I have vivid memories of watching trailers for Tootsie as a child. Usually in those Columbia Pictures montages that ran before a film on VHS. That was my limited exposure to this Dustin Hoffman drag show … until now. I’m glad it was. I went into this mostly blind, and I absolutely fucking loved it.
Going into it, I wanted to be able to sink into the film –enjoy it and not read too much into it. But, damn it all to hell, my brain went into overdrive. Thankfully that didn’t ruin it for me. In fact, it enhanced the experience.
Off the bat I thought I knew where it was going, and I wasn’t entirely wrong. It seemed clear that Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman) would see that women were maligned in the work force, and he’d be a better man for it. What I didn’t expect was that he would actively change his behavior halfway through the film, and call himself on his own bullshit. The way he took advantage of Sandy (a sublime Teri Garr) made me cringe when juxtaposed with his hypocrisy.
Thinking back on it now I’m not sure why I was surprised by the plot and its holes becoming self-reflexive. In the end, it was an excellent move, taking a decidedly progressive approach to a subject that wasn’t well represented at the time.
That being said, it’s still problematic – an inescapable fate for films that deal with gender inequality and gender roles.
At first it builds its premise around the notion that it takes a man to show a woman how to live – how to be a woman, fight for her rights, how to work, how to date, how to fuck. How to exist. It seemed that, as Dorothy, Michael could do no wrong – he hit the nail on the head with everything he did, whereas the other women surrounding him flailed aimlessly.
On the other hand, you could argue that men are nothing without a feminine presence in their lives. Michael couldn’t make it as an actor due to his testosterone-fueled pride and stubbornness, which seemed to vanish as soon as he put on ass pads and a dress.
Every man in the film is represented as foolish, stupid, brutish, and fueled by basic animalistic urges. Every woman in the film is represented as flighty, easily manipulated and controlled, sexually willing, and spineless. Neither portrayal is favorable, nor are they fair. Michael appeared to be an attempt to straddle the two worlds – maybe even to unite them. But he fails.
Michael/Dorothy may have one foot in each gendered domain, but he/she never manages to fully blend the two. By virtue of being a man playing a woman you can argue that it’s easier for a man to stand up to other men – even when dressed as a woman. But this argument is problematic because it suggests women aren’t capable of standing up for themselves unless they assume a more masculine, domineering stance when handling a problem, and dealing with other men. But why shouldn’t women assert themselves as forcefully as a man? And why must it be categorized as a distinctly male trait?
You could argue every angle of the film until the cows come home, and you’d never find a solution. Nor would you ever be right. Or wrong, for that matter. It’s such a problematic discourse, likely to be open to debate and discussion until the end of time. I truly believe that.
I also believe it’s one of the most interesting debates you can have, expressly because it can be logically argued from every vantage point and angle. It is an objective issue that, today, is handled so subjectively that it appears boundless.
However, that aside, let’s return to Tootsie.
It frequently feels as though the relationships on the screen don’t properly play with the shifting gender dynamics presented – complex gender issues are toyed with, but ultimately conventional dynamics win out.
Julie (Jessica Lang) and Michael, for instance, seem to wind up together, true to form. After Michael’s ubiquitous heartfelt apology, Julie casts him a coy grin and changes the subject to an unrelated, hollow topic. The man lied to her, pretending to be a woman, and won her trust through manipulation. Don’t get me wrong, I’m rooting for him, but I’d rather see her cast him aside, and take a stance as a true independent than think “oh, well, he seems super sorry.” The character never grows, but rather reverts back to old behavior that left her feeling taken advantage of and unfulfilled.
Given that it’s a fairly light-hearted comedy, that’s unfortunately to be expected. You can’t fully tackle the tough stuff like gender rights if you’re making light of it – unless it’s a stark satire, which this isn’t.
Nonetheless, it’s exceptionally well executed. I haven’t literally LOL’d at a comedy in a very long time. Sure, the odd light chortle now and then, but no hearty guffaws for quite some time now. Tootsie reunited me with my long lost guffaw.
For the most part, the cast is outstanding. Hoffman has excellent timing paired with deadpan, dry execution and wit. Having trained with transvestite actor Holly Woodlawn in preparation for the role, he became an expert in the art of playing a man playing a woman. Taking on a southern accent in order to reach the appropriate register for a woman, his performance had me in stitches, while maintaining a certain emotional vulnerability and honesty.
Teri Garr’s performance is perfection – of all the women in the cast, her comedic timing is by far the best. While maintaining a feminine (though slightly klutzy) grace, she manages to out-do nearly every fellow actor when it comes to physical comedy. Through subtle action, she gives vibrancy and dimension to an otherwise flat character.
Sydney Pollock was his glorious self – ‘nuff said. Sharp and to the point, he’s always a treat to watch.
Jessica Lang was disappointing. Where other characters had distinctive personalities and style, she left me wanting so much more. She was little more than a clear-cut type – demure, obedient, waifish, and stunning, with just a sprinkle of sass so as to appear independent without being off-puttingly confrontational. At least Garr’s pushover Sandy had the balls to rip Michael a new one when he came clean. Lang’s Julie is the type of woman who swears she never shits. They just don’t exist, and I hate seeing them on film. Not because they look like they wake up airbrushed every morning, but because they make light of how wonderfully crazy, quirky, and neurotic women can be.
We’re all human – hopelessly flawed, neurotic, afraid and damaged, and at the same time miraculously complete as individuals … sometimes. Lang’s character suggests a kind of pretty ugly, an effortless brokenness that feels dishonest. I just don’t buy into her, nor do I believe her or care about her in the end.
Lang aside, I loved this film. I love the discussions it prompts and the laughs it elicits. It’s intelligently written, if only slightly flawed, acted to perfection by most of its cast, and it manages a timelessness that explains why it’s still so well regarded today.
This post was originally published on my tumblr on June 11, 2012.