1 Year, 100 Movies #69 Tootsie (1982)

by Trey Hock on October 10, 2010

in 1 Year, 100 Movies,Columns

For 1 Year, 100 Movies, contributor/filmmaker Trey Hock is watching all of AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list (compiled in 2007) in one year. His reactions to each film are recorded here twice a week until the year (and list) is up!

Almost thirty years out, “Tootsie” looks a little weird. Sure Dustin Hoffman as a woman looks weird most days, but I’m not sure that “Tootsie” should make AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies.

Whenever a film or comedy sketch needs a laugh, you can always throw a dude in a dress. From Shakespeare to Milton Berle, “Some Like It Hot” to “Mrs. Doubtfire,” this comedic gender bending has a long and storied past. But “Tootsie” is trying to push this in a slightly different direction, and for different goals.

Dustin Hoffman, who plays Michael Dorsey/Dorothy Michaels, said that he wanted a role, which would allow him to explore what is means to be a man. As long as you focus on the story of an early middle-aged struggling actor, who becomes a better man, by becoming a woman, well then “Tootsie” still works. As you expand beyond that story to the social implications then “Tootsie” becomes more a historical document of a particular time.

So let’s take a look at the story first. Michael Dorsey is a struggling actor, whose passion for acting makes him difficult to work with. In this scene his agent, George Fields (Sidney Pollack), gives him some bad news. (Sound starts at 9 seconds.)

In order to prove Fields wrong and to raise money for a play he’s trying to produce, Dorsey creates a female persona, Dorothy Michaels, and auditions for the part of Emily Kimberly, a small role on a daytime soap.

I am never fully convinced by Hoffman’s Dorothy. His look and movements are okay, but the voice is sometimes distracting. I can never quite tell whether the accent helps to cover the squeaky wavering tone, or makes it worse. Still Hoffman’s portrayal of Dorothy is believable enough to carry the story, and it’s impressive to watch an actor play two distinct roles in one film, especially when one role comments on the other.

The trials of being a woman start to weigh on Michael very early on, and he discusses his early glimpses into being a woman with his roommate, Jeff Slater (Bill Murray).

One of the aspects of “Tootsie” that is undeniably great is the fantastic supporting cast. Here we see Bill Murray offering up his understated comedic asides that would come to define his roles throughout the ’80s. Terri Garr, who plays Sandy Lester, is also fantastic as an insecure actress and scorned lover.

Once Michael, as Dorothy, lands the role, “Tootsie” moves into the realm of farce. Michael must always maintain the sense that he is a woman to his employer and the other actors. This of course leads to some awkward and funny situations. One such situation comes when actress Julie Nichols (Jessica Lange) invites Dorothy to spend a weekend away with her at her father’s farm in up state New York. This montage will give a solid glimpse into this strained and awkward weekend getaway. Oh and as far as music driven montages go, if you’ve never seen this one before, I’ll just say you’re welcome now.

This montage illustrates that “Tootsie” is really showing its age. If I were going to tell you how to construct a sentimental film moment from 1982, I couldn’t do much better than just describing this scene.

As with all farcical comedies, “Tootsie” races to a collision. A fellow actor has fallen for Dorothy, as well as Julie’s father. Michael is in love with Julie, and is trying to escape his accidental relationship with Sandy. All the while, Michael is keen to escape the role of Dorothy, so he can return to being Michael. This leads us to a scene on the soap, which is filmed live, where Michael makes a bold, improvised decision.

It is charming that Michael has come to respect the fact that this fictional woman, Dorothy Michaels, has given him perspective on who he is as a man, but “Tootsie” isn’t just the story of a personal journey of a man struggling with his identity. It is a comedy that strives to a small extent to make a social statement.

As Julie states in a conversation with Dorothy, being a woman in the 80s would have been confusing. She is a single career mother, who has a drinking problem, is involved romantically with her boss, and is developing feelings for a friend she thinks is a woman, but there is a somewhat distasteful aspect to any argument for women’s issues that must be helmed by a man.

