Acting is a tough gig. Just ask Michael Dorsey (Hoffman). He’s too old. He’s too young. He too tall. He’s too short. He’s not anything they’re looking for. But that’s not really the problem. He’s got a reputation. A bad one. He’s a fine actor, sure. Even respected. But boy he’s hard to work with. He’ll walk right out of rehearsal and quit if he crosses with the director. Nobody will hire him. No plays, no TV, no commercials, no dinner theater, no nothing. He’s getting desperate and he’s driving his manager (Pollack) crazy, who tells him he’s done, from New York to Hollywood, he won’t get a job.
So what’s a guy to do? Well, for Michael, there’s only one choice: stop being a guy! On an inspired whim, after noticing a friend of his was not right for the part of a female hospital administrator on a popular TV soap, er, “Daytime Drama,” Michael dolls himself up and tests the water as a woman. Not only is his costume and makeup right on the money, that same blustery personality that left him jobless before now lands him a plum role. Thing is, only two people know he’s in drag: his struggling, eccentric playwright roommate Jeff (Murray) and his exasperated manager. Now take a breath ‘cus it’s gonna get messy: Michael slept with the girl who lost the part, who also thinks the new woman on the show is dreadful and “fat,” but he’s already lost interest because he’s now got the hots for fellow cast member Julie (Lang) who is sleeping with the director (Coleman) who is cheating on her with another girl on the cast. Even more, Julie’s father (Durning) has fallen for Dorothy, the alter ego of Michael, even giving her (him) a ring, which goes to hell when Dorothy, who is Michael dressed as a woman, makes a move on Julie who now thinks Dorothy is a lesbian. Worse, Dorothy becomes a TV superstar, so popular, the show’s lead actor, an impetuous old man known as “the tongue” succumbs to a lustful fever and forces himself upon her (him) in her (his) apartment just as her (his) roommate comes in and catches them. The manager begs him to get therapy, Julie is bound to feel betrayed, Jeff is entirely perplexed, and Michael can’t find a decent hand bag. It’s like a real-life soap.
Directed by the late Sydney Pollack, Tootsie is a safe bet, using a formula that can’t miss. Famous men in women’s clothes is a pretty sure way to put people in theaters, but at least with this movie, there is a great story and an extremely convincing lead actor that, rather surprisingly makes us totally believe Dorothy is real. Immensely satisfying, Tootsie delivers the laughs while sending a still relevant message.
That Moment In: Tootsie
Scene Setup: Michael is on set for his first day of shooting. He hasn’t even been introduced to the entire cast or crew, but he’s got his lines and he’s ready to start. One little snag though, his character is supposed to get kissed on camera, which wouldn’t be such a bad thing, but as it’s the creepy older actor known (among the girls) as “the tongue,” Michael is understandably apprehensive. He makes some minor adjustments . . .
Why it matters: We’ve seen Hoffman as Dorothy a few times before and the idea is settling in. We’re over the shock and initial laughs, now we want to see if it works. Amazingly enough, it does. For the first time, we start seeing “her” as a character, separating Michael from Dorothy. It’s actually a little odd as we forget that there is a man under that wig, and begin to sympathize with the “woman.” That’s pretty remarkable and it made the remainder of the film all the more believable. Any failure to convince an audience that Hoffman could play a woman would have left this movie in obscurity, but they pull it off exceptionally well. What’s more interesting is how Michael dressed as a woman is NOT played as the gag, it’s the situations “she” finds herself in than drive the humor, and that is why it works on such a fundamental level. Too often, movies use cross-dressing as the target where in fact, it is the circumstances surrounding that target that make it work.
More: The list of movies where men dress as women is pretty staggering. Not all of them are memorable, and some for all the wrong reasons, but many are well worth the price of admission. John Travolta in Hairspray, Johnny Depp in Ed Wood, Nathan Lane (and Gene Hackman for that matter) in The Birdcage, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemon in Some like it Hot, and even Arnold Schwarzenegger in Junior are just a few. Where Tootsie stands out is in the sharp dialogue and confidence in the audience to see beyond the gag. Dorothy is a person and we want to know her more. In this scene, Michael makes “her” entrance and establishes right away what kind of woman Dorothy is going to be. And we like it. Let’s watch:
In entertainment, men dressed as women is not new. In ancient Greek theater men would wear “prosterneda” and “progastreda” to simulate the breasts and belly of women, sometimes wearing exaggerated wooden masks with large eyes and lips. In the time of Shakespeare, adolescent men called “boy players” would take female roles. In modern times, male cross dressing has become a staple in film and television, especially comedy. “Drag queens” first gained popularity in the early 1940s. Milton Berle famously played Auntie Milred on I Love Lucy. The men of Monty Python’s Flying Circus regularly donned women’s clothes and time and time again men in sit-coms and movies have put on dresses.
