovely reader, will certainly have your own fond favorite of Thigpen's diverse work...but, for Lulu, the Thigpen performance that will always come to mind first is hers in 1979's The Warriors, in which only her lips are seen as she envoices -- by turns -- the soothing, sensual and terrifying words of the ominously omniscient radio deejay. Thigpen's performance in The Warriors is classic Thigpen: a bare sketch of a character fully inhabited by a pitch-perfect performance. The deejay is essentially a plot device, yet Thigpen's distinctive voice (& her uncanny ability for vocal characterization) establishes the deejay as one of the most memorable characters in The Warriors, itself a brilliant guilty pleasure. And watching Thigpen's work in this week's Tootsie (her fully articulated -- though nearly wordless -- performance as Jo, the script supervisor/stage manager), StinkyLulu was once again reminded that Lynne Thigpen is truly an actress at the edges for the ages. And now, on with the show...

Since the 1980s, a goodly number of big box-office movie comedies have been one-ring circuses built around the tent-pole of a central performance. The starring performance grabs the headlines but the supporting performances actually sustain the centerpiece schtick for the film's hour or two of running time. Few films of the last several decades succeed with this formula better than Sidney Pollack's 1982 phenomenon, Tootsie, with a tentpole (pun intended) of a performance by Dustin Hoffman. Hoffman, riffing on his own reputation as a difficult "Method"-y actor, plays a struggling, arrogant, mostly unemployed New York actor who -- in a curious act of selfish defiance -- dresses up like a woman, auditions for a soap, gets the role, becomes a phenomenal success and...madcap hilarity ensues. Hoffman's own performance in the double-role of Michael Dorsey/Dorothy Michaels (while fascinating to watch) is mostly a stunt, testing even the most generous suspension of disbelief. But the film works as well as it does because of the accumulation of exceptionally grounded supporting performances around Hoffman (not to mention a nearly architectural screenplay written by about a thousand people). Big guys Charles Durning, Bill Murray, and Sidney Pollack turn in excellent performances in crucial supporting roles. Troupers like the hilarious George Gaynes and the patentedly prickly Doris Bellack are indispensable. Geena Davis, Lynne Thigpen and Christine Ebersole are memorable in bit parts. And then, there's Teri Garr (more about her on Wednesday). But the performance that truly shoots this film to the moon comes from...


...Jessica Lange in Tootsie (1982).
29 minutes and 35 seconds on-screen
19 scenes
27% of film's total screen time

Jessica Lange's trophy-snagging Supporting Actress performance as Julie (the soap opera bimbo with a heart of gold) marshalls enough clichés for a movie-trailer praise-apalooza. Lange's Julie is sweet and silly and sexy and a whole lot smarter than she gives herself credit for being. It's a radiant, luminous, occasionally astonishing, consistently subtle, expertly nuanced, generally breath-taking performance of surprising depth. In a word, Lange is wonderful. Of course, that's how the character of Julie is written -- to be the breathtaking beauty of unappreciated depth (a stock character that is itself a cliché) -- and that's why Hoffman's character/s fall so in love with her. Indeed, the script's Julie is a trophy passed from the film's womanizing villain (Dabney Coleman doing, well, Dabney Coleman) to the film's womanizing hero (Hoffman). And it's Lange's great accomplishment to rise -- through her performance -- so far above the stock, misogynist, clichéd material.

Beyond the high-drag/high-concept set-up, the film's conceit rests upon the character of Julie and, indeed, it's nearly impossible to imagine Tootsie's success without Jessica Lange's intelligent, human performance in the role. See, the film's ostensibly a post-feminist riff on changing gender roles which uses drag as a mode of masculine infiltration of female intimacy and Lange's character Julie is the primary target/object lesson. From her first real scene (in which she alights as an angel of kindness during Hoffman's first day on set as Dorothy), Lange's Julie becomes the film's dreamgirl and Hoffman's Michael falls immediately in love with Lange's Julie for the mix of moxie, kindness and savvy she shows in her interactions with Dorothy.

The script really only requires Julie to be "more than a pretty face" but Lange's Julie becomes much more than that. Lange's Julie starts out as a sweet girl, a touch lost in her life as a woman. She's pretty, smart, intrinsically decent and, by the end, -- perhaps surprising to all involved in the prodcution -- Lange's Julie is the character who's undergone the most fundamental change. Lange's performance registers Julie's many halting steps in her transformation from a woman trapped by her pretty life to a woman willling to chart her own happiness. (It's to Pollack's credit that he allows Lange's work between her scripted lines to so humanely shade the sketch of a character the screenplay provides.) Lange's Julie is a complex character performance that never betrays the simplicity of the character, and it remains a joy to watch.

Early on in the film, Lange's Julie tosses off a line: "It's complicated being a woman in the '80s." Truer words have ne'er been uttered and sadly Julie's observation goes double for this film. The heart-breaking realization for StinkyLulu this time through was just how garishly anti-feminist this film is, adoring women greatly but respecting them little. "But hey" -- you might say, lovely reader -- "it's a cross-dressing romantic comedy circa 1982!" To which Lu must reply (albeit sadly): "Too true. With the 'radical' message that men might just try listening to and respecting women as people rather than toys..." And that's why Lange's Julie remains today such a redemptive presence for the film (not just Hoffman's tentpole). Lange's performance allows Julie to become so much more than her "role" and, for that, StinkyLulu's ever grateful.

