**/**** Image B Sound A- Extras B
starring Dustin Hoffman, Jessica Lange, Teri Garr, Dabney Coleman
screenplay by Murray Schisgal and Larry Gelbart
directed by Sydney Pollack
THE PIED PIPER
*½/**** Image C Sound C
starring Donovan, Jack Wild, John Hurt, Donald Pleasence
screenplay by Andrew Berkin, Jacques Demy & Mark Peploe
directed by Jacques Demy
by Ian Pugh SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. The fatal flaw of Tootsie can be traced back to the fact that, here at least, Teri Garr is a better actress than Jessica Lange, playing a better character in a more interesting scenario. It only takes one scene to realize that: Garr's Sandy Lester, long-time friend and protégé to douchebag actor Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman, who possesses enough self-awareness as a douchebag actor to be the film's saving grace), bursts into tears because a promising role on the soap opera "Southwest General" requires the one quality she can't play: "a woman!" Suddenly, you're thrust into the compelling inner circle of a profession fraught with self-doubt, false friends, and the attempt to decipher a very slippery perception of "reality."
The film makes some hefty promises with the high-concept of difficult, unemployable Dorsey dressing in drag to become Dorothy Michaels, swooping in to take that role that Sandy failed to take for herself. At first, you think you're going to get the tale of an extraordinarily talented bastard who steps on his friends under the all-encompassing banner of "an actor must act." It's the kind of setting that not only brings a few interesting hypotheticals to the forefront--namely, is it possible to reconcile professional brilliance and innate selfishness?--but also could have been the source of countless laughs. Yet something happens once Michael falls head over heels for fellow cast member Julie Nichols (Lange, delivering a perfectly bland performance that won her a consolation Oscar for her Frances loss): sacrificing a dynamite premise and throwing Garr into the role of an exasperated, unknowing sitcom artifact, Tootsie becomes a series of stale dude-looks-like-a-lady gags in the service of an utterly wrongheaded tirade on gender politics.
The idea that Tootsie somehow struck a blow in the name of feminism is nothing short of ridiculous. "Truthfully, don't you find being a woman in the '80s complicated?" Julie asks. "Extremely," Michael-as-Dorothy responds. But the film has no faith in the obvious absurdity of that punchline--for as much as you can argue that it's about a man trying to understand the complications of being a modern, independent woman, its basic structure still boils down to the argument that a man makes a better woman than women do. We're supposed to feel good that Michael's/Dorothy's assertive behaviour prompts Julie to stand up to her beau, the chauvinist director of "Southwest General" (Dabney Coleman), because it fosters the impression of independence--but isn't she just falling for an elaborate trick from an equally condescending asshole? The rub increases tenfold when we learn that Michael can't quit "Southwest General" once Dorothy's career takes off--complete with cover stories in MS. and claims that she has paved the way for three-dimensional female characters in daytime drama--as he will "make a fool out of millions of American women" if it's revealed that Dorothy's really a man. See, whether or not he actually causes such an uproar is immediately forgotten upon the televised unmasking: Julie is humiliated while Sandy is humiliated and ignored, but only presumably is feminism in the entertainment industry set back ten years. In the end, all that matters is Michael getting everything he wants.
All the more disappointing that the closest Tootsie ever comes to a genuine satire of institutional sexism is in the bizarre love triangle (rectangle?) that forms as Michael falls in love with Julie and Julie's father Les (Charles Durning) falls in love with "Dorothy"--which, perhaps in spite of itself, has something to say about Hollywood's two-faced practices with regards to casting aging actors and actresses in romantic roles. When the wig finally comes off, the film seems to be onto something as the bastard is confronted with the fallout and heartbreak from the selfishness of his actions, but one drink with Les and a brief exchange with Julie and Michael's fully absolved. As it stands, Tootsie is nothing more than a numbing experience, never even bothering to take the time to mine for anything resembling humour; had it found a way to live up to the promise of its first half-hour, perhaps it could have earned the "American classic" title inexplicably foisted upon it these past twenty-five years.