Just what is it about a man dressed as a woman that is so amusing? We have no problems with the reverse. In fact women dressed in men’s clothing is often considered sexy. We just reviewed the movie Splash where Daryl Hannah, playing a mermaid, puts on a suit from her new boyfriend’s closet. Downright sizzling, if you ask us. Just look at Diane Keaton in Annie Hall. Sure they weren’t exactly men’s clothes, but the style was definitely influenced by male attire and not only did she look smokin’ in that shirt and tie, she set a fashion trend that persists to this day. And there’s not a man on the planet that doesn’t think that a girl in a man’s white dress shirt isn’t the sexist thing ever. Julia shows us why.
Dustin Hoffman is not an attractive woman. That’s an empirical fact. Still, there are a few confusing moments while watching Tootsie where certain deeply imbedded, hardwired physiological reactions to specific visual stimuli did alert various erogenous zones to potential excitement. This was met immediately with shrieks of horror, fits of hysteria and cowering in a corner, sucking a thumb. But what does it tell us about the message of the movie? Hoffman has publicly stated his dismay at being unable to be attractive as a female for Tootsie, but thinking Dorothy is an exceptionally interesting person, yet one he would never talk to in real life because she isn’t beautiful. He wonders how many interesting people he never meet because of this visual standard? It’s a good question.
In the movie, Dorothy does attract two men though. They are older, naturally, and they each reflect polar opposites, symbolizing broad stereotypes. Les Nicols (Durning) is Julie’s father, a widowed farmer with a conservative disposition and a kind heart. He is hardworking, value-driven, and has very rigidly defined roles in his mind about the relationship between a man and a women. He is smitten with the equally conservative-appearing Dorothy from the get-go and attempts to court her almost immediately. He’s a gentleman, honest and sincere. He believes his life is incomplete without a wife and sees Dorothy more as a puzzle piece than a woman, fitting perfectly into his big picture. When he proposes, it’s sudden, but expected. Les is the everyman, the “typical” American older male. He wears cardigans, keeps a nice home, knows about the land and nature, drives a pick-up, sings by the piano in the living room, and raised a lovely daughter. He’s a kind man who we, as the audience, would root for if this were a drama and Dorothy wasn’t a struggling male actor in drag. But it’s a comedy (mostly) so he is the setup and pay off to a rather funny running bit.
John Van Horn, on the other hand, is an entirely different sort of man. Coasting along in life on the success of the television show he’s been acting on for twenty years, the man has nearly no scruples and barely does any work. Unable to remember lines, he reads off cue-cards and keeps Bianca mouth spray in his pocket for those impromptu smooches. Women are a conquest, and perhaps distorted by years of fame in his younger days, he feels an entitlement for any woman he desires. The thing with Dorothy is her resistance, something he has never experienced. Who says no to the tongue? It enflames him. Driven by a passion to have what he cannot, he commits the worst sin and forces himself on her. In the film only truly shocking moment, Van Horn refuses to accept Dorothy’s dismal of him, and, once in her apartment, physically attacks her. This is when Jeff comes in and stops what might have been a horrible crime. Or rather a crime gone even more horribly. Van Horn scurries away in abject shame, profusely apologetic, and remorseful. Wisely, the film does not play this for laughs, with Hoffman stripping off the wig to remind audiences who is who again, and flatly stating that he was in big trouble. The movies doesn’t go for heavy, but it’s a jarring moment that shakes the viewer.
Jessica Lang stars as Julie, the soap opera star with a child out of wedlock and a soft spot for wine. She’s made some bad decisions and is entangled with her boss in a relationship that is anything by healthy. Along comes Dorothy and she lovingly fills the motherly role that is missing in Julie’s life. Lang is exceptional here, soft, challenging, sensitive, and so troubled. She plays opposite Hoffman with such ease, it almost feels as if we are eavesdropping on two best friends. Of course we know that the more Julie confesses her secrets to Dorothy, the more Michael falls in love with her. And so do we. Lang plays Julie enigmatic and alluring, but also vulnerable so we want to bring her close and assure her all will be okay. For a man dressed as a woman in love with a girl confessing she wants something she just can’t have, it’s all too much for our hero.
The film is just about perfect, though can’t resist a few bad decisions, such as Dorothy being utterly unable to babysit Julie’s baby, leading to a painfully unnecessary scene that feels entirely forced. Bill Murray is woefully underused, always hysterical as the playwright roommate and should have been allowed to be more than the filler he ultimately is. His ad-libbed dialogue is the stuff of legend and helped tremendously in keeping the insanity of what Michael is doing in perspective. Worse is Sandy, played by the perennially funny Teri Garr. So underwritten and underused, it’s almost uncomfortable to watch as the writers clearly struggled with how to amicably let her go once her part as the hyper-insecure one-night-stand was all dried up.
But these are minor and do little to blemish one of cinema’s greatest works. Hoffman is the real draw here and he absolutely delivers in one of his best performances. Never aiming to be more than a well-produced comedy drama, the movie transcends tropes and shines in large part because Dorothy is a woman we come to respect, love, and cherish. When the ending comes and she is dismantled in front of a national television audience, it feels wrong in some way. We wish she was real. Looking back, we realize that it is from the start where Dorothy made her best impression, and how everything from there stems from those first few minutes when she showed the world just who Dorothy Michaels is going to be. In the closing moments, Julie says, “I miss Dorothy.” Michael replies, “You don’t have to. She’s right here.” That she is.