Doodad Kind of Town

Movies I Watch Over and Over: "Tootsie" and "A Midwinter’s Tale"
November 20, 2007, 1:01 am
Filed under: Kenneth Branagh

So, I’m watching the new “AFI Top 100 Movies of All Time” special a few weeks ago, and there at Number 69 is one of my top “comfort flicks” – the Dustin Hoffman cross-dressing comedy “Tootsie.”

And there’s Dustin himself talking about the movie, and unloading the same pile of self-righteous crap that he was ladling out in interviews when “Tootsie” was released 25 years ago. Bear with me here, I’m quoting from memory, so this won’t be verbatim:

“I realized …. that I am an interesting woman. (starts to get a little emotional). And I realized that there are all kinds of interesting women… that I never got to know… because of this (a bit more emotional now) superficial, this outside that didn’t fit the ideal of what I was supposed to be interested in. (Long pause as he struggles to hold back the tears) To me…. that was never a comedy!”

Oh, for the love of God…

Every time Hoffman cranks up his “I understand women” sermon, I begin to wonder if he actually saw the movie he’s talking about. ‘Cause his character, Michael Dorsey, actually walks off into the sunset at the end of the picture…. with JESSICA LANGE! I’m thinkin’ that the fact you can fall in love with an angelically beautiful, non-threatening, doe-eyed blonde probably does NOT, in and of itself, earn you a feminist badge of honor. Your average chauvinistic schmo could do that. (Now if he’d fallen for the middle-aged soap opera producer played by Dorothy Belack, that might be worth the cover of “Ms.”)

And, frankly, it’s not like his female alter ego, Dorothy Michaels, isn’t getting any action. Plenty of men find her more than interesting; by the film’s 11th hour, she’s practically beating ’em off with a stick! (She gets a marriage proposal and a serenade beneath her window on the same night! From two different guys! Ladies, when’s the last time that happened to you?)

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

“Tootsie” is no more about gender politics than “Broadcast News” was about broadcast news. It’s a brilliant romantic comedy, with some delightful observations about actors and what they do for their craft. It’s also a little bit about how badly some men treat women and the reasons women put up with it – but no one is putting on armor and waging a “battle of the sexes” here. Despite what Hoffman says, “Tootsie” is a comedy.

By now, I’m sure most people know the plot: Hoffman’s Michael Dorsey is a notoriously difficult actor, so unemployable that he resorts to dressing in drag and auditioning for the part of a female hospital administrator on a soap opera. He wins the part, and soon falls for his co-star (Lange, who is all sweetness, softness and light). And there begins his dilemma: he has the role of a lifetime, and doesn’t want to risk losing it – but he also wants Lange.

Hoffman is funny as hell, but his Dorsey character is just as much a self-serious blowhard as he is in real life. So thank God there is a terrific cast of supporting actors who balance out his heavy-handedness with a light, goofy touch. Terri Garr, his neurotic actress friend, and Bill Murray, as his deadpan-hilarious playwright roommate are especially funny.

And the writing – oh, God, the writing! It’s intelligent comedy heaven! Written by comedy greats Murray Schisgal and Larry Gelbart (with, according to IMDB, uncredited contributions from Barry Levinson and Elaine May.) That’s a ‘dream team,’ folks. Remember Michael’s outburst to his agent (after being fired from playing a tomato): “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.!”

Of some of Dorothy’s feminist outbursts on the soap opera: (fending off an unwanted kiss from a doctor) “I will run this hospital with my head, not my lips!” Or this advice to a nurse who’s been sexually harassed: “I think I’m gonna give every nurse on this floor an electric cattle prod, and just instruct them to just zap him in his badoobies. ” Ever hear lines like that on “All My Children”?

Come to think of it, Hoffman has a lot of ‘outbursts’ in this movie.

On a kinder, gentler note:

Another lovely, warm-hearted film about actors and what they go through for their craft comes from British director Kenneth Branagh, in one of his (undeservedly) lesser-known efforts.

“A Midwinter’s Tale” is the daft and delightful story of a ragtag little troupe of actors struggling to mount a production of “Hamlet” in an old country church on Christmas Eve.

Shot on a shoestring in black-and-white, with a mostly star-free cast (Joan Collins and Jennifer Saunders have cameos), this film was made just prior to Branagh’s super-sized, 4.5 hour epic film of “Hamlet.” It must have given him a nice, happy little warm-up to the gargantuan task awaiting him. (Many of the actors in “A Midwinter’s Tale” also appear in “Hamlet.”)

I have several years of community theatre acting experience (and one church-basement Shakespeare production, “Henry IV, Part 1,”) behind me, so this movie is a bit nostalgic for me. Ah, the frantic nights spent finishing the set, the actors who never quite learn their lines, the worry that no audience will materialize. Been there, done that. And yet, there is no feeling quite so magical as when the show opens, and everything inexplicably falls into the place: the seats are filled, the laughs come in the right places, the applause happens – it’s just magic.

“A Midwinter’s Tale” is about that magic, but it’s also about the ridiculousness of it all. Noel Coward’s “Why Must the Show Go On?” plays throughout an opening montage of audition scenes which are pretty much on a par with the audition scenes in “Waiting for Guffman,” if not worse. Once the play is cast and rehearsals are underway, Branagh gives pretty much every character a chance to make an ass of themselves, and every possible set/casting/costume/acting mishap to take place. But a happy ending is in store, and every character eventually gets his or her chance to shine.

Branagh’s love for theatre and the people who create it imbues this film with a gentle sweetness of spirit that is hard to resist. “A Midwinter’s Tale” is the perfect little cheerer-upper for anyone’s bleak midwinter.

(Photo credits:,

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