Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 19: Tootsie (1982)

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Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Tootsie (1982) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 147 of the first edition hardback, Ebert recalls a time when his eccentric newspaperman colleague Paul Galloway hired professionals to dress him up like Tootsie at the height of the film’s popularity. It didn’t quite elicit the desired effect. According to Roger, Galloway wasn’t offended that no one mistook him for a woman. He was upset that no one recognized him as Tootsie.

What Ebert had to say in his review:Tootsie is the kind of Movie with a capital ‘M’ that they used to make in the 1940s, when they weren’t afraid to mix up absurdity with seriousness, social comment with farce, and a little heartfelt tenderness right in there with the laughs. This movie gets you coming and going.” – from his 1982 review for The Chicago Sun-Times

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There’s a lot of pressure for Tootsie to perform for a modern audience for two entirely different reasons: 1) it’s often lauded as one of the greatest comedies of all time & 2) gender identity politics have shifted drastically in the three decades since the film’s release. I think it helps both of the film’s expectation problems if you consider it more in the context of over-the-top farces like Some Like It Hot & (maybe to a lesser degree) Mrs. Doubtfire, where deeply flawed men learn a lesson about humility & empathy by surrendering their gender-based privilege instead of a joke-a-minute laugh riot with pointed things to say about gender politics, something the film pretends to be in brief, fleeting moments. Tootsie’s cultural significance can be a little puzzling when you consider that it was nominated for ten Academy Awards & still makes the cut on a lot of Best Films of All Time lists, since to be honest, it’s not all that funny on a minute to minute basis, something that should probably be a requirement for a great comedy. As an intricately woven farce, however, it’s a fun screenplay to watch unravel as the walls separating its protagonist’s Victor Victoria-type double life crumble and his lies amount to a total shit show of bruised egos & hurt feelings. Instead of watching Dustin Hoffman’s total jerk protagonist get his much-deserved comeuppance, we see him realize how much of an asshole he truly is once he trips up on his own tangle of deceits. It’s a surprisingly sweet trajectory for a film that can be nastily bitter in its early goings-on & the farcical fever pitch of its third act is a lot of what makes Tootsie such a pleasant memory overall.

A top-of-his-game Dustin Hoffman stars as an unemployed theater actor who is talented, but notoriously difficult to work with due to an oversized hubris. Unable to land a job due to his tarnished name, the unrepentant asshole channels his frustration into an indignant female character with a ludicrous, high-pitched voice and lands a major role on a televised soap opera as his in-drag persona, unbeknownst to the cast & crew. This dynamic allows both for some delicious mockery of soap opera melodrama (seen also in less respected comedies like Joy & Delirious) and for some occasional pointed criticism about gendered work place politics, something the actor was blind to as a man. As much as he now has a soap box for complaints about how power makes a woman be unfairly perceived as “masculine” or “ugly”, a voice that inspires other women to speak up for themselves in a hostile work environment, donning a dress doesn’t instantly make him a better person. Tootsie is smart to hold onto the idea that its protagonist is a deceitful, selfish ass, allowing very little room for him to be excused for his manipulative transgressions, especially when it comes to his two love interests: a supposedly dear friend & an unsuspecting coworker. Watching this film as a kid I had never picked up on how much of an asshole Dustin Hoffman’s character is in this film; watching it now it’s the only thing I can focus on at all. Luckily, the film feels the same way & deals with his actions accordingly.

There’s not a lot going on in Tootsie formally that would really justify its inclusion on a Best Films of All Time list outside the weird imagery in a montage that includes a surreally out-of-place Andy Warhol cameo and a shot of Tootsie saluting before a Patton-esque American flag backdrop. The film’s performances are mostly serviceable, with very few moments allowed for a standout actor-centric showcase. I was especially bummed over  Bill Murray’s performance as a wisecracking bitter artist roommate, who was even more of an ass as the film’s starring role, as his entire part boils down to vocal discomfort with the idea of crossdressing (in what I’m afraid was supposed to function partly as an audience surrogate). If there’s anything impressive about how this film was made it’s in the efficiency of its screenplay. Not only does the mass confusion & chaos of the climax amount to a complex web of hurt feelings; the lead-up to that moment is also surprisingly effective. I especially liked the way the film bravely jumps into the drag persona conceit without an initial dressup montage and the way line readings from its fictional soap opera mixes with its protagonist’s true sentiments as well as the way the protagonist’s identity becomes confused as he starts making decisions based on the desires of his female avatar. Besides, you have to somewhat respect a film that can effortlessly work in a line as convoluted as, “I was a better man with you as a woman than I ever was with a woman as a man, you know?” and make it count for something. Some of Tootsie’s gender-identity politics are as outdated in a modern context as its total garbage “Go Tootsie go! Roll Tootsie roll!” pop music theme song, but it’s still a well written film with a timeless message: don’t be an asshole.

