AFI Countdown Challenge #62: Tootsie

How in the name of any god you care to name had I not seen Tootsie in its entirety before?  I’ve seen most of it.  I’ve just never sat down and seen all of it from start to finish.  It’s a comedy classic with a lead performance from Dustin Hofffman, that rare acting talent who seems as comfortable in comedy as he does in drama without overdoing it for one or the other.

Well, I’ve fixed that omission now.

The thing about Tootsie that jumps out to me the most is that, even with other crossdressing comedies out there including one much higher up the AFI list, Tootsie doesn’t play for the broad laughs of, say, Mrs. Doubtfire or a Madea movie.  True, many of the gags have to do with Hoffman dressed as a woman and somehow passing for one, but considering he does so for the most part without any sort of prosthetics, it’s pretty damn impressive.  Hoffman apparently would only play the part if the make-up was good enough that he could realistically pass for a woman, and it certainly is.  Hoffman may not make the most attractive of women, but he does pass for a believable one, and the movie does somewhat acknowledge that he isn’t the most attractive of women all the same.

And yes, there are moments where we see Hoffman shaving his legs, plucking his eyebrows, and worrying over his wardrobe, along with the occasional masculine feat of strength to make sure he can keep the taxi he flagged down, but that’s not where Tootsie is going.  No, Tootsie is about teaching an asshole to be a better person by showing him how the other half of the human race lives.

Now, I do feel the need to take a moment to question how much of an asshole Hoffman’s Michael Dorsey actually is.  He takes on the Dorothy Michaels persona to get some acting work, true, but he doesn’t want to make this a permanent arrangement as he is doing it in part to fund a play for his friend and roommate Jeff (Bill Murray in a role where I wished he got more screentime but he wasn’t as big as he is today back then).  He’s also a fairly supportive friend to Sandy (Teri Garr), helping her run lines and hopefully achieve her own acting ambitions, and then worrying about telling her too much as she seems to have self-esteem issues as it is.  On the one hand, we can’t make our male lead too unlikable and perhaps needs to show he actually does have a decent side to him before he undergoes an unexpected change by the end of the movie, but most of the “difficult” side to Michael seems to be his professional side as a very demanding actor who questions his roles too much, up to and including playing a tomato in a TV commercial’s ability to sit down.  But the point stands: he’s a bit of a jerk.

But then, desperate to prove to someone (perhaps himself) that he is a capable and talented actor, he puts on a dress and auditions for a soap opera that rejected Sandy out of hand, and his own orneriness gets him an audition himself despite also being rejected out of hand without more than a second glance from the soap’s lothario director Ron (a perfectly sleazy Dabney Coleman) .  How does Michael become a better person?  Well, he sees what it’s like being a woman.  He can be a friend to co-star Julie (Jessica Lange, who got an Oscar for this), listening to her problems as a single mother whose current boyfriend, the aforementioned Ron, is cheating on her with another co-star.  Sure, Michael falls for Julie, but Julie is, like many of the characters, played straight.

Michael-as-Dorothy is the center of the film, obviously, as something about her and her character on a daytime soap opera is somehow increasing the show’s ratings.  How do we know Dorothy is the reason ratings have increased?  I have no idea, but they have, and while it is a logical fallacy to assume Dorothy’s casting is the sole reason, well, let’s let it slide.  As it is, Michael has to learn to deal with lecherous co-stars and directors, making a script change in an improvised moment when he doesn’t want to kiss the man his female co-stars refer to as “Dr. Tongue” (George Gaynes).  Yes, he gets that kiss anyway, but that doesn’t stop him from trying, and then later he has to fend off the self-same wannabe has-been from what Michael describes as a near-rape.  On the other hand, there are much purer, romantic advances coming from Julie’s farmer father Les (Charles Dunning) as well as general demands to be heard.  Perhaps the biggest moment of Michael’s change of heart comes when he hears Ron speak of Julie using the exact same words Michael used when discussing Sandy to Jeff after the two started a sexual relationship just before Michael started to sort of romance Julie.

I don’t want to give the impression this movie isn’t funny.  It is.  It’s hilarious, and much of the humor does derive from Dorothy being mistaken for a woman and the occasional bit of physical comedy involved with maintaining the illusion.  Is it coincidental that a young Geena Davis in her film debut spends much of the film in her underwear since she and Dorothy apparently share a dressing room?  Not in the slightest.

Director Sydney Pollack (who also played Michael’s agent) put together a fine film reflecting a post-feminist movement story about changing a gender identity that, quite frankly, doesn’t really get made any more and hadn’t really been made up to that point.  Though I am generally against remakes, there is a part of me that wonders what could be made of a story like this in the #MeToo era.  Michael may sum up his experience as being a better man as a woman to Julie than he ever was as to any woman as a man, but there is a part of me that both hails the film for getting so much right while wondering what a 2018 version of this story would be like.

Oh, and I just want to add…I really do not get this movie’s title.  No one that I recall refers to Hoffman by the name of “Tootsie” at any point.  Sure, there’s an 80s light rock song that uses the name quite a bit, but that title doesn’t make much sense to me unless it’s based off some old 80s slang I don’t remember.

NEXT UP:  We had to get to Alfred Hitchcock on this list sooner or later as well.  We’ll be seeing his work for the first time with the 1958 psychological thriller Vertigo.


Defender of the faith, contributing writer, debonair man-about-town.

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