Jacques Demy's The Pied Piper is also about an artist desperate to practise his craft--and who better to embody that desire than Donovan, the Scottish flower child who was unfairly maligned as a clone of Bob Dylan? True that his political screeds were too obvious compared to the other guy's, but he eventually found his own voice as a medieval troubadour, filtering his fascination with bedtime stories through a certain psychedelic hyper-logic. Find his greatest successes in the epic poetry of "Atlantis," the Carrollian fantasy of "Hurdy-Gurdy Man," and the hypothetical snake-killing organizations of "Riki-Tiki-Tavi." (How much better would Lady in the Water be as one of his hippie-dippie sing-alongs?) Unfortunately, Donovan also has a tendency to take himself way too seriously (look no farther than the noodling incoherence of "Legend of a Girl Child Linda"), and by casting him in a role that essentially personified his pet obsessions, The Pied Piper itself epitomizes an artist at his very worst. Think Michael Jackson in Moonwalker or Captain EO or some such crazy shit.
Donovan plays the titular Piper, of course, who comes to the poor, quarantined town of Hamelin with a traveling band of artists in tow. In order to gain entry and earn a little money for himself, the Piper offers his strange, hypnotic power to heal the ailing children of the village and banish the growing rat population to an early grave. However, because this is a bloated, feature-length version of a fairytale traditionally told in ten sentences or less, The Pied Piper beefs up its running time by devoting a subplot to the town's leaders (headed up by John Hurt and Donald Pleasence, playing it deadly, deadly serious) as they conspire to turn Hamelin's preteens into a legion of holy soldiers for the Pope. It's all so monotonous as to recall The Phantom Menace's senatorial hearings--with the added bonus that Demy ends up interpreting the Piper's mystical child abduction upon non-payment as an act of heroism instead of as one of folklore's greatest acts of spite.
Also added to the mix is Jewish alchemist Melius (Michael Hordern), who insists that the Black Plague is a matter of not divine retribution but disease, spread by the rats; his death at the stake, dictated by the local clergy, coincides with the children's exodus and the mysterious return of the plague to Hamelin. In those final moments, The Pied Piper struggles to say something about who can speak for God and the logic of the universe, but since the film can't decide where to throw its allegorical chips into that broad topic (Christ? Joan of Arc? Brecht's Galileo?), it again calls back to Donovan's flightiest, most completely out-there numbers--the type of shit that would prefer you simply saw it as a brilliant metaphor without trying to figure out whether it's a metaphor for anything.
Sony brings Tootsie home again in a belated "25th Anniversary Edition" DVD. The 2.40:1, 16x9-enhanced transfer accommodates blacks and reds nicely (check out Dorothy's dress in the iconic magazine-shoot montage) but is too often plagued by a grainy dullness that never lets you forget the era of its making. Meanwhile, the accompanying DD 5.0 audio modestly and inoffensively opens up the original mono mix, granting music and ambience a slightly wider berth. Special Features begin with "A Better Man: The Making of Tootsie" (68 mins.), a series of recollections from the cast and crew, including credited screenwriter Larry Gelbart and the late Sydney Pollack. There's a lot to learn here about the evolution of a script (the original idea revolved around a tennis star who only achieved success after switching genders), although, predictably, Hoffman is the only one worth paying attention to: a real actor's actor, he discusses things such as the politics of comedy in an intimate, organic way, whereas everyone else speaks in distant, technical terms.
Case in point: Pollack argues that the montage delineating Michael's betrayal and redemption was necessary to cushion the blow--but nowhere is it discussed how selfish it seems to focus on the mopey Mr. Dorsey at that juncture. On the same topic, Hoffman gives a self-deprecating smile as he tells a lovely little anecdote about pushing the mime in Central Park. A handful of "Deleted Scenes" are mostly rendered redundant by the final product, although a clip in which Michael drives back to the Nichols's abandoned farmhouse after the jig is up is moving in precisely the right way. (It's a moment of introspection the movie desperately needed.) Lastly, "Original Screen Test Footage" (3 mins.) of Hoffman in drag offers an amusing glimpse of the character ("Dorothy Harrison" at this stage) early enough in development that he/she sports a deeper voice sans Southern accent.
The Pied Piper arrives on DVD courtesy Legend Films as part of their mass-acquisition of Paramount titles. The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image reflects minimal investment in preservation/restoration and can only be described as "murky," loaded as it is with grain and intact cigarette burns that don't exactly aid in the search for depth or nuance in the film's predominantly brown palette. Donovan's ballads come through all right in DD 1.0 mono, though dialogue is usually pretty muffled. There are no extras. Originally published: July 29, 2008.