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Roger’s Rating: (4/4, 100%)

fourstar

Brandon’s Rating (3.5/5, 70%)

threehalfstar

Next Lesson: Help! (1965)

-Brandon Ledet

Joy (2015)

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fourstar

Has the David O. Russell hype train already crashed & burned? It wasn’t until 2012’s commercially-palatable mental health rom-com/drama Silver Linings Playbook that the director started to get his dues as a weirdo auteur, despite putting out quality work as far back as 1994’s uncomfortable black comedy Spanking the Monkey. Two Jennifer Lawrence collaborations later & critical consensus already feels like it’s turning on him, aiming to brush him off as a hack. It’s a total shame too. I understand, to a point, the complaints that Russell’s American Hustle resembled Scorsese’s Goodfellas a little too closely, but if you’re going to pay homage to something, why not make it one of the greatest films ever made? The complaints about his more-recent film, Joy, are a little more confounding to me. In some ways Russell is merely keeping the Goodfellas vibes rolling into the next picture & continuing his somewhat easy collaborations with Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, and Robert DeNiro in a film that might be a little too Hallmarkish for the hard-to-please, but if that’s all you see going on in Joy, you’re missing out on the much stranger big picture. It feels like Russell is really working out some half-formed new ideas here & watching him reach for that new, unexplored territory is fascinating stuff, making for the best film I think he’s made in years.

Expectation might be to blame for what turned a lot of audiences off from Joy. Based on the advertising, I know a lot of folks expected an organized crime flick about a mob wife, not the deranged biopic about the woman who invented the Miracle Mop that was delivered. Even more so, I believe that audiences expected a lighthearted drama from the guy who made Silver Linings Playbook. Instead, Joy finds Russell exploring the same weirdo impulses that lead him to making I Huckabees, an absurdist comedy that might be the very definition of “not for everyone”. Personally, I love Huckabees. It’s my favorite thing thing Russell’s ever done. Joy is certainly not as eccentric or as deliberately off-putting as Huckabees can be, but it does establish a delirious rhythm & nearly all-white visual palette that hits on the same anything-can-happen tone Huckabees delivered. By the time Joy delves into immersive soap opera & QVC imagery, the film has already established a dream-like sense of self-logic that makes the whole thing feel natural, despite television’s sterilized otherworldliness. Also like Huckabees, Joy plays its humor completely straight, with only the slightest hint of quirk prompting you to treat it like a comedy. The soap opera camp & Isabella Rossellini’s over-the-top performance in Joy were some of the funniest moments I had witnessed in the theater in all of 2015, but for some reason the audience I was with met them with more exasperated “That’s just ridiculous” comments instead of genuine laughter.

I, for one, welcome David O. Russell’s return to not-for-everyone cinema. The problem is that Joy might not have gone far enough in its Huckabees-esque absurdity. There is an admitted Hallmark/Lifetime-esque quality to the film that compels it to hammer every point home, to tie a bow on every resolved conflict. The dialogue indulges in some wholesome cheese in lines like “In America, the ordinary meets the extraordinary”, [from a young Joy playing happily-ever-after-type games] “I don’t need a prince”, and [from an adult Joy to her young daughter] “Don’t take any guff from anybody.” Worse yet is a completely unnecessary narrator who constantly reminds us that Joy is a “matriarch” or that she & her ex-husband are “the best married couple in America.” That aspect of Joy seems to be at war with the film’s strangest impulses, such as introducing a soap opera character who “came back as a ghost with even greater power”, including an extended cameo in which Melissa Rivers (all-too convincingly) portrays her recently-departed mother, and saddling its protagonist with a family so unbearably awful that you could easily forgive her for burning the house down with them all locked inside.

I would like to say with confidence that this contrast between the absurd & the maudlin was entirely intentional, that Russell was merely trying to reflect the mundane trashiness of his subject’s QVC/Miracle Mop subject. The truth is, though, that I have no idea. Joy is an odd compromise of things I loved & things I could’ve done without. The dream-like quality of the rhythm is fascinating, but the narration knocks its ambition down a peg. It’s Russell’s most experimental film in a decade, but it borrows heavily from not only Scorsese, but also from Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums (in one particular scene, I could swear that Elliott Smith’s “Needle in the Hay” would play at any second). Isabella Rossellini’s monologue about “The 4 Questions of Financial Worthiness” was one of 2015’s funniest moments to me, but the humor is played so dryly it doesn’t seem to register with half its audience. If nothing else, what’s clear when you consider all of these self-contradicting qualities as a whole is that David O. Russell has made something oddly idiosyncratic here that can be a joy to watch if you can get on its dual arty & maudlin wavelengths. That’s good enough for me.

