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
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...