Michael becomes a woman and then that fake woman becomes a champion for strong women. Should we then come to the conclusion that hiding within any strong woman there’s actually a man?

It has the air of Tyra Banks dressing up like a fat person, so we’ll understand the struggles of fat people. Michael is not a woman, and when he goes home after a day of being harassed or demeaned, he can take off his woman suit. Unlike most women, Michael can chose at anytime not to be a woman. This aspect may not affect Michael’s own emotional transition, but it deflates the power of any social statement the movie attempts to make concerning women’s issues of the time.

Still though “Tootsie” fails to make a truly poignant social statement, the story itself is enjoyable and has a charm that comes from the sincerity of its central character and a stellar supporting cast. I don’t think it deserves to be on the AFI list, but I’m sure that the decision makers at AFI wanted to give director Sidney Pollack a shout out, and “Tootsie” is what they went with. Maybe with the next revision, we can get them to switch to “Jeremiah Johnson.”

Up next #68 Unforgiven (1992)

For links to #70 – 79, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #70 A Clockwork Orange (1971)

For links to #80 – 89, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #80 The Apartment (1960)

For links to #90 – 100, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #90 Swing Time

In addition to contributing to Scene-Stealers, Trey makes short films and teaches at the Kansas City Art Institute. Follow him here:

Facebook Twitter Google+ 

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Eric Melin October 10, 2010 at 11:05 pm

You hit the nail on the head here. “Tootsie” does have the best intentions, you are right. It IS trying to make that big, important social statement. And that montage (especially the music) is unforgivable. But it is also a very, very funny film (maybe not “Some Like it Hot” funny, but still). I don’t think it belongs in the Top 100 of all time, but it was very timely when it came out and features so many good performances and is such a genial film that it can sometimes slip by on those qualities alone. I suppose I’d rather see comedies like “Animal House” or “Airplane!” in the Top 100 even thought they have no redeeming social value, because this one is elevated to this level because it had some back then.


2 Joel Mathis October 12, 2010 at 8:04 am

I’d place “Tootsie” squarely in Hollywood’s tradition of making sense of the experiences of others — foreigners, blacks, women — through the eyes of white dudes. “Women are PEOPLE too? Whoa.” It’s the “Dances With Wolves” of feminism, lauded at the time but a bit embarrassing in retrospect; at least it has comedy on its side, which is why it’s re-watchable in the way that Costner’s opus is not.


3 Rosie October 18, 2010 at 1:13 pm

I’m really surprised to see this on the list. “Tootsie” is hilarious, and certainly watchable, but I would say it’s an amazing move. There’s a reference to it in one of my favourite books, “Dress Codes.” The author watches it after traveling to Belgium for her father’s sex change, and she remarks how Tootsie was certainly palatable as a cross dresser, but that there was something comforting when Hoffman restores his… “manhood.”


4 Kimberley January 19, 2011 at 4:50 pm

Surely Tootsie is less about empowering women and more about empowering men. Dorsey is a characters unafraid to be both genders, to put himself in a women shoes. It teaches men that it’s okay to point out sexism to their peers, something they perhaps don’t notice unless they are constrantly in that womans place. Although I will admit the first time I watched it I took it as being distinctly unfeminist and a little insulting.


5 Trey Hock January 19, 2011 at 9:28 pm

Is it telling that the two men who commented dismiss the social statement of the film, while lauding it’s funny, funny story, and the two women come to its defense more whole heartedly?

Rosie, the additional layer of a father’s sex change does make “Tootsie” way more interesting and complicates issues in utterly delicious ways. Still that is “Tootsie” as viewed through another narrative work.

Kimberley, I think the message encouraging men to get in touch with their feminine side is present. It’s just sad that it comes surrounded by capable actresses playing the parts of weak women. I stand by my previous statements that it is disturbing, if not offensive that a man takes the helm on women’s issues. I’m sorry, but let’s see a strong woman in there.


Leave a Comment


Previous post:

Next post: