Recession Cinema: Tootsie

Most eighties comedies don’t snare us like they used to. We can flip past Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or Stand by Me and not lose our whole afternoon. But there are certain movies that still grab hold, every time, like Tootsie (HDNetM, Saturday, 2:15 p.m.).

Tootsie is one of the great actors’ showcases. Everybody in it’s magnificent. There’s Dustin Hoffman, of course. In drag, as Dorothy Michaels, the soap opera star, he is brassy, gentle, not convincing exactly, but committed. And as Michael Dorsey, the manic, Method-y, utterly unemployable thespian, he offers about as honest and harmful a self-parody a man could, at least without losing his mind and giving up completely. On second thought, maybe he did ruin himself. After Tootsie, there were no more Ratso Rizzos or Ben Braddocks or Little Big Men. He was twinkly, older, boring.

And we could write a whole poem cycle about the supporting cast: There’s Sydney Pollack, also the director, doing another of his exasperated, slick, tired-of-this-shit turns; and Charles Durning, as the widower who falls in love with Dorothy, and whose response to what’s really under her skirts is more heartbroken than homophobic. There’s Terri Garr, who we adore, even though no one in the movie adores her back; and Jessica Lange, as Southern and strange as a Faulkner novel, still beautiful, back before plastic surgery turned her catlike.

And there’s Bill Murray. He’s only in about 10 minutes of the movie, playing Dustin Hoffman’s best friend and the movie’s one-man Greek chorus. Sure, he’d made Stripes and Caddyshack by then, and done his time on SNL, but it was still sort of a miracle how fully-formed his Groucho Marx-meets-Cary Grant persona already was. He improvises lines like "I don’t want a full house at the Winter Garden. I want people who just came out of the worst rainstorm in history. These are people who are alive on the planet… until they dry off. I wish I had a theater that was only open when it rained," which would qualify as satire if he didn’t sound so serious and anguished when he says it.

This was 1982. Two years later, Bill Murray quit acting. Look it up. His earnest, only-slightly-awkward adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge was released within a few months of Ghostbusters and made something like 34 times less at the box office. So he moved his family to Paris, read philosophy at the Sorbonne, went to the Cinematheque Francaise and watched a lot of old movies. He turned his whole life into a Maugham novel. It’s hard to imagine what a ‘fuck you’ this must have been.

Eventually, of course, he came back. In 1988, he made Scrooged, which is also on this weekend (Cinemax, Saturday, 2:15 a.m.). As with any remake of A Christmas Carol, even one this silly and punk, it ends not just with an affirmation of life, but a reengagement with other human beings. So Bill Murray, having seen all the holidays he’s wasted, is wasting, will waste exclaims: "I get it now! If you give, then it can happen…then the miracle can happen to you. It’s not just the poor and hungry, it’s everybody who’s gotta have this miracle! And it can happen tonight for all of you! If you believe in this spirit thing, the miracle will happen…and then you’ll want it to happen again tomorrow. You won’t be one of those assholes who say Christmas is once a year and it’s a fraud; it’s not! It can happen every day; you’ve just got to want that feeling. And if you like it, and you want it, you’ll get greedy for it…you’ll want it every day of your life. And it can happen to you."

The movie was a big hit. He was so famous again, nobody even remembered that he’d disappeared, or why.