Saturday, December 18, 2010

Movies I Like: Tootsie

Anyone who has read my first book, Invisible Ink, knows how highly I think of Tootsie. It was one of the many standout films—along with E.T., The Verdict, and Gandhi—that were released in 1982.

I am going to talk here, as I have with other films I like, about how impressed I am with the laser focus of this film. It is a story that aims directly at its thematic target and hits a bulls-eye.

I won’t take up time here breaking down the entire film, but the first act in so well constructed that there is much to learn from it.

The film was co-written by Larry Gelbart, who in his early career was one of the legendary writers of the Sid Caesar shows Caesar’s Hour and Your Show of Shows in the 1950s. Sid Caesar’s writing team included Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, and Neil Simon. Heavyweights. Gelbart later went onto create the classic M*A*S*H television show in the 1970s.

Comedy writers for Sid Caesar's "Your Show of Shows:" (from left, front row) Gary Belkin, Sheldon Keller, Michael Stewart and Mel Brooks; (from left, back) Neil Simon , Mel Tolkin, and Larry Gelbart. (pbs/file 1956)
Sidney Pollack, who was a brilliant director and actor, directed the film.

If you don’t know the film Tootsie, it stars Dustin Hoffman out an out-of-work actor and acting teacher who—desperate to get a part on a soap opera—pretends to be a woman.

Sidney Pollack did not want to direct the film until he figured out the film’s armature (theme): Wearing a dress could make Dustin’s character a better man.

I know that Pollack always worked hard to find an opening image that had thematic meaning in his films. The very first shot in Tootsie is a long pan-shot of a make-up table. We see fake teeth, wigs, and powders; we end on an actor applying make-up. We don’t know it yet, but this is Dustin’s character, Michael Dorsey.

We see him apply a false mustache. He smiles, proud of his work. The glue unsticks and the mustache lifts off his face. This is not a small thing. For plot reasons we want to know he has some knowledge of stage make-up because later he must become another person.

There is also a thematic component here—the mask will come off.

Nothing is random in this act. The next thing you see is Michael Dorsey teaching students. We start to get the idea that he is an actor who knows what he’s doing. This becomes very important.

Then we see Michael in an audition. In the audition, he reads lines with a male gum-chewing stage manager. As a response to Michael’s line that someone is coming and to put some clothes on, the stage manager reads his line flatly: “I’m a woman. Not Felecia’s mother and not Kevin’s wife.”

Right away we have a man pretending to be a woman. This is solid construction. It may look simple, but it is hard to do well. And you might think an audience would see something so obvious, but they don’t. But they do get a sense that the story has a direction and is not random lines and scenes.

Dorsey is told that he’s not right for the part—they need someone older, they say.

Next we see Dorsey in another audition playing the part of a young boy. He is now told that they are looking for someone younger.

In the next audition he is told that he’s too tall. He says that he can be shorter. He pleads with them telling them he can be whatever size they need. They then say that they are looking for somebody different. And he answers that he can be different.

In frustration they tell him that they are looking for somebody else. He has no answer.

What’s great about this series of auditions is that we get both thematic and plot information. Plot-wise, we know that it is hard for Dorsey to get work. Theme-wise, we see that he would be willing to change anything about himself to get a part. And in fact, he does become “somebody different” to land a part.

We now see him teaching again where he tells his students that they have to be truthful in the parts they play. I’m paraphrasing, but this is essentially what he says.

He then reads from cards as he performs lines from a play for yet another audition. The play seems to be about how you shouldn’t do some things for money. This is thematic because when Michael gets the part on the soap opera he ends up hurting people he doesn’t mean to. All because he wanted money.

Next he is teaching again. In this scene he tells his students that they should not play a part that isn’t in them—they must become the characters they play.

This is also thematic. When Dorsey pretends to be a woman he must be true to that experience. He begins to see life through the eyes of a woman. This is how “wearing a dress makes him a better man.”

Later Michael is rehearsing for a play and in the scene he is dying. He is asked by the director to stand up and move center stage as he dies. This doesn’t ring true to Dorsey and he refuses. This is also thematically relevant—because this is all about Michael being true to the part. If it isn’t truthful, he won’t do it.

This makes it hard for Michael to find work, because he is seen as difficult to work with.

