I have long been baffled by the suggestion put forth by hip film folk that Tootsie is an “overrated” picture. The film may not be on the level of Some Like It Hot, but it is nonetheless the kind of elaborate comedic farce, a natural descendant of Lubitsch, that nobody makes anymore. It is funny, immensely subtle, and full of wonderful performances (well, save Jessica Lange, a one-note performance that arose from a one-note character). It is a rare film in which the side characters are just as essential as the protagonist. It offers fascinating takes on gender through physical gesture. (Just watch Dustin Hoffman’s movement as he begins inhabiting Dorothy Michaels’s mannerisms over the course of the film.) The screenplay was infamously put together at the last minute, and it could not have happened without Sydney Pollack at the helm (and Elaine May on the revisions).
Pollack is now dead. And I will forgive him somewhat for the many turkeys he helmed over the past fifteen years. He didn’t always succeed. (Random Hearts is a mangy dog, Out of Africa is an overlong bore, and the less said about his atrocious remake of Sabrina, the better.) But the man gave us Tootsie, Jeremiah Johnson, and The Electric Horseman — all intelligent and well-crafted films directed at popular audiences. He always cast a major leading man in his films, whether it was Harrison Ford, Dustin Hoffmann, or Robert Redford, who could be counted upon to deliver some modest human insight for mass consumption. Today, this seems like almost a quaint notion.
He was also a fascinating, if limited actor. In addition to the agent in Tootsie, I cannot forget Pollack’s fine performance as Jack in Husbands and Wives. The scene in which Pollack tries to leave a party with Lysette Anthony is one of the most harrowing depictions of a seemingly confident middle-aged man seeing his world crumble right in front of him. We realize at that moment just how much Jack relies on others to feed his being. Pollack was the only person who could have played that scene.
I’ll miss Pollack, because I can’t think of anyone who will replace him. He wasn’t the greatest filmmaker in the world. But he stood out in large part because today’s emerging filmmakers seem more interested in spectacle over substance. I suppose this is what sells tickets. But Pollack understood that the true spectacle lies in fascinating human moments. He may have focused mostly on lighter fare. He may have made mainstream movies. But when his films delivered, it was the natural spectacle that commanded your attention.