Dustin Hoffman is a dark-horse legendary actor. I think most people, not necessarily film fans, would struggle to name a Dustin Hoffman film but would definitely recognise him as a legend. You ask someone to name a Robert De Niro movie or an Al Pacino film and most people will name the two or three “classics” that helped those actors get the recognition they have today. You ask people to name a Hoffman film beyond The Graduate, I think most people would struggle.
I think that’s because Hoffman is much more of an understated, character actor, much more than Pacino and De Niro. They choose different types of roles but you can always see a similar style running through Pacino and De Niro’s movie choices; Pacino is crazy and wired; De Niro is intense and brooding. Try to pin down Hoffman’s style and you may try for awkward; look at his roles and you’d struggle to prove this.
It’s because Hoffman doesn’t necessarily choose high-profile roles. Beyond The Graduate and Rain Man, most people would struggle to name many others. He is as good an actor as both Pacino and De Niro but it’s not his take as an autistic man or as an awkward student that proves this; its movies like Tootsie.
Tootsie requires Hoffman to dress as a woman to get an acting role. He has to wear a dress, female make-up and act like a lady for majority of the movie. It’s not the cleverest of comedies, particularly viewed now when it has been done hundreds of times since (most notably by Robin Williams in Mrs Doubtfire). You could probably argue that this is one of the earliest attempts (although Some Like It Hot probably takes that title) and it doesn’t really push the boundaries of what you’d usually expect.
Hoffman begins awkward and out-of-place, has to juggle his female and male life, begins to fall for a woman who thinks he’s a woman and then begins to have his life as an actress unravel around him. It’s all usual and all very familiar, although I’m sure it was quite unique and original back in 1982. The key to the success is how it’s played rather than what is going on.
This is where Hoffman proves his worth. He is great as a woman. It helps that he has quite a female physique and features and manages to transform quite convincingly. He isn’t becoming a fat, Scottish lady like a certain manic comedian had too. The role and the transformation becomes much more convincing. In some cases, you could easily forget that you are watching a man acting as woman.
He also has the comic timing perfectly. He can play the slapstick, the desperate and the smooth very well. It’s a different Hoffman to the person who is awkwardly kissing an older woman in The Graduate. The comedy is helped further by very able support. It’s quite a compliment when Bill Murray isn’t the biggest character in the movie with the best lines or moments. The love interest, played by Jessica Lange, won the Oscar for best actress. She isn’t even close to the best woman in this (Hoffman actually takes that prize). If I’d given an Oscar to anyone in the movie, it would have been Teri Garr, who plays Hoffman’s besotted friend Sandy. She is much funnier, has much more to actually do in the movie, and even out-comedies Hoffman in key scenes.
The acting is what makes this film so successful because it offers very little new or original material. It’s a comedy idea we have seen done a lot of times before and also better. The film begins to buckle under its own story towards the end too, wrapping it up with a quick finale and all too simple resolution. The deception is huge with large ramifications but we don’t really get that feeling or impact.
Overall, Tootsie is a film that really shows off Hoffman’s acting talents. He carries the movie, which isn’t really doing anything new or original. He manages to find something fresh in very familiar material and even out-performs Bill Murray in quite a straight-man role. The support he has around him also helps the movie move along but a poor ending highlights its faults. It does prove that Hoffman is as good as Pacino or De Niro and should be recognised alongside them.
(1 – Awful, 2 – Average, 3 – Good, 4 – Great, 5! – Must See)