TOOTSIE (1982)

  • Director: Sydney Pollack
  • Writers: Screenplay by Larry Gelbart and Murray Schisgal, Story by Don McGuire and Larry Gelbart
  • Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Jessica Lange, Teri Garr, Dabney Coleman, Bill Murray, Doris Belack, Charles Durning, Sydney Pollack, George Gaynes, and Geena Davis
  • Accolades: 2007 AFI Top 100 list (#69), 1 Oscar (Best Supporting Actress – Jessica Lange), 9 additional Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Director – Sydney Pollack, Best Actor – Dustin Hoffman, Best Supporting Actress – Teri Garr, Best Original Screenplay, Best Original Song – “It Might Be You,” Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Sound)
  • Where to Watch: Stream (with subscription) on Starz app, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

It is hardly uncommon for the gender politics of old movies not to age well, but there’s something extra about Tootsie that rubs me the wrong way. I have said before that I don’t actually find cross-dressing inherently funny. Movies have for years made lots and lots of money on the basis that it is somehow funny, even Shakespeare thought it was funny. I have never understood it. I think what really bothers me about Tootsie is that it seems to think its found some deeper meaning somewhere. Dustin Hoffman talked in interviews about how he “didn’t consider it a comedy,” and that working on the movie helped him realize that he wouldn’t have talked to the woman he was playing at a party, because she wasn’t beautiful, and how he’d missed out on many stimulating conversations. Shockingly, it turns out women have value beyond their looks.

Hoffman plays a Broadway actor, Michael, who it turns out is such a jerk perfectionist that no one wants to work with him. Unable to find work, and wanting to finance the play his roommate (very randomly, Bill Murray) has written, he hears about an audition for a female part on a soap opera from his acting student Sandy (Teri Garr). In desperation, he uses his stage makeup skills to disguise himself as Dorothy and gets the part. The “feminist” character is a major hit, which leaves Michael in over his head. Matters are complicated by his semi-accidental romance with Garr’s character, while he simultaneously falls for his co-star Julie (Jessica Lange) and fends off the advances of Julie’s father (Charles Durning). Even if you haven’t seen the movie, you can probably imagine many of the scenes. There’s the one where Julie undresses in front of Dorothy, thinking she’s a woman. There’s the part where Michael can’t quite hide how he feels about Jessica, leading her to gently but firmly announce she’s not a lesbian. And, of course, there’s the part where Dorothy tells off the sexist producer (Dabney Coleman) after he slaps her on the ass, which it seems like none of the actual women thought of before.

Therein, really, lies the basic issue I have with Tootsie. It purports to have this sort of feminist message, but it has to have a man to deliver it. It’s sort of the gender version of the classic “White Savior” narrative. In any of these movies or TV shows where someone’s in disguise, we have to suspend disbelief to some degree as an audience. On a basic level, you have to just go with the fact that Lois Lane doesn’t realize Clark Kent and Superman are the same guy. I have trouble in this movie making that leap, with Dustin Hoffman doing his dumb falsetto voice. It makes all of the other ladies in the movie, in particular, come as complete idiots for not realizing what’s going on.

It seems somewhat bizarre today to think about just how massive a hit Tootsie was at the time. It was a crossover, four-quadrant success, as they say these days. It passed Close Encounters of the Third Kind to become the highest-grossing Columbia Pictures movie at the domestic box office of all time, and received ten Oscar nominations. It is one of those movies where even minor parts are full of great actors, like Lynne Thigpen showing up as a random PA, or Geena Davis appearing as another of the actresses on the soap opera. This was Davis’ first movie role, she would soon be a much bigger star. The only one of those Oscars that the movie actually won was for Jessica Lange for Best Supporting Actress. She starts the movie in a not-great relationship with Coleman’s character, which Michael inserts himself into the middle of. In 1982 she was all of a sudden one of the biggest stars in the world, receiving two Oscar nominations for different performances. Her more grounded, glamorous performance in Tootsie was at a different end of her range from her histrionics in Frances, as the real-life actress Frances Farmer who ended up committed to an insane asylum. And of course, this movie randomly has Bill Murray in a bunch of scenes and he is always great.

Honestly this has been one of the hardest write-ups I’ve done for this site, because I really haven’t been sure what to write. A while back I wrote a mostly-negative essay on Some Like It Hot, another bizarrely popular cross-dressing comedy. At least my main problem with that movie is that I didn’t think it was funny. What really grinds my gears about Tootsie is that it takes the basic lameness of that premise and dresses it up with the cross-dressing man coming to save all the women from themselves, while also learning that women are (gasp) actually humans themselves. All while also not really being funny.

3 thoughts on “TOOTSIE (1982)

  1. I remember the exact time and place I first saw this film. It was in Provo, Utah and I had recently graduated high school (Go Class of 1981! 40 years! Woo hoo!) and was off on my own far from my home for the first time and terribly lonely. I went to see this by myself in the theater and loved it. At the time, we didn’t think about things like gender politics or cultural appropriation. Yes, those things existed at the time, but we hadn’t yet evolved enough yet to recognize it. The most important thing at the time, for us who were there, was the film was freaking entertaining! Like I said, I was in a time of transition, a fish out of water, a bleeding heart liberal suddenly thrust into a sea of religious conservatism and having to deal with culture shock on a grand scale. Yes, Utah is America, but I might as well have gone to another country, because even the language was different in that folks there could have long conversations about stuff I knew nothing about and it could be weeks before I saw a person of color on the street, much less in the classroom.

    So, for me, an afternoon spent escaping reality watching Tootsie was very important, which is probably why I haven’t forgotten it 40 years later. Your review does go into some very important points and certainly made me think, but it didn’t consider that one simple point…it was fun (not to mention Geena Davis in her underwear!). Just like Blazing Saddles. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so hard at a film, but to watch it today makes me squirm. Just like Sixteen Candles where even Molly Ringwald said it crossed boundaries regarding sexual consent that it shouldn’t have. Thankfully, we’ve grown up and can recognize our own shortcomings of the past.

    Thanks for the review!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I rewatched this movie last fall for the first time since the 1980s. I remember loving it as a kid, one of the first “grown up” movies I saw in the cinema and then repeatedly on cable tv. Like you I don’t think the movie holds up, and I wonder why it seemed so funny back in the day. Dustin Hoffman’s character is also so unlikable I don’t know how he came off as the hero of the film. I definitely detected the “savior” narrative that you noted and it just annoyed me because surely women were saying and doing the things that Hoffman’s character does, but not getting the recognition. It ends up being kind of a backhanded compliment to elevating women by saying you need a man in disguise to stand up for you. I still love Jessica Lange and Bill Murray, though.

    Liked by 1 person

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