Movie of the Week 4/21/14: Tootsie


I feel confident in saying that Tootsie is one of my favorite movies that Shiran has shown as part of our tradition. It’s an example of a movie that really lives up to the hype that’s built up around it. The fact that it happens to be another iconic Dustin Hoffman movie is just a wacky but understandable coincidence. However, unlike The Graduate’s bittersweet melancholy, Tootsie is the sort of laugh-out-loud movie that I never particularly associate with Hoffman… or director Sydney Pollack for that matter, which makes me appreciate it even more.

Above all, Tootsie is built on Hoffman’s great work, but what really sticks the landing is the terrific supporting cast. They walk a very tricky highwire act here, trying to bring a naturalistic tone to a very ridiculous-sounding high concept (think of it this way: if they remade Tootsie today, it would star Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore, and most of the humor would boil down to “HAHAHA, dudes wearing dresses! HAHAHA!”… and there’d be at least one obnoxious fart joke). Perhaps the best example of this- outside Hoffman himself- is Teri Garr, playing a woman who is anxious and put-upon in a very grounded fashion but also brings some A-grade histrionics into play when she needs to. It doesn’t hurt to have Bill Murray’s brilliant deadpan in the mix either, and it’s also a great reminder of Sydney Pollack’s talent (along with the cadre of screenwriters), to be able to deliver a story like this in a way that’s actually believable.

Tootsie also great deal of thematic depth as well, in addressing the evolving nature of professional women and how they are treated by the men around them. While they never directly address it, Michael Dorsey himself is shown to be something of a pickup-artist-type, swooping around his birthday party and chatting up every woman he sees, before starting a relationship with Sandy on a whim. But once he takes on the guise of Dorothy, he begins to develop empathy for the women around him as he gets into character, and that helps him down the road to being a more open person in general. When you combine that with the discussion on the sitcom-within-the-movie about whether or not a woman’s assertiveness makes them seem manly and unattractive, and it’s possible that the film argues that people should be in touch with both their masculine and feminine sides in order to be their most complete selves.

What almost threw me off about the story though was that Michael’s character arc is subtle enough that it almost seems disingenuous. The movie starts with him being established as an actor who’s egotistical and difficult to work with, and the ending shows him becoming a more sympathetic human being. My initial thought was that those start and end points don’t seem to have much to do with each other. But what’s really going on here is a gradual shifting from the dramatic purpose to the poetic. Because while Michael’s most outward issue is that he’s difficult to work with, the deeper, unspoken problem is that he’s too full of himself, professionally and personally. So while his work on the soap opera just serves to illustrate his superior instincts as an actor, his time masquerading as a woman begins to make him more empathetic (as described above) and less convinced of his own superiority as a person. It’s very understated work, and a great example of why Tootsie is one of the go-to movies for screenwriting examples.

With all of that having been said, here are Shiran’s thoughts about this classic movie:

I’m so happy Brendan liked Tootsie, because I think it’s nearly a perfect movie. I’m always left stunned, if almost a little frustrated, that one of the most complexly feminist films is written, directed, and lead by men. But what’s unique about the movie, even within the crossdressing comedy genre, is that Dorothy Michaels seems to become a character all her own, almost apart from Michael himself. At a certain point, I start rooting separately for Michael to be let out of his contract and for Dorothy to continue with her career. I think what makes Dorothy such a special and empowering figure is that she has Michael’s confidence and conviction without having the beautiful looks society teaches women they need to have to be confident at all. The movie comments, both overtly and subtly, about the different categories we put women in. Powerful women are masculine and ugly. Beautiful women are pushovers or slutty. But while Dorothy isn’t beautiful in any traditional sense, she strikes a chord with a large (mostly female) audience, precisely because it’s so rare to see a woman who looks like that play a confident and powerful role. I love watching Michael learn to navigate the world as a woman, having to fend off unwanted advances with clueless men, demanding to be referred to by his name, and apologizing to egotistical men who want things done their way. Also, I just want to quickly mention Jessica Lange’s performance, because it’s just so perfect and organic that it’s easy to overlook. She makes Julie such an open and warm character that it feels natural that she’d embrace Dorothy as a close friend so instantly. Tootsie has so much going for it — the dialogue, the comedy, the cast, even the music — but by the time Julie talks to Dorothy about their relationship I’m always left feeling like Lange is the MVP. In a movie that’s at least partially about seeing women as human beings, Julie feels the most fully realized as a living, complex, empathetic human being.

We’ll be back soon with my next choice…. and I have absolutely no clue what it’ll be! To be continued…

One Comment on “Movie of the Week 4/21/14: Tootsie”

  1. shiran says:

    I love what you said about the movie arguing the importance of being in touch with both your masculine and feminine sides to be a complete human being, and Michael’s journey into empathy by literally pretending to be a woman. I remember in Dustin Hoffman’s Inside the Actor’s Studio episode, he talked about getting depressed when he saw himself as Dorothy, both because he felt ugly as a woman and a jerk as a man, knowing that he would completely ignore someone who looked like that. It was a really insightful look into the theme of the move, especially when you consider that actors like Michael (and Dustin in real life) are meant to exercise that superior level of empathy with every character. So it’s only when both of them step literally into this female character that they start to have true compassion for the real women in their lives. I’m sad I can’t find a clip of that interview, but I did find this instead:

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