Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman) is in a pickle: he thinks of himself as a serious actor, but as time goes on he is finding fewer and fewer opportunities to prove himself, indeed he hasn't had a decent job in the theatre for ages. Either he goes along for the auditions and he is deemed unsuitable, no matter his knack for adapting himself to various roles, or if he does get a part he is forced to walk out of it thanks to creative differences. There was a time when he was set to be a much-respected thespian, but now he is building a reputation of a different variety, that of being impossible to work with. He does manage to supplement his income as an acting teacher, but it's not enough... he will have to come up with a radical idea to escape the career doldrums.
At Christmas 1982, Tootsie was a surprise runaway success, probably the most popular of that turn of the seventies into the eighties movies pondering over the role of gender in making us what we are. Hoffman was given the chance to perform an actor's dream of losing himself in a set of fictional circumstances and finding something out about himself while conveying some truth about the human condition into the bargain, and if that sounded pretentious, then rest assured it was a comedy as well, a very funny one at that. This was the easiest of this trend to get along with as while it was putting across some serious themes with a cast who never let on they were aiming for laughs, there was a lot of good nature on show.
Hoffman had the reputation as one of the most intense, dedicated stars around, often to the extent of driving his directors up the wall if there was any even minor query regarding his interpretation; there were plenty of those about, but he was one who demonstrated a dedication that rather than make acting look easy, made it look as if it was something truly sweated over and exerted a lot of energy to get the results. What rescued that from being offputting in what was ostensibly a lighthearted yarn was the quality of the material he had to work with, accompanied by an excellent cast in support, each pitch perfect in finding the right tone. From Teri Garr as the desperate actress who carries a torch for Michael to Bill Murray, uncredited in the main titles as Michael's droll roommate (he improvised many of his lines), everyone was a delight.
That's without mentioning the cast and crew at the television soap Michael finally secures a job in, getting the post that Garr's Sandy was aiming for. He has a moment of inspiration: nobody, as his agent Sydney Pollack (also the director) tells him, will hire him, so how about he dresses up as Dorothy Michaels, a middle-aged character actress, and both proves everyone wrong and raises the funds for his pet project off Broadway? This was the film's great idea, one that a few talents took the credit for, but when there were multiple writers credited and behind the scenes it was best to settle on it as a team effort. But one thing that appeared to be Hoffman's, or at least inspired by him, was the way in which Michael's vanity is appealed to throughout, and that's what causes trouble for him as he seeks to better himself.
The further the subterfuge progresses, with Dorothy turning into a major celebrity and no-nonsense role model for women across America, the more it feeds into his self-image as this great thespian (which may well be accurate in light of how successful he/she is), yet the more it causes trouble for him as the elements of farce were smoothly introduced then amplified until the classic scene at a live recording when Michael just can't take it anymore, one of the funniest sequences in the eighties. But as entertaining was how he is made to confront his previous attitudes to women, which in turn casts them in a new light for the audience watching, and all through the medium of laughter in one of the finest examples of allowing the genders (and that includes the homosexuals) see eye to eye in the persona of Michael/Dorothy, who gets to experience all sorts of sexuality. He falls in love with co-star Jessica Lange, but she thinks Dorothy is a lesbian, but then again her father (Charles Durning) falls for her/him, and so on, a very pleasing and well thought out scenario - veterans Larry Gelbart and Elaine May had a significant hand in shaping the ever-changing script, and there's a neat meeting of the old-fashioned and the fresh take here. Just a really good show, and Hoffman was fantastic. Music by Dave Grusin.