-Brandon Ledet

Finders Keepers, Lovers Weepers! (1968)

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three star

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The third & final picture in Russ Meyer’s trio of in-color “soap operas” plays very similar to the first, Common Law Cabin. As with Common Law Cabin, Finders Keepers, Lovers Weepers! is more or less Meyer on auto-pilot. With his career finally developing a sense of cohesion, Meyer was now able to make a film that was unmistakably his own without trying very hard to impress. All of the Meyer calling cards are here: buxom women, go-go dancing, bitter marriages on the rocks, non-sequitiur monologues, etc. The only thing missing from Meyer’s pictures in this phase of his career is the aggressive, disorienting editing style that turned pictures like Mondo Topless & Europe in the Raw from straight-forward “documentaries” into something much more sinister & psychedelic. The oddball editing is present, for sure, but it takes a back seat to the bitter war of the sexes that had tinged Meyer’s work since the adultery tale Lorna. Finders Keepers, Lovers Weepers! unfortunately doesn’t pack quite the same hateful punch that the now ex-Meyer writer Jack Moran’s scripts did in the past, but it does have plenty of bitter weirdness to spare that makes it a moderately enjoyable addition to the director’s catalog.

Starting with the go-go dancing “documentary” Mondo Topless, Meyer had made a habit of delivering early in his runtimes what his core audience had come to expect: gigantic, bare breasts. The opening credits of Finders Keepers, Lovers Weepers! features a topless go-go routine performed in the desert sand by a model sporting only a tight skirt, tall boots, and a motorcycle helmet. Instead of Meyer’s trademark of besides-the-point opening monolgues, the movie instead begins with a swanky titular theme song, the first since the lounge lizard opener for Lorna. The director also continued his recent trope of representing the opening credits in physical spaces. The credits for Common Law Cabin were displayed on hand carved signs, the credits for Good Morning . . . and Goodbye! were painted on mailboxes, and the credits here are printed on labels of liquor bottles. The claustrophobia of his staged play-like sets is also repeated here, as the film takes place almost exclusively in a bedroom, a brothel, and a go-go club/pool hall. As I said, Meyer had reached groove at this point of his career where his films were easily recognizable as his own, each following a relatively strict pattern.

Although Meyer had captured the unrestrained mania of go-go dancing before in pictures like Mondo Topless & Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, here he for the first time builds a narrative in a go-go club setting, intercutting the violent bursts of topless dancing with shots of money changing hands & alcohol being downed at a maddening pace. My best guess of what he was trying to get across there was something as simple & crass as the thought that big tits are big business. As his pictures are usually centered on the sexual failings of a male lover, Finders Keepers focuses on an adulterous employee of the go-go club featured in these scenes. Between being distracted by the erotic dancing & a side-hustle that connects the club to a nearby brothel, our bonehead antagonist is oblivious to his unattended wife & business, which leads the bored wife to dancing nude & philandering as payback and the club itself being held hostage by a couple of safe-breaking thieves. These themes are surely familiar to Meyer’s previous pictures, but within that framework he injects a couple unexpected touches, ones that oddly stray from his onscreen fornicating’s usual lack of adventure or experimentation.

The sex scenes in Finders Keepers, Lovers Weepers! are what make the film unique enough to be a wortwhile addition to the Russ Meyer catalog. In one scene, images of flesh bucking underwater are mixed (hilariously) with footage of cars crashing in a demolition derby. In another, a sex worker shaving a john’s chest while recounting her childhood experiments with incest is presented with the dementedly obsessive detail of a fetishist. The oddly arresting chest-shaving scene is certainly the film’s most memorable centerpiece, especially since the bare chest the sex worker is shaving is mixed with closeup footage of a much, much hairier specimen being stripped of its luxurious coat. The film also poses as an alternate timeline in which Meyer was a butt man instead of his obnoxiously apparent preference for breasts. The screen is filled with plenty of butt cheek during the film’s relatively short runtime, including a surprising amount of man-butt for those interested. Throw in a small dose of lipstick lesbianism and you have the director’s most sexually adventurous film at least since the vague BDSM leanings of Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure.

