Teri Garr in Tootsie (1982) - Supporting Actress Sundays (Thursday Edition)

Only one woman's name typically appears on the extensive list of writers variously credited (and uncredited) for the screenplay of Tootsie: Elaine May. One of the great undersung (or overhyped, depending on your POV) comic actresses of the 20th century, Elaine May crafted most of her own sketch comedy material at the height of her popularity (early to mid-1960s) and, in so doing, developed a distinctive (and enduring) modality of female tv/film funniness -- the brainy but neurotic ditz who can just chatter your ear off. May's the foremother to many a contemporary comic actress (ranging from Degeneres to Kudrow) and, though it's always perilous to hazard guesses in such matters, StinkyLulu's inclined to think that those are May's thumbprints all over the character memorably played by...

...Teri Garr in Tootsie (1982).
15 minutes and 17 seconds on-screen
15 scenes (11 of which clock in at less than 1 minute)
14% of film's total screen time

In Tootsie, Teri Garr plays Sandy, the struggling actress/single gal/ball of neuroses whose audition traumas trigger Michael Dorsey's (Dustin Hoffman's) decision to don the dress and become Dorothy. Garr's Sandy is sweet enough, smart enough, pretty enough, talented enough -- but it's sadly clear that even all those enoughs aren't quite amounting as enough to get Sandy noticed, either professionally or personally. Garr's Sandy can't even get noticed when she's trapped in the single bathroom at a crazy NY party. In perhaps the character's emblematic moment, Garr's Sandy bursts into the kitchen (from the bathroom), plunger ready for battle. In a quick little ramble of a speech, Garr's Sandy reveals that she's been trapped in the bathroom, realizes that no one's noticed, and confirms that she's ok with that...as she makes her way to the food table. (A quietly endearing running gag in the film is Sandy's fixation on free food.)

But this bathroom burst isn't the audience's first glimpse of Garr's Sandy. Rather, Garr introduces Sandy nearly wordlessly, in the film's opening credits, during which Garr's Sandy is one of Michael Dorsey's most devoted acting students. Garr's expression in these montage scenes is a combination of rapt attention and utter confusion. Such a foggy fixation seems to underscore much of Garr's Sandy's adept characterization. She doesn't "get" everything happening around her but, make no mistake, she reacts intensely to whatever she actually does (or thinks she does) understand. This mix of utter cluelessness and wounded pride blends the comedy and poignancy girding Garr's performance.

It's so hard not feel just sad about Garr's Sandy. In the first half of her scenes, Hoffman's Michael steals her role, raids her wardrobe, and tosses her a pity-f*** to cover his tracks. Then, after they ostensibly begin a relationship and rehearsals for a new play, the remainder of the role tracks Garr's Sandy as she's trying to get Hoffman's Michael to pay her the slightest respect or attention. (It's really to Garr's credit that Sandy doesn't devolve into a shrewish nag, that she mostly remains a sweet, light and funny presence in the film.) That said, Garr's is a prickly wisp of a performance, left behind by the film as Sandy herself so often is by the world around her. And while StinkyLulu's loathe to add to Sandy's accumulation of humiliations, Garr's nomination here seems an overcompensation (almost a 2nd pity-f***). Never thought Lulu'd be the one to say this, but StinkyLulu's just not sure that Garr's performance -- while deft and memorable -- warrants the nomination here... To channel Garr's/Sandy's nemesis Lange/Julie, "Lulu really loves you Teri, but Lulu can't...can't love you."


newland said...

Maybe I got lost, but I don't get the last part of your analysis. I love Garr and I love that she got nominated for this. Hers is a far better supporting performance than Lange's in the same film, and truly responds to what the supporting actor/actress Oscar should be about.

I had watched Tootsie a long time ago, and even if I hardly remembered Lange, I perfectly remembered Garr's funny character and performance, food stealing and pity f***, as you call it. But her merits hold on their own, not only in comparison to Lange's. Not my favourite performance of the five nominees, but maybe a close second.

PS: Stinky, I sent you the e-mail you asked, did you get it?

StinkyLulu said...

Yeah, I'm surprised too that I came away so sour on Garr's performance and so fine with Lange's. Dunno if it's my definitive response but that's what happened. Not to overplay my hand, but right now Garr's toward the bottom of my list (but I suspect I'll be the exception rather than the rule).

Also, I had the hardest time finding things to say for this profile. Something just didn't click for me with Garr.

And, no, Newland, I didn't get the email, though I've been on the lookout for it. (Try me again, maybe here and here.) OR leave your email in comments here & I'll hide the comment-post shortly...) But do try to reach me, please...

newland said...
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