And please don't misunderstand, lovely reader: StinkyLulu does still have a special love for this strange and wonderful film. It's just that Lulu's fanstasizing about the sequel, the one in which Lange's Julie meets up with another Dorothy, played maybe by Kathy Bates or Glenn Close or Catherine Deneuve, and has a whole 'nother set of horizons "broadened." Hey. It could happen...

8 comments:

newland said...

I recently rewatched "Tootsie" and was surprised to find out how much I had missed from Jessica Lange's performance first time around. She takes the apparently plain character of the love interest and makes her clearly go through an arch which is barely hinted in the script.

There are some who have argued that Lange's performance is leading (among them, costar Teri Garr and the BAFTAs), but seeing that she's in the film for barely half an hour, I don't think there is much to argue.

I loved the performance, but an Oscar for this? Give me a break.

StinkyLulu said...

To be fair, I don't think very many people then or now think Lange's '82 Oscar was only for her work in Tootsie. Rather, I think the commonsense (then and still) was that, in any year w/o Streep's Sophie's Choice in the race, Lange would've very possible taken taken "Best Actress" for her work in Frances. So the idea is that Lange's Supporting trophy was something of a sincere "better luck next time" consolation prize. We'll have to see how close examination of the race pans out to see whether that hypothesis holds 25 years later.

(PS: Newland! Email me!)

newland said...

Done.

But then Lange took home somebody else's Oscar, Golden Globe and Critic's prizes. I hate it when they nominate or award people just because they deserved it in another year or category altogether. Not that Lange was bad, but I can hardly believe she was the best that year, right?

Dan said...

The Thigpen comments are much appreciated. A couple months ago, I listened to the audio book of Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, read by Thigpen. What a completely settling and luscious voice -- a complete vocal performance and deft interpretation of a tough book. It made me miss her, but -- as silly as this sounds -- it was also thrilling to have her in my car, reading to me.

Vertigo's Psycho said...

Although Lesley Ann Warren's flashy comic brilliance portraying Victor/Victoria's brassy tart was equally memorable (wish there could've been a tie), I think Lange richly earned her Supporting Actress Oscar. Among other qualities, StinkyLulu mentions the "human" nature of Lange's work in the film, and he's dead-on; Jessica's vunerability lends a depth to Toostie the film otherwise would lack. Lange's beautiful, touching, and, yes, funny work grants the movie a dose of reality amid the wacky proceedings, and the "heart" Jessica provides Tootsie helps the film endure. Due to the great script and Hoffman's high-style comic playing (can't agree with our dear Stinky on Hoffman as, alongside his work in Midnight Cowboy, Tootsie contains my favorite Hoffman performance- I love just about everything he does in the movie) the film would have been a smash hit in 1982; however, put a standard leading lady in Lange's place, and I don't think we'd be looking at an uncontestable classic 25 years later (the role of Julie could be unsatisfying and somewhat blah, lending a weak element to the film, but not with Lange in the part).

It's one of the happy circumstances of film history that, upon the advice of friends, Lange took on the role of Julie right after completing her career-establishing work in the grueling Frances (friends thought doing a comedy would help Lange's mental and physical health after her total commitment to Frances Farmer completely and understandably wore the actress out). Lange's sensitivity and complexity (which, of course, she's held onto in her gallery of great post-1982 performances) carried over from her work in the prior film and proved to be a tremendous asset to Tootsie, resulting in two of Jessica's finest portrayals, and therefore two of the greatest performances by an actress during the 1980's (of all the "double nominees" in Oscar's history, Lange is the only one I can think of who legitimately could have taken both prizes- and yes, I do think her work in Frances is at least as emotionally true and as devastating as Streep's landmark work in Sophie's Choice).

Regarding the debate over Lead/Support, I think Lange is in the correct category. The lady herself sagely addressed this issue at the podium upon receiving her first Academy Award, when she thanked "Dustin Hoffman, my leading lady"- Hoffman takes on the male and, as Dorothy Michaels, also the female lead in the film (but don't think of calling Dorothy "Toostie").

Nick Davis said...

@VP: Just chiming in to agree with you about Lange's double-nomination being the worthiest in Oscar's portfolio... and though I expect Frances will get a drubbing from the SAS crowd, I'd have voted Lange over Streep for Best Actress.

Vertigo's Psycho said...

Yep, Nick, I'd also take Lange's naked, honest emotionalism over Streep's impressive but more technical approach (I think Meryl's work in A Cry in the Dark may be her most amazing and Oscar-worthy dramatic performance), and I think Stanley's probably too mannered and over-the-top (but she's still memorable: I only saw Frances once during its initial release, yet I've never forgotten the way Stanley loads the "little sister" line with a truly creepy vengeful wrath- at this point Stanley makes it evident that, if mama has anything to say about it, it's curtains for Frances Farmer).

Reportedly, Stanley also worked hard with Lange in rehearsals to make the mother-daughter dynamics meaningful and true; therefore, even though I'd throw her nom elsewhere, Stanley deserves credit for playing a part with Lange in the creation of Jessica's remarkable portrayal.

Bring on Lesley Ann Warren, Stinky- we can't wait.

n69n said...

thank you for your Lynn Thigpen memories.
She was so special, such infinite dignity & i stil cant believe she's gone.