Again, for the sake of space, I will not break down every scene here. But some of the plot things we are told in this act is that Michael’s roommate, played by Bill Murray, is a playwright and they need money to put on this play. We also see, at his birthday party, that Michael is a bit of a womanizer. He lies to women.

So it is established that Michael Dorsey tells the truth when he’s acting, but in life can be a little dishonest.

There is a classic scene, also in the first act, where Michael Dorsey agues with his agent, played by the director of Tootsie, Sydney Pollack, about not getting him work. In the scene we hear Michael argue that he must always be truthful to the character he is playing—even if that character is a tomato.

I will let you find some of the rest of the thematic Easter eggs in the first act of this film. But I will say that this is a thing made with fine precision. This kind of craftsmanship is rare as the dodo in films made today.

By the end of this beautifully conceived and executed first act we find out that our character is a skilled actor who believes strongly that he must tell the truth while acting. We also find that he is not so honest in his life—particularly in regards to women. And we know that Michael Dorsey needs money. He needs a job.

The stage is set. When Michael Dorsey puts on the dress and make-up, and becomes his alter ego Dorothy Michaels we believe it. We know he has the acting and make-up skills.

We also know that he has a lesson to learn—he must become a better man,

And we know that when he becomes Dorothy, he has no choice but to see the world through the eyes of a woman because he has to become the character. He has to be true to the character. He cannot lie when he’s acting. This commitment to character is what forces Michael to change.

If you want to see storytellers working at the top of their craft watch Tootsie; take the time to really study the film, and it will make you a better writer.


Joon Kim said...

"YOU WERE A TOMATO!!!!" Truly great film. Fitting that your Tootsie entry follows your post featuring the video about sleight-of-hand magic. That's really what the opening of Tootsie does. Even when you taught us what the film was doing, I don't see it because the film is so charming and seems so effortless. I forget to look for anything.

Brian McD said...

Yeah, people often think that this kind of focus and structure will be less engaging and entertaining. But it isn't.

The thing is no matter what method we are using in the end we still have to do it well for it to work.

imyjimmy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
imyjimmy said...


You've talked about superior position in your blog before.

Would you also say that Tootsie is a good example of using superior position to generate humor?

Only two other characters in the movie besides Dustin Hoffman's character knows this, and they're both minor-ish characters.

So it's basically we the audience and Dustin Hoffman who's in on this disguise business, with Murray and Pollack doing Address and Dismiss Dialogue to pull the audience along.

Brian McD said...

Hey Jimmy,

You are right that superior position is at play here, but that is probably a byproduct of the story rather than a plan of any kind to heighten the humor. There is no other way to tell the story.

You couldn't tell the story of this man changing without revealing to the viewers what's happening.

Having said that I do think they took advantage of the fact and did use it rather than fight it.

And so there were able to use Address and Dismiss in order to make it easier for the viewers to swallow the concept and suspend disbelief.

imyjimmy said...


Yeah, it's pretty cool how a story can reveal to you what you should do to tell it. The armature tells you what tools to use, what genre it is, the nature of the dialogue, etc.

That being said it's fun to notice the different tools being used in a film.

By the way, did you ditch AOL? Welcome to 2010, man.

Anonymous said...

Of course, the make-up is important to make Michael's transformation into Dorothy believable. Only someone excellent at make-up and costuming could pull that off like he did.

And the audition text--I missed that, too, when I was watching it. He's reading with a man who is playing a woman and then he's giving an angry monologue about doing anything for money. Wow.

I love knowing that Pollack didn't want to direct it until he had the armature.

It's all so carefully laid out.

Brian McD said...

Hey Elise,

Yes, Tootsie is model of construction. There is always more to see there.

Dave said...

Stopped in after seeing Invisible Ink on Amazon. Really great to see somebody else today talking about story and not how to write a screenplay.

I'd love to have your books on Nook format if you have any control over that.

I just broke Tootsie down myself recently and it's such a marvelous film. The setups & payoffs are everywhere and it's so lean. Everything there contributes to the story in some way.

Great to read your comments and happy to have found you.

Brian McD said...

Hello Dave,

Thanks for reading the book and blog.

I'll ask my publisher about Nook.

Thanks again.

- Brian

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