Monday, December 17, 2012

Movie Quote of the Day (‘Tootsie,’ on the Plight of an Unemployed Actor)

Michael Dorsey, an actor (played by Dustin Hoffman): “Are you saying that nobody in New York will work with me?”

George Fields, his agent (played by Sydney Pollack): “No, no, that's too limited... nobody in Hollywood wants to work with you, either! I can't even set you up for a commercial. You played a tomato for 30 seconds--they went a half a day over schedule because you wouldn't sit down.”

Michael: “Of course. It was illogical.”

George: “YOU WERE A TOMATO. A tomato doesn't have logic. A tomato can't move.”

Michael: “That's what I said. So if he can't move, how's he gonna sit down, George? I was a stand-up tomato: a juicy, sexy, beefsteak tomato. Nobody does vegetables like me. I did an evening of vegetables off-Broadway. I did the best tomato, the best cucumber... I did an endive salad that knocked the critics on their ass.”—Tootsie (1982), story by Don McGuire and Larry Gelbart, screenplay by Larry Gelbart and Murray Schisgal, with uncredited contributions by Robert Garland, Barry Levinson and Elaine May, directed by Sydney Pollack

Scenes such as this went far to ensure that the cross-dressing farce Tootsie—released 30 years ago yesterday—would not be a drag. Already, even before the Russian Tea Room scene (in the accompanying photo), when “Dorothy Michaels” reveals her true identity to Fields, you can understand why the astonished agent bursts out: “God, I begged you to get some therapy!” These lines are hilarious in and of themselves. But, given the grinding manner in which the film was made, they hold a special piquancy for me.

I have found Shirley MacLaine’s backhanded tribute to Terms of Endearment co-star Debra Winger’s “turbulent brilliance” to be problematic. Perhaps the younger actress was a pill to work with, before and after that film. But I can’t remember a similar description used about a male star.

Few have deserved that term more than Dustin Hoffman. But, as a star with proven box-office pull—not to mention several Oscar nominations and one win—the Tootsie “leading lady” probably got away with everything Winger did—and far more—without getting stuck with a term similarly deleterious to a career. “Difficult”? Yes, he has been so described—but not “turbulent.” A couple of clunkers in a row, especially early in his career, might have made him, like Michael Dorsey, radioactive in the film and theater community. But more often, he scored, as with Tootsie, for which he was nominated (yet again) for an Oscar.

What I found particularly great about this scene is that it acts as, in effect, a veiled commentary on the entire relationship between the star and the film’s director during shooting. From an appearance that Making Tootsie author Susan Dworkin made at my local library nearly 30 years ago, I learned that the two had vastly different senses of what the true story of the film was about. Sydney Pollack,  with a renewed appreciation of his wife and heightened feminism after a brief separation, felt that the script was about how playing a woman made Michael Dorsey a better man; Hoffman thought of the screenplay as a comic valentine about the lengths to which an actor will go simply to practice the craft he loves. In the end, both men got their wish in what the film conveyed, but not before clashes so fierce, continual and protracted that the two never made another film together.

Amazingly enough, though, it was Hoffman who convinced Pollack—a onetime actor who hadn’t appeared before the cameras in nearly two decades—to play the agent. The star told his agent that, in trying to convey the plight of Dorsey, he couldn’t accept that he was unemployable in hearing it from Pollack’s projected man for the role, Dabney Coleman. It’s interesting that Hoffman thought that he could believe this coming from a director.

After much convincing—including roses sent by the actor!—Pollack put aside his misgivings and acted. They are among the best scenes in the film, and make me wonder how Pollack's career might have turned out if he had more acting credits besides his largely TV work of the Fifties and early Sixties.

After years of perfectionism—and a stint at directing himself (in Straight Time) that he ended over chronic indecision during filming—Hoffman finally made his directing debut this year in the film Quartet. After all this time, he still can’t see how so many directors over the years got agita in working with him.(Pollack, he allows, was a "very good director," but not "collaborative," he told Simon Hattenstone of The Guardian recently. The director, now gone to his eternal reward, is not around to volunteer his opinion about the actor's endless requests for retakes.)

Well, no matter. Just this once, in Tootsie, we get the wonderful sense that Hoffman, in a rare moment of self-perception, recognized his most prominent professional trait, embraced it and sent it up, to wildly funny—classic, really—effect. I never lived through the knockdown battles he had with Pollack and others, so I can’t say if the experience was worth it for them. But for a viewer, it is.

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