The incomparable Quentin Crisp (1908-1999) shared a birthday with Jesus and was played by John Hurt in 1975’s The Naked Civil Servant, adapted from Crisp’s memoir of the same name.
The Queen of interwar Old Compton Street, he starred with Helen Mirren, among others, on the London stage before moving to the United States where his dinner parties became legendary. He played Queen Elizabeth I opposite Tilda Swinton in 1992’s Orlando and appeared as a party guest in a scene of the same year’s Philadelphia.
Imperiously disparaging about everything from AIDS (”a fad”) to Princess Diana (”vulgar”), he wrote a classic series of film reviews for Christopher Street magazine, some of which are reprinted here at Outrate. For more information, please visit the Quentin Crisp website, or purchase the anthology of Quentin Crisp film reviews, “How To Go To The Movies”, here.
United States, 1992
Director: Sydney Pollack
Stars: Dustin Hoffman, Jessica Lange, Teri Garr, Bill Murray
Tootsie is not a gay movie; it is not even a happy movie, but it is highly enjoyable in spite of certain weakness.
The story concerns a struggling actor, played by Mr. Hoffman, whose struggling girl friend fails to qualify for a certain part on television because she does not present to the casting office a sufficiently aggressive image. Her lover dresses up as a woman and wins the role. He falls in love with or, rather, since this is a modern film, begins to lust after the juvenile lead in the TV serial. He also becomes famous, but, after a while, public acclaim no longer compensates him for the complications his deceit has brought into his relationship with the girl and he abandons his imposture.
The central idea of pretending to be the opposite sex is by no means new to Hollywood. Even to my scanty knowledge, it goes back as far as Where’s Charley? - a musical that starred Mr. Bolger. This was a screen adaptation of a play called Charley’s Aunt, which, it may amuse you to know, was running in London in 1895 at the same time as Mr. Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.
In those happier days, sex was never allowed seriously to interfere with out entertainment. There was no ambiguous overtones in Mr. Bolger’s movie. Its idea of fun consisted chiefly of the hero darting awkwardly in and out of rooms to avoid detection, with glimpses of sock suspenders seen below swirling petticoats.
The classic, more sophisticated version of this transvestite theme came much later in Some Like It Hot. This film was less ambiguous in intention than Tootsie but, in many ways, much more daring. When, for instance, Mr. Hoffman - still disguised as a woman - shares a bed with Miss Lange, it is nothing like the romp that Mr. Lemmon enjoyed or endured with Miss Monroe in the berth of a sleeping car. In fact, the entire dialogue of the Jack Lemmon picture was much racier, but, then, it was written by Mr. Diamond, who is a movie star’s best friend.
Moving forward from those mists of antiquity to the lifetime of readers ofChristopher Street, we come to Victor/Victoria. Here again, the script is much funnier than that of Mr. Hoffman’s film. I went to see Tootsie with your very own editor, Mr. Steele, who asked me why, if the film with Miss Andrews was wittier, it was much less popular. The answer seems to me clear but by no means simple.
Victor/Victoria is a gay movie. Everyone in it is gay or part-time gay or erroneously thought to be gay. This instantly makes it a specialized form of entertainment. Furthermore, the only people made ridiculous are Mr. Garner, who is seen to be as straight as Fifth Avenue, and the French Police, who must be presumed to be heterosexual, or where will it all end? All this perversity is not really surprising. The movie was a remake of a 1930s German film. At that time, Germany was thought to be a land where every man, woman and child secretly or openly wore a black garter belt. Such flagrant kinkiness may be distasteful to American audiences.
There is also a deeper reason for the different levels of public acceptance between the two films. Miss Andrews pretends to be a boy, which the world considers to be a step upward; Mr. Hoffman moves in the opposite direction. This is an unalterable law. When Miss Dietrich appeared in a white tie and tailcoat in Morocco, or in Seven Sinners in the uniform of a pretty officer of the American Navy, it was seen as a delightful, almost valiant gesture, but when Mr. Kaye and Mr. Crosby sang “Sisters,” they were clowning. On a more serious level, consider that episode in A Chorus Linethat so touched the hearts of gay Americans. I seem to remember that a young man is seen (one might say almost “caught”) by his parents playing the part of a Chinese maiden. It was impossible to avoid the impression that Mum and Dad would not have been nearly so embarrassed if their son’s first acting assignment had been that of a rapist or murderer.
There is no sin like being a woman.
Consequently, though Victor/Victoria is a murkier tale than Tootsie, it is less comic because nothing is so hilarious to one human being as the humiliation of another.
The real weakness of Mr. Edwards’ film was that Miss Andrews never truly seemed like a boy - not even the most homosexual boy in the world. She remained her indestructible self and her two songs were simply beautifully polished Julie Andrews cabaret numbers. Here, I think Mr. Edwards missed a trick; he should have inserted a sequence in which the adorable Mr. Preston could be seen teaching his protegee how to camp. When a drag artiste performs, she flexes her fingers to the utmost extent and twitches her hips like an awakened corpse getting the stiffness out of its limbs, while over her skull, her features slither as though we were observing them in a fair ground mirror. None of the grotesque exaggerations was present in Miss Andrews’ act.
It is quite obvious otherwise with Tootsie. Mr. Hoffman becomes a woman before our very eyes. Left to its own devices, his face resembles that of a tired mongrel dog. That is why his appeal is universal. When he changes his sex, his features are totally transformed. He tidies up his face and instead of looking out of it as a man does, he presents it to the world like a shield, as women do. I thought his walk was slightly ill-judged; the paces are too short for the no-nonsense woman he has decided to impersonate. He should have adopted the Rosalind Russell stride. Everything else is perfect.
Everybody in this film acts excellently. Indeed, the work of Mr. Durning, who tries to woo Tootsie, is too good. It becomes distressing to see a man of such noble countenance taken for such an ignoble ride.
Except for a few excess words, the entire picture is surprisingly clean. There were no double meanings about the physical differences between being a man and a woman, unless I missed them. I should warn you not to see this movie at the Art cinema on Eighth Street. Either its equipment is faulty or it had been given a poor print. Both Mr. Steele and I found some of the words difficult to hear. This mattered less than I found it might have done because most of the jokes are visual. Of these, by far the funniest is a glossy photograph of Tootsie with her arm around Mr. Warhol as proof positive that she is famous.
Tootsie has a quiet, almost wistful ending, which doesn’t mar but also doesn’t quite match the rest of the movie. Under the farcical main theme, we seem to hear played softly in the left hand a different melody. The hero confesses that when he was a woman, he felt closer to the heroine than he can ever expect to feel now that he has admitted that he is only a man. That this is at least part of the message of the film is confirmed by an interview in which Mr. Hoffman said that playing Tootsie had given him new insights into the disadvantages that women face.
It is, of course, a self-evident fact that nature made a grave mistake in creating two sexes; there was bound to be trouble. We see that now. Both men and women are abandoning their more extreme postures and, as they move closer together, we shall for a while be inundated by a flood of films about transvestitism and sexual ambiguity in general. I myself did not think that Miss Breckinridge was a true answer to this problem. I wait for the day when Mr. Capote gets his magical hands on the court files of the recent John/Diane Delia murder case.
What I always want from any movie is a saga of human depravity.