In the 21st Century films about ‘men in dresses’ can seem rather backward and awkward, especially if the vast majority of the humour is about the supposed hilarity or men doing things that are stereotypically ‘women’s’ jobs, and the ‘emasculation’ of putting on a skirt. However, Tootsie is slightly different and in some ways its take on gender roles seems even more relevant now than when it was made.
The film is surprisingly careful not to make the joke that it’s Dustin Hoffman pretending to be a woman, instead ensuring the humour comes from his character’s negotiation of his own assumptions about gender roles. While it is about a guy learning to be a better man by becoming a woman (and therefore the focus is on the male), its viewpoint is very much on the side of women and how society has marginalised them, often without actively thinking about what it’s doing. What he does is essentially to exploit womanhood, but in doing so he learns things about the world around him he’d never realised.
Hoffman plays Michael Dorsey, an actor who’s proven so difficult to work with that absolutely nobody in New York will hire him. In order to try and get a job he creates a female alter-ego, Dorothy Michaels, whose forthright style and dislike of taking crap from men helps get her a job on a daytime soap opera. However, Michael’s ruse goes a little too well, with Dorothy becoming so popular that he may end up having to be her for at least the next year. Dorothy also quickly becomes friends with co-star Julie (Jessica Lange), who he inevitably develops feeling for, even though she sees Dorothy in a more maternal way.
The setup could easily have made the women the butt of the joke, such as laughing at Julie for not realising Dorothy is really Michael and playing her for a fool. However, the movie ensures that it’s Michael who is the problem and is not playing fair here, while allowing his new friends and relationships to illuminate how men and women are treated. Particularly smartly for the early 80s, it also explores the roles women have to fill whether they want to or not, and particularly that to succeed they have to play a game where the rules aren’t set by them, but if they don’t abide by them they’ll be dismissed as a bitch, shrew, airhead, prude or other soubriquet reserved for women who don’t act in ways men think they should.
In the special features, it’s particularly fascinating how careful they were about all this, with the likes of Dustin Hoffman and director Sydney Pollack going to great length to ensure there was a truth behind the movie, without hitting the audience over the head with attempts at profundity. Some have previously said that the ending of the film is a little clumsy and drawn out, but Pollack explains exactly why it needs to be that way, as otherwise the film would have cheated the betrayal of what Michael/Dorothy has done to those around him. While the situation leading up to it becomes increasingly farcical (in a good way), it’s the movie’s fidelity to the characters and treating them all with respect that’s helped set it apart for over three decades.
It’s also great that a film from the early 80s doesn’t just include talk of homosexuality, but again doesn’t make it the butt of the joke or suggest there’s anything wrong with it. In 1982 it was almost unheard of for a mainstream comedy to have a generally positive attitude to anything gay. Tootsie includes such staples as two people of the same sex nearly kissing or sharing a bed (even though one is really a man who’s only pretending to be a woman) in a way that strongly suggests there’s nothing wrong with that in itself, but that it only becomes wrong because of the lie Michael is involved in.
As mentioned, the special features hold some interesting info about the movie, with the documentaries – particularly one from 2007 – showing an unusual insight into the making of a movie, and particularly the relationship between a sometimes difficult actor (which Hoffman admits he could be), and a director who has a real commitment to both his performers and the truth of the story he’s telling. It’s one of the rare cases where a making of documentary really does shed light on why a film is the way it is, as well as how easy it would have been for it to be something very different.
As this is one of the first UK Criterion Collection releases, we also get a wonderful crisp and sharp new HD restoration of the film. It’s certainly been spruced up compared to the rather tired and dodgy looking first DVD edition of the movie that I own, but never feels overly-processed or as if it’s trying to be something it’s not. If you’re a fan of the film, it’s certainly worth owning this new disc.
Overall Verdict: It’s not often that the special features really give you a far fuller appreciation for a film, but this Tootsie Blu-ray manages it, showing just how much thought and effort went into a movie that even 34 years on is one of the smartest and most prescient looks at gender roles and the place of women that Hollywood has ever made.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac