Dustin Hoffman as Dorothy Michaels is an unforgettable role. Apart from the thoroughly convincing make-up and his considered posture that makes us believe in Dorothy, Hoffman also tackles gender issues that still resonate today. Tootsie is much more than a comedy (such as Mrs Doubtfire) and the gender-bending becomes a key ingredient to the themes explored, unlike Some Like it Hot. That’s not to say Billy Wilder’s established classic is inferior, rather that Tootsie expertly manages to weave in powerful points on masculinity in addition to the light-hearted tone of the movie.
Michael Dorsey (Hoffman) is a struggling actor. He’s in his thirties and makes his money as a waiter in a restaurant, teaching younger actors in New York and desperately auditioning for parts. He’ll take anything, whether it’s adverts, soaps or Shakespeare productions. His roommate Jeff (Bill Murray) is struggling too, but finds passion in pretentious play-writing. After his agent (Director Sydney Pollack) reveals how despised Michael is on the New York scene, Dorsey decides to cross-dress and audition for a part on a soap. To everyone’s surprise, he nabs the role of Emily Kimberly, and has to contend with the misogyny on set, falling in love with a co-star and tackling the interest of the many men that look her way. He adapts his role and creates a powerful, ballsy woman in Emily, inspiring soap-watchers across America. But his deception will inevitably be revealed.Tootsie was nominated for ten Oscars and became the second highest-grossing film of 1982 (after E.T.). Roger Ebert, garnering Tootsie with four-stars, says of its many wonderful qualities, is the ability to mix “social comment with farce”, as movies in the 1940’s had before. It is clear that the bold statements it hinted at, in combination with the expert casting of Dustin Hoffman in the lead role, is the winning formula. The soundtrack has dated but the themes remain relevant. Michael’s career as an actor is the perfect looking-glass to observe these issues through. Are men, with their sports-obsessions and leering gaze, acting the assigned role of Man? Michael-as-Dorothy-as-Emily is sensitive and caring, unlike his male counterpart who is so demanding and pushy that directors refuse to work with him. Matthew Hammett Knott (for Indiewire) celebrates the film as “a shining example of how feminist discourse can ease into the cinematic mainstream”, but Tootsie could be more challenging if Michael observed how opinionated women are rarely celebrated and, if unattractive, they would cease to get as much male attention.
But, with three-quarters of the writing team men, Tootsie’s life lessons challenge male perspectives. The idea that a man, as a woman, is the one to teach women how to improve reeks of condescension. Concluding with Michael returning to his male self, he says “I was a better man with you as a woman than I ever was with a woman as a man”. Tootsie highlights flaws with gender identity but chooses to resolve the story with what is applicable to Michael Dorsey exclusively. This is a character decision but he has learned enough to be a different type of man. He’s told, “You’re a breakthrough woman”, but of course, he’s male. Perhaps what is breaking through is how his perspective has changed, as a man. He understands that referring to women as ‘honey’ of ‘toots’ isn’t acceptable. He understands that what needs to change is men.
In any case, rather than definitively answering questions, Tootsie raises them and leaves the answer to you to think about. An ambitious film, Tootsie remains an impressive feat, expertly balancing thoughtful sentiment with a fun story you can’t miss.
Tootsie is available on Blu-ray as part of The Criterion Collection now.