Classic Movie Review: Tootsie (1982)

Release Date: December 17, 1982
Director: Sydney Pollack
Production Company: Mirage Enterprises

I saw Tootsie in the movie theaters at the age of 9 and several more times on cable tv in the ensuing years, and loved it.  I was a strange child. I return to this movie many years later as an adult with a great hesitancy. Having a greater awareness of transgender people and media depictions mock and minimize them, I wasn’t sure of the value of watching a movie built on the idea that a man in a dress is inherently funny.

The movie stars Dustin Hoffman as the talented but cantankerous actor Michael Dorsey, who can’t get any parts because no one wants to work with him.  The movie’s director Sydney Pollack plays Michael’s agent, and their arguments about how difficult an actor Michael is to work with are probably inspired by real-life arguments Pollack had with the notoriously difficult Hoffman.  To prove his talent as an actor, Michael disguises himself as a woman named Dorothy Michaels in order to audition for a role on a soap opera.  Naturally, “Dorothy” gets the part.

It’s interesting that the premise is built on Michael needing a disguise more than him needing to be a woman.  The soap opera character quickly becomes a sensation and Dorothy becomes a star.  In an unsurprising twist, Michael finds himself falling for his co-star Julie Nichols (Jessica Lange) whereas Julie believes herself to be forming a close attachment with another woman. Another comedic wrinkle is that Julie’s widowed father (Charles Durning) falls in love with Dorothy.

As a social message movie, I kind of love and hate Tootsie at the same time.  Dorothy stands up for herself against the casual sexism and abuse on the set of the soap opera, which is good, but a real woman who did the same thing would likely be fired or punished in some way.  Dorothy inspires her co-workers and fans to be more assertive and take chances, which again is good, but why do women need to learn this lesson from a man.  Finally, Michael is depicted as something of a louche with women early on, and his experience as Dorothy gives him a better understanding of women’s experience, and thus he becomes a better man.  But really, one man becoming a little better is all the outcome of the whole charade?

One thing I forgot about this movie is that it has a really excellent cast. I remembered Lange was in the movie, because she was my first celebrity crush.  But the movie also has Teri Garr as an actress friend of Michael’s who he treats really badly.  And it has Bill Murray as Michael’s playwriter friend, delivering deadpan lines. And Dabney Coleman is there playing a “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot” who directs the soap opera. And Geena Davis is there as another of Dorothy’s co-stars, often appearing in her underwear.  And they even got the guy from Police Academy and Punky Brewster (George Gaynes) to play an actor who routinely sexual harasses his female co-stars.

Tootsie is clearly a well-made and well-acted film.  It also definitely from the early 80s and its approach to addressing social issues of sexism and masculinity feel horribly dated. Nevertheless, I can see this being an enjoyable viewing if you see at as a period piece and enjoy the work of all the acting talent.  I would not include this move on a list of 100 best of all time.

Rating: ***