With her slightly askew beauty and her compelling but unorthodox mix of neuroses and earthy sexiness, Teri Garr was always destined for underappreciation. Usually relegated to small parts and cast more often as screechy second bananas than leading love interests, Garr nevertheless always manages to cast off tremendous light from whatever corner she’s been put into, whether she’s vacuously rolling in the hay (Young Frankenstein) or staving off the salacious come-ons of Martin Mull (Mr. Mom); and in more serious-minded supporting roles, as in Close Encounters of the Third Kind or Michael Apted’s unfairly forgotten Firstborn, she’s played conflicted, angry wives and mothers without the slightest hint of trying to ingratiate herself to the audience. In the few cases where she’s been cast in the starring role (One from the Heart), something hasn’t exactly clicked, as though she’d rather be waiting in the wings so she can swoop in and steal a scene rather than have to carry an entire film on her slender shoulders.
This is why Garr’s simultaneously hefty and vulnerable work in Tootsie still might be her career pinnacle, and it’s worth noting that she stands out even in a cast positively brimming with stellar supporting actors (Charles Durning, Jessica Lange, Dabney Coleman, George Gaines, Sydney Pollack), each of whom abscond with at least two scenes. She’s so perfectly cast in the role of an unemployed, self-loathing New York stage actress with TV soap aspirations that it makes you wonder how Woody Allen could have possibly overlooked her in this period, a decidedly fecund one for both. In a sense, Garr has the most thankless role in the film, as the sweet, desperate Sandy, jilted and toyed with by Dustin Hoffman’s cross-dressing ladies’ man Michael Dorsey for nearly the entirety of the film; yet Garr refuses to victimize Sandy, even though Sandy loves to play the victim. There’s so much nuance and energy to Garr’s scenes that it’s easy to forget that she has much less screen time than designated love interest Lange. Lange is complex, maternal, warm, sexually mature, but Garr is having more fun: in a brief cutaway during an early surprise-party sequence, she busts herself out of a locked bathroom door with a plunger in hand, aggravatingly exclaims, “What kind of a party is this?” only two seconds later to ask a fellow reveler, with a smile, if he’s having a good time. It’s that sort of quick turnaround that marks Sandy, who can morph from ball-buster to puddle of tears in a matter of seconds, and vice versa. Never to be pitied, Sandy is always ready with a quick retort or an ear-piercing scream (most memorably at the film’s hilarious wig-removing climax, but also when Michael tells her he’s in love with another woman and not, as she had obviously hoped, with another man).
Garr brings so much to the table; it’s a performance full of little tics and gestures, yet rather than steal from the Diane Keaton playbook, she makes it her own. I especially love the little inquisitive glance she gives herself, peeking under a bedsheet down at her chest, after mistakenly having sex with longtime friend Michael: “Sex changes things,” she says with desolate matter-of-factness, referring to the fact that she thinks she’ll never see him again, yet with her naval (and breast) gaze, she gives the line an odd double-meaning, as always bringing it all back to her own neurotic self. Consider also that hilarious little nod-and-shrug of imagined shared empathy Garr’s beehived bar waitress gives to Griffin Dunne’s hapless downtown wanderer in Scorsese’s After Hours after passing him (a total stranger) a tab with the note “HELP! I HATE THIS JOB!” Once again, Garr makes chronic dissatisfaction adorable.
Garr’s turned up here and there in recent years, most memorably as “fucking monster” Maxine, Enid’s dreaded future stepmom in Ghost World. (She has but one scene in the film, as I can recall, but she reads her lines with sting and sympathy, creating an entire past for her character, providing antagonism, but also refusing to demonize, and making the viewer see the understandable mutual hatred between her and the teenager. ) It’s somewhat fitting that Garr lost a supporting actress Oscar to Lange, also for Tootsie, in 1982, as it illustrates that she was even somewhat forgotten in her own best role. Sandy wouldn’t have had it any other way.