Let’s Talk About… ‘Tootsie’ (1982)

Film #61 in FilmExodus’ AFI 100 Movies

Every week FilmExodus does a review/analysis of a different cinematic masterpiece from AFI’s 100 Movies 2007 updated list. For a complete overview and how you can participate, click here.

In my quest to own and watch every 80s film imaginable, I came across Tootsie. “Dustin Hoffman in drag, count me in!” I said ironically, only just know as I write this opening. I was not quite prepared for the sort of film Tootsie turned out to be, mostly because I think I expected Mrs. Doubtfire in the 80s. In some ways, that is not a lie. Tootsie and Mrs. Doubtfire strike similar chords of struggling male actors who find success pretending to be an elderly woman. However, Mrs. Doubtfire is first-and-foremost a comedy, and that is where Tootsie, sticking strictly in the drama genre, manages to pull you in and truly captivate you.

The lead, Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman), starts the film off as an unemployed actor that nobody wants to work with. He doesn’t listen to directions and does the scene the way he wants to; i.e., he’s difficult. There’s a strong vibe coming off of him that he cares about no one but himself. However, after his transformation into Dorothy Michaels you start to see a change. When the shoe is on the other foot, Dorsey begins to realize that acting is just as tough, if not tougher, as a woman.

I think we can all agree that at one point we wish we could have reinvented ourselves or reintroduced ourselves to a certain group of people. I remember that I would always tell myself at the end of the school year, “Next year when I come back, I’m going to have these cool clothes, and this sick haircut, and this new personality.” It never happened. You went back to school in the Fall as the same person. Mostly, you do this because everyone knows who you were before. If anything, they will think this new you is suspiciously out of character.

So when Michael becomes Dorthy, not only is he having a chance to reintroduce himself, but he is able to learn from his previous mistakes. He can no longer get too hotheaded or vain. He actually has to listen to directions. He begins to change, not just in his acting, but how he presents himself to women.

Dorthy Michaels is subject to the same amount of workplace flirting as every other actress. Michael has to think fast and get himself out of more than one compromising situation in Tootsie. Yet, these experiences also help Michael in his pursuit of love. He meets Julie (Jessica Lange) and falls for her. Although, Julie’s father falls for Dorthy, so there is a really weird love triangle going on in this film. I don’t want to spoil all the interactions but damn does it make for some great scenes.

Julie tells Dorthy that she is tired of men hitting on her with cliche lines. She’d much rather have a guy tell her exactly what he wants from her. Later, Michael tries that line out on Julie: “You know, I could lay a big line on you and we could do a lot of role playing, but the simple truth is that I find you very interesting and I’d really like to make love to you.” Julie throws her drink in his face. In there lies the secret. Women don’t want you to say something because you know they want to hear it. Women want you to say something because you mean it.

Michael’s time as a woman changed him. He tells this to Julie as the film comes to a close: “I was a better man with you as a woman than I ever was with a woman as a man.” Dorthy made Michael into a better human being. Someone that understands the other side. Perhaps that is what we are missing today. There is a growing divide between everything that has opposing sides. Politics. Gender. Wages. Instead of finding the common ground and trying to understand where the other side might be coming from, we instead choose to attack and dismiss and grow the divide. Tootsie is an interesting portrayal of gender in the workplace made all the more relevant with the current #MeToo movement in Hollywood. Perhaps, we could all benefit from seeing the other side once in a while.


Facts/Trivia

  • Peter Sellers and Michael Caine were previously offered the role of Michael Dorsey before Dustin Hoffman became involved.
  • The film was nominated for 10 Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Actress. Jessica Lange won for Best Supporting Actress.
  • AFI’s 2007 updated edition of 100 Years… 100 Movies ranks it at #69, down 7 spots from #62 in 1998.
  • Roger Ebert gave it a 4 out of 4 praising the film.
  • It was the second highest grossing film of 1982 after E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.
  • It was Geena Davis’s acting debut.
  • Bill Murray improvised most of his lines.
  • All the ways Dorsey gets fired or quits from a production in the beginning of the film actually happened to Dustin Hoffman.
  • Hoffman based Dorthy Michaels on his mother who was ill and close to death at the time of filming.
  • I honestly can’t decide whether I like Mrs. Doubtfire or Tootsie more.