HE’S TOOTSIE… SHE’S DUSTIN HOFFMAN.
In the late 1990s, I was studying English in college when one of our teachers organized a reading of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest”. Not a full stage rendering, mind you… but we still had to dress up and the whole thing was taped by our teacher. I ended up playing Lady Bracknell, a feisty character that Dame Judi Dench has played subsequently, among others. Suffice it to say that I gave the ripest performance possible. I have never seen that tape, and don’t know where it is now. But I’m very certain that Dustin Hoffman was able to find the nuances of playing a woman in Tootsie that I couldn’t find.
New York City actor Michael Dorsey (Hoffman) makes a living tutoring other actors and frequently goes to auditions… but no one seems willing to hire him. After getting some tough love from his agent (Sydney Pollack), Michael makes a bold move. One of his closest friends, Sandy Lester (Teri Garr), tells him about a new role on the long-running soap “Southwest General” that she read for but failed to land. The character is Emily Kimberly, a hard-nosed woman that Sandy is simply too sweet to play. Michael figures that he has nothing to lose, dresses up as a woman, calls himself Dorothy Michaels and auditions for the part… and gets it.
Suddenly, Dorothy Michaels is a sensation on TV. Michael, on the other hand, is falling in love with his co-star, Julie Nichols (Jessica Lange), who sees him as the best gal pal a girl could hope for.
Message summed up in a line
When Sydney Pollack decided to direct this film, he wasn’t sure of how to do it in a good way, since he didn’t really know how to make a comedy. But he realized the dramatic potential behind the jokes and the obviously absurd situation that Michael Dorsey puts himself in. The message of the entire film is beautifully summed up in a line uttered by Michael near the end: “I was a better man with you, as a woman… than I ever was with a woman, as a man.” When Michael puts on a dress and wig, he finds a different side of himself that elevates him as a man, or rather human being.
There is a clear feminist message in this film, which is most obviously reflected in the portrayal of life behind the scenes of the daytime soap, a place dominated by the male chauvinism of a legendary director (Dabney Coleman) and a lazy star (George Gaynes) whose main objective is to kiss as many female co-stars as possible. Michael’s arrival as Dorothy makes an impact, at first simply because Michael will do anything to avoid being kissed or get his tush patted by the alpha-males. But he also comes to realize that his objections to them run deeper than that. The choice to take this seriously lifts the movie out of the ordinary, because most films with similar themes made prior to this and after tend to focus more on farcical elements. Those scenes here are not the ones that matter the most, but still very effective. Pollack may not be a comedy veteran, but he’s relying on a script written by people who are.
Lange takes her part as an actress who’s also a single mom very seriously and turns the character into something much more than a plot device. She’s part of one hell of a cast; every actor nails it down to the smallest part, including Charles Durning as Lange’s sweet father who falls for Dorothy.
But Hoffman delivers the greatest performance, both as Michael and Dorothy. He’s intense and passionate, believable to a great degree as a bossy soap matron, but it’s the tenderness that really makes his work here memorable. Unlike my college approach to Lady Bracknell, Hoffman doesn’t turn Dorothy into a joke.
Tootsie 1982-U.S. 116 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Sydney Pollack, Dick Richards. Directed by Sydney Pollack. Screenplay: Larry Gelbart, Murray Schisgal. Music: Dave Grusin. Cast: Dustin Hoffman (Michael Dorsey), Jessica Lange (Julie Nichols), Teri Garr (Sandy Lester), Dabney Coleman, Charles Durning… Sydney Pollack, George Gaynes, Geena Davis, Estelle Getty. Cameo: Bill Murray.
Oscar: Best Supporting Actress (Lange). BAFTA: Best Actor (Hoffman), Make Up Artist. Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture (Comedy/Musical), Actor (Hoffman), Supporting Actress (Lange).
Last word: “I had an epiphany [after watching himself dressed up like a woman], and I went home and started crying. Talking to my wife, I said, ‘I have to make this picture,’ and she said, ‘Why?’ And I said, ‘Because I think I am an interesting woman when I look at myself on screen. And I know that if I met myself at a party, I would never talk to that character because she doesn’t fulfill physically the demands that we’re brought up to think women have to have in order to ask them out.’ She says, ‘What are you saying?’ And I said, ‘There’s too many interesting women I have … not had the experience to know in this life because I have been brainwashed.” (Hoffman, Us Weekly)