At one time in my life, I spent a year living in North Hollywood. It was almost like living on a different planet. Even though the northern side of Laurel Canyon and Mulholland Drive is more suburban sprawl, it is indirectly linked with the film industry. Most of the people I worked with had some aspiration of working in Hollywood. Many had written scripts; others had dabbled into acting, while others were more interested in the technical side of things. When we went to lunch, the waiters and waitresses were gorgeous. We didn’t have to guess which ones arrived with the hope of becoming stars.
Most of the people I met didn’t make it in the business. Most won’t. It is a cutthroat industry and there simply aren’t enough jobs out there for the people who want for them. If people had dedicated their lives and failed, I could see them doing something absurd or even unscrupulous as a result of such desperation.
That sort of desperation is where Tootsie comes in. It takes place in New York, which makes it even more complicated. There is a film industry, but there is also Broadway and television work, and ultimately fewer high paying jobs for a full-time actor. In the case of Michael Dorsey, he was brought up as a New York “actor’s actor.” He had undeniable credibility and some ambition, but was suffering because of his inability to make compromises. When the truth hits him, when he hits the bottom of his career, he arrives at the ultimate compromise and both a comical and absurd way of “selling out.” He becomes a woman.
Even though Tootsie is a mainstream comedy with a ridiculous premise, it touches on a number of realities. The fact that actors face such an uphill battle when it comes to career choice is a minor reality. It is more the reality of gender roles and inequality that drives this movie and is the source of the comedy. It also speaks to the reality of the times. It came out on the heels of the women’s liberation movement. Society had progressed by that time and there was more equality in the workplace, but it was (and to a certain degree still is) a man’s world – and that’s not only in the entertainment industry. Tootsie turns the idea of inequality on its head. It is the man that has to change gender roles in order to further his stagnating career. As a woman, he has a sense of security.
Tootsie could not be made today, at least not in the way it was made in the 1980s. In some ways it would be too tame today, since transsexualism is becoming more commonplace. As I write this, a show about a transsexual-themed show just won a Golden Globe award. We also live in a more politically correct world. The idea of someone being objectified is not as prevalent today thanks to countless sexual harassment lawsuits. It probably does happen, but a boss would have a hard time getting away with calling a female employee Tootsie, pinching her bottom, or placing her in a situation where she has to kiss someone against her will. Things are different today. While Tootsie was an effective comedy in the 80s, it is funny today in a nostalgic and dated sense. It is like we are watching an older world being poked and prodded.
In some ways, Tootsie is an anti-feminist movie. Dorsey is a scoundrel of a man, someone who will use the same line on three women at a party, and will use privileged information under the guise of Dorothy to try to get a woman into the sack. He is morally weak, and the fact that he uses womanhood to jumpstart his career is in itself chauvinistic. He is depriving other capable women from the same opportunity, one of which is a friend of his who he casually sleeps with while he longs for another woman.
The character arc of Dorsey makes him become feminist to a certain degree, at least as much as someone from his beginning mindset could in the early 1980s. He realizes that women have challenges and that not everything is a bed of roses. They are objectified, ridiculed, and they are not expected to retaliate. He gives advice to Julie (Jessica Lange) to stand up to her ill-behaved boyfriend (whose actions aren’t dissimilar from Dorsey’s), yet she fails to stand up for herself. Julie doesn’t have a backbone, yet Sandy (Teri Garr) has just as forceful a personality as Dorsey, but she is lied to, cheated on, and treated with complete disrespect.
As a film, Tootsie is decent. The filmmaking is not particularly inspired and they rely a great deal on montages. The soundtrack, most notably the annoyingly catchy “It Might Be You” song is also dated. It is elevated by a brave gender-bending performance from Dustin Hoffman, some terrific improvising from Bill Murray, and a witty script.
Film Rating: 6.5/10
Commentary: This one took place in 1991 with Sidney Pollock for the original laserdisc. This was in the infancy of audio commentaries and it shows, although we learn some new and interesting things about the production.
The script had believability problems from the beginning. They had to establish that Dorsey had the chops to pull off acting as a woman. They spent the beginning of the movie and the first of many montages as exposition to establish his credibility as an actor.
The first shot of Hoffman as Tootsie was a risk because it is a jump in time. They had some logical problems because they did not show expositional shots of the mental and physical process of his deciding to become a woman. He simply appears in costume. Later they would show a montage with him doing the makeup and transitioning from a man to a woman. I think it was more effective the way Pollock shot it. It is a great, abrupt and funny entrance for Dorothy Michaels.
Dustin Hoffman – He was self-critical. He was fighting with Pollock on the set. One thing he wanted was a more farcical scene in the bedroom with Lange, but there were many other fights. He talks about how people generally get casts as character actors unless they are lucky enough to get famous. The Graduate got some reviews that said Dustin was ugly. He says that what defines a good piece of work is it doesn’t date. He feels The Graduate and Tootsie do not date. I agree with the former, but not the latter.
Phil Rosenthal, Everyone Loves Raymond creator – The “guy in a dress” is oldest gag in world, going back to Ancient Greece, but Tootsie works because he sets up the scenario in a modern world that a man would go to that length. Tootsie is a sitcom, believable people in incredible situations. They chose a soap opera because it is believable that an actor can get that role, can get stuck in that role, and can have a live, televised scenario. He says the movie is not a lesson in feminism, but Dorsey becoming a better man.
Dorothy Michaels and Gene Shalit – This was a silly and unused interview from the movie. It invents a theatrical background for Dorothy, who has mixed feelings about being in a soap but has to make some money. “Do you feel that you are Emily?” “I feel that I am Dorothy Michaels playing that part.” She even asks Shalit out.
The Making of Tootsie, 2002 –It shows Pollock & Hoffman fighting about the creative elements, which Dustin alludes to in his interview. They both acknowledge that the fighting was productive. Pollock talks about how stressful the business can be. This was his 13th film and they get harder and create more anxiety.
A Better Man: The Making of Tootsie, 2007 – This is a longer documentary and uses much of the footage from 2002. The idea began with a story of a tennis player that was unranked and then changed into a woman and became ranked. Murray stated the backbone of the movie: “about someone who becomes a better man by imitating a woman.” That premise was what got Pollock to do the movie.
Pollock did not want to act in the film, and he even talks about how difficult it was in the commentary. Dustin really wanted him in the part. He sent Pollock daily roses to convince him to act: “Please be my agent” – signed Dorothy.
Development delays eliminated the rehearsal time and caused some problems on set. This may have benefited the film as there were lots of exchanged ideas on set, some of which created animosity between Pollock and Hoffman, but sometimes they would laugh too.
Lange was not a comedic actress and did not have the capability of playing comedic. According to Garr, Lange simply wasn’t funny. So she played it straight and it worked. Bill Murray saved for last three weeks of shooting because “they wanted something in the can” first. Murray’s behavior was unpredictable, and at point on set he thrashed his room.
Deleted scenes – Like with most deleted scenes, you can understand why they were cut. The best scene here was when Sandy (Garr) intrudes on Hoffman and he plays sick. He uses oven mitts to cover his nail polish and she finds a garter that he cannot explain.
Wardrobe / Makeup tests – These were for Hal Ashby, who was initially going to direct. This test had Hoffman wearing a nurses uniform and speaking in character, but without the voice he would use in the film. There was also silent footage of him walking in costume.
Criterion Rating: 7/10