“I was a better man with you, as a woman, than I ever was with a woman, as a man.”
I must have some sort of fascination for Dustin Hoffman. Just short of Rain Man (a film I’ve seen and enjoyed several times) and Midnight Cowboy (which I’ve yet to see), I believe I watched all of his movies which I ever plan to review over the last year alone. I’ll admit that I’ve always been drawn to his acting, a nuanced style which I’ve always found humorous and convincing. For obvious reasons, Tootsie is often hailed as his greatest performance. While I’m not sure that I agree, it’s definitely one of the finest films he’s ever been a part of (though, again, not the finest). Hilarious, heartbreaking, and a lot more insightful than you’d first expect, Tootsie is an American classic years ahead of its time for a wide spectrum of reasons.
It starts with a fairly standard premise that ends up reaping a great deal of payoff. Michael Dorsey (Hoffman) is a talented New York actor, popular among his friends and known for his skill as a performer. Nobody will hire him, however, for his perfectionist attitude that makes him hard to work with. He decides to dress as a woman, “Dorothy Michaels,” and audition for a trashy but popular hospital soap opera. He ends up cultivating feelings for his co-star Julie (Jessica Lange) while drawing the affection of Julie’s father Les (Charles Durning). Michael also becomes a role model for women across the country due to his feisty, often off-script portrayal in the soap in which he rejects the misogyny that he finally comes to understand due to his time as Dorothy.
Anyone who’s seen Mrs. Doubtfire may come into Tootsie with certain expectations, perhaps somewhat skeptical of the film as I was. These fears are quickly extinguished, however, by a masterful screenplay and a razor sharp direction by the creative team. Sydney Pollack is at the top of his game, guiding the film’s humor not through low-brow gags or misogyny but through an intelligent approach to character. Michael Dorsey doesn’t just get frustrated with makeup and high heels (he comes to enjoy them), but he becomes keenly aware of societal issues surrounding gender. We rejoice as “Dorothy” confronts sexist directors and builds herself as a female icon not because it’s a man in a dress but because we’ve learned something, and the humor stems from this insight. The film also pokes fun at the Hollywood industry and the vanity that surrounds it, rounding out a satirical screenplay which that allows you time both to laugh and to think.
You may also be surprised by the impressive collection of names that appear throughout the film. I could never seem to accept that Bill Murray was in the movie, popping up unannounced as Hoffman’s roommate Jeff Slater and enhancing every frame in which he appears due to his trademark dry comedy. Jessica Lange and Teri Garr bring dynamic performances as Michael’s love interests, and they each allow themselves bold moments of independence and dignity which serve both a comedic and thematic purpose as Michael comes to understand the world from a woman’s perspective. Other standouts include Charles Durning, Sydney Pollack, and George Gaynes, who serve smaller but crucial roles for building the world of the film.
Tootsie is a movie of the highest quality, one in which the pieces fit perfectly to check every box you could desire in a movie like this one. The premise seems simple, and it is, but the story delivers on its promises and hits some central insights of the human experience that escalate it to greatness. Definitely give it a chance if you’ve been on the fence.
Films Left to Watch: 890