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Most actors would say that their job consists largely of learning to walk around in another person's shoes. In Tootsie (1982), however, Dustin Hoffman did that quite literally, learning to walk in heels and gaining a new appreciation for what it meant to be a woman. As an unemployable actor who achieves stardom when he becomes leading lady on a daytime soap, he scored one of his biggest hits. The 1982 film was an almost instant classic and remains one of the top-grossing comedies of all time.
Hoffman got the idea for Tootsie while working on Kramer Vs. Kramer (1979), in which he won an Oscar® for playing a man who had to be both father and mother to his son. When he discussed the idea with playwright Murray Schisgal (Luv), the project was born. Schisgal was hardly the only writer to work on the story, though. By the time the film was ready for release, the Writers Guild had to sort through three boxes of scripts to assign the writing credits. They finally went to Schisgal and Larry Gelbart (creator of the M*A*S*H television series), with Gelbart and Don McGuire credited with the story. Elaine May probably could have earned a credit, too, but she didn't want one, happy with a $450,000 check for three weeks of work adding a woman's perspective to the story. Tootsie also went through several directors, including Hal Ashby (Being There, 1979) and Dick Richards (The Culpepper Cattle Company, 1972), before going to Sydney Pollack (They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, 1969), who co-produced with Richards.
But more than any personnel, the make or break deal for Hoffman was his female characterization. If he couldn't turn in an acceptable screen test as the woman eventually named Dorothy Michaels, he was going to step aside in favor of another actor (Dudley Moore was mentioned most often). Through weeks of work with makeup men, costumers and two coaches (drag performer Holly Woodlawn and television star Polly Holliday of Alice and Flo) he finally came up with an acceptable performance. During one test, when Dorothy admitted she was too old to have children, he even broke down in tears. He modeled the characterization largely on his mother and even took the film's title from a childhood game in which she would throw him in the air and say, "How's my tootsie wootsie." Originally, he could only do the female voice with a French accent. Anything else made him drop into his male register. Then in the shower, he discovered he could get an equally feminine effect with a Southern accent.
During location shooting in and around New York, Hoffman could only shoot in character as Dorothy for three to four hours a day before his beard became too strong. He had to have his legs, arms and even the backs of his fingers shaved (the high necklines that hid his Adam's apple spared him from shaving his chest). He also used lifts to tighten his face and false teeth to hide his own, more masculine choppers. When a summer heat wave broke out, however, he developed a new problem - his first case of acne since he was a teen.
Filling out the rest of the cast were newcomers like Jessica Lange, finally scoring a comeback after her disastrous film debut in King Kong (1976), and Geena Davis, making her film debut as an actress on Dorothy's soap. Pollack also cast comic experts like Teri Garr, Dabney Coleman, Charles Durning and Bill Murray, who improvised most of his lines as Hoffman's roommate. Murray eschewed an acting credit so fans wouldn't come to the film expecting a comedy like his hits Caddyshack (1980) and Stripes (1981). After much fighting, Hoffman got his first choice to play his character's agent. Pollack wanted to give the role to Coleman, but knowing that the director had started as an actor, Hoffman lobbied fiercely to get him to direct himself. He even sent him flowers with a card reading, "Be my agent. Love, Dorothy." The crew took a perverse pleasure in watching their boss stricken with stage fright before every scene.
With delays caused by Hoffman's makeup and his frequent quarrels with Pollack, the film's budget rose to $21 million -- high for a comedy at that time. But it was well worth the effort when the picture was hailed by critics and earned almost $100 million domestically, the highest take Columbia Pictures had ever had for a comedy. It was second only to E.T. in the end-of-year box-office standing. It also cleaned up at award ceremonies, with Golden Globes for Hoffman, Lange and the picture itself (as Best Picture -- Musical/Comedy); National Society of Film Critics Awards for the film, the script, Hoffman and Lange; New York Film Critics Awards for Pollack, Lange and the script; and a Writer's Guild Award. It also picked up ten Oscar® nominations, though it only won for Lange's supporting performance, confirming her arrival as a major dramatic star (she was also nominated for Best Actress that year for Frances). Sixteen years later Tootsie picked up another major honor when it was voted a place on the National Film Registry, granting it official recognition as an American treasure.
Producer: Sydney Pollack, Dick Richards
Director: Sydney Pollack
Screenplay: Larry Gelbart, Murray Schisgal and (uncredited) Elaine May, Robert Kaufman, Valerie Curtin, Barry Levinson and Robert Garner
Based on a Story by Gelbart and Don McGuire
Cinematography: Owen Roizman
Art Direction: Peter Larkin, Thomas C. Tonery
Music: Dave Grusin
Principal Cast: Dustin Hoffman (Michael Dorsey/Dorothy Michaels), Jessica Lange (Julie), Teri Garr (Sandy), Dabney Coleman (Ron), Charles Durning (Les), Bill Murray (uncredited, Jeff), Sydney Pollack (George Fields), George Gaynes (John Van Horn), Geena Davis (April), Doris Belack (Rita), Ellen Foley (Jacqui), Lynne Thigpen (Jo), Debra Mooney (Mrs. Mallory), Estelle Getty (Middle-Aged Woman), Christine Ebersole (Linda), Murray Schisgal (Party Guest).
by Frank Miller