Besides the unexpected kinks & oddities in these details, Finders Keepers stands out as a unique Meyer picture only in its half-assed attempts to establish itself as a crime noir. The hostage situation & safe-breaking scenes fall hilariously short of similar fare in films like, say, Michael Mann’s Thief, and instead feel like a half-cooked afterthought, taking a back seat to the much more detailed sexual perversity (duh). My favorite aspect of the failed noir aesthetic is the heavy reliance on the Venetian blinds lighting of the genre, which is so ever-present that it’s included in exterior shots outside the go-go club, which makes absolutely no logical sense. There’s also a last minute revelation of betrayal that constitutes the closest thing to a “twist” that any Meyer film to date had attempted. Otherwise, the director’s usual themes of adultery & sexual payback play out in typical Meyer fashion. Finders Keepers may only have a few scenes & spare details that distinguish it as a unique work in the director’s catalog, but it does have enough unnatural weirdness in those details (especially that chest-shaving scene) that make it a worthy drop in the Meyer bucket.

-Brandon Ledet

Common Law Cabin (1967)

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three star

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With his sixth feature, Heavenly Bodies!, Russ Meyer had more or less perfected the “nudie cutie” genre he inadvertently created when his first film, The Immoral Mr. Teas, became a surprise hit. His career then entered its second phase with a series of black & white “roughies”, a more violent & salacious genre Meyer eventually perfected with the cult classic Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!. With those accomplishments behind him & the two aesthetics married in the go-go dancing freak show Mondo Topless, it was time for Meyer’s career to again take a new direction. His next three pictures following Mondo Topless would be a trio of in-color “soap operas” that continued to boil down the battle of the sexes theme he had been hammering since he made his adulterous morality tale Lorna. This would prove to be far from the most exciting or notorious era of Meyer’s career, but this “soap opera” trilogy did boast a deeply bizarre sort of misanthropic bitterness that often gets overlooked in discussions of his work.

The first film in Meyer’s series of in-color soap operas was Common Law Cabin, a serviceable effort that more or less amounts to a mixed bag of the director’s highs & lows. Originally titled How Much Loving Does a Normal Couple Need? (which is, funnily enough, featured onscreen in a hand-built credits sequence, over-imposed with its much more easily digestible replacement), Common Law Cabin might just be the first sign that Meyer was reaching a groove where his films have an unmistakable aesthetic. Everything from the film’s buxom go-go dancing (including a performance from Mondo Topless‘ Babette Bardot) & the incongruous party music that makes the film it like a harmless Gidget picture instead of something much darker to a non-sequitur opening monologue about The Colorado River “taking & leaving like a woman, but with a name like a man” all scream pure Meyer, despite the film’s genre skewing toward an aesthetic he had never explored before. What really stands out here as Meyer greatness, though, is the hateful war of the sexes dialogue shared between the far too drunk characters who are miserably isolated at a hellscape resort named Hoople’s Haven.

The story Common Law Cabin tells is admittedly thin & inconsequential (another Meyer trope in a way). There’s a maniacal cop on the lam with some stolen money that keeps two unsuspecting, unloving couples hostage at the aforementioned Hoople’s Haven, beating & seducing everything in sight like a feral alpha male with nothing to lose. Again, that’s not really the heart of the film. The owner of Hoople’s Haven, Dewey, played by Jack Moran (who wrote several of Meyer’s more notable films, including this one), is self-consciously guilty of ogling his teenage daughter because she ‘s a dead ringer for his dead wife (yikes!). His current sexual/business partner Babette (played by Babette Bardot, of course), constantly calls him out on this shortcoming with acerbic statements like “They at least knew the difference between a wife & a daughter,” and “I only say what you think, so you can hear how lousy it sounds.” Another couple made up of a suicidal doctor & his adulterous wife are equally troubled. Calling out his wife for flirting with strangers before his eyes, the doctor asks, “Must you pant? It’s an animal trait.” She retorts, “It’s the bitch in me, dear. Or don’t you remember? It has been such a long time.” Alaina Capri is pitch-perfect in this vengeful, dissatisfied wife role, one she’d develop to an even more ridiculous extent in Meyer’s next film, Good Morning . . . and Goodbye!. There’s a little bit of misogynistic violence that sinks the enjoyable contention in these exchanges, but the way Meyer plays the whole thing out like a soap opera comedy only makes those moments complexly bizarre and, besides, the maniac cop who’s responsible for slapping everyone around (spoiler alert?) gets his bully ass run over by a speed boat at the climax in a satisfying way. Common Law Cabin is far from Meyer’s most significant film, but it works as a typifying example of what the director has to offer, mostly enjoyable for its hateful exchanges between “loving” couples on the verge of strangling each other at any given moment . . . and for the buxom go-go dancers, of course.

-Brandon Ledet