Anyone seeking a straightforward musical, like Grease or Chicago, as was expected by this reviewer, would do well to seek elsewhere. A semi-autobiographical tale from director/writer/choreographer Bob Fosse, this shows musical director/writer/choreographer/everything else Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider) as he discusses his life with angel of death Jessica Lange. There are occasional songs and dance numbers, and parts of his life are exaggerated and dramatised on stage. To use the description given to one of Gideon’s own performances (a very surprising sequence referred to as Erotic-Air), this film is “interesting, very interesting…unusual, very unusual.” It is difficult to decipher which parts are really from Gideon’s life and which are distorted and rewritten via his own limitless, unburdened imagination, from his own growing up in a burlesque house, being teased by barely clad women from an early age, to becoming a pill-popping, heavy smoking, heavy drinking perfectionist self-proclaimed liar who is “generous with his cock,” through to ruthlessly directing himself on his death bed. This ambitious, and possibly achieves what it set out to do, yet you leave the film unsatisfied, unsure of what you’ve seen and what to make of it.
Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman) is an actor in New York who, though talented and passionate about his work, finds himself unable to land a role due to age and physical limitations (I can be taller!) and a bad reputation for thinking too much about a character and arguing with the director. When he learns of an upcoming part on hospital soap opera Southwest General he makes sure he gets the gig, regardless of the fact that the character is female. This simple premise, man pretends to be a woman to get a job, would these days be most likely given to the likes of Eddie Murphy or Adam Sandler, played entirely for gross-out laughs and hopefully tanking at the box office, but fortunately in 1982 Hoffman plays the part(s) relatively straight, giving arguably a career best turn in a body of work hardly lacking in expertise.
Hoffman is disturbingly convincing as Dorsey’s alter ego Dorothy Michaels, and the scenes where he transforms his appearance are at times uncomfortable to watch. George Gaynes and Bill Murray do their best to steal the show, respectively as a lecherous autocue-reading lead actor and Dorsey’s sardonic flatmate Jeff (You slut!) but it is Hoffman’s film, and nothing can detract from his central performance.