Cross-dressing characters are nothing new to cinema. Men dressing up as women, women dressing up as men, usually to achieve some sort of personal gain, like money or the chance to win back a family. It’s been happening as early as the ’50s, with the abysmal Glen Or Glenda and the classic, Some Like It Hot. Here, in Tootsie, Dustin Hoffman’s character is a talented but obnoxious actor who needs money — and a job — so in desperation, he transforms into a woman (not literally) to audition for a part, and I dare say, he makes quite a believable one.
He plays Michael Dorsey, who we see, during the opening credits, training a troupe of actors. He is a perfectionist, an actor who knows what he wants out of a role even before the director does. It’s no surprise then that he bombs every audition he goes for. His agent — played by Sydney Pollack, the movie’s director — tells him that no one in New York or even Hollywood wants to hire him. So, to prove him wrong, Michael adopts a new persona: Dorothy. And astonishingly, it works. He gets the part of a hospital administrator on the popular soap opera, “Southwest General”.
The magic of Hoffman’s performance doesn’t lie in Michael Dorsey, but in Dorothy. He is so good in this role that Dorothy takes on a life of her own, as she should. If you think back to Some Like It Hot (a movie that I think Tootsie owes a lot to), you’ll remember Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis being hysterically funny. But did they make good looking women? No. They were quite ugly as women actually, and not for a second did I believe that no one else in the movie suspected them of being men. While Hoffman doesn’t make a good looking woman either, he comes close to being an acceptable one. He creates the slightest possibility that yes, maybe he can indeed fool everyone. He is so convincing that the man, Hoffman, is completely lost inside this new feminine body. Even his face has changed. His mannerisms are so intricate and so natural that I’d have to agree with his roommate Jeff (Bill Murray), when he asks: “It is just for the money, isn’t it? It’s not just so you can wear these little outfits?”.
At first, Michael is overjoyed that he finally has a job and stable income. But as the roots of his lie dig deeper and deeper into arid soil, he realizes that he must escape this nightmare he’s created, even if he doesn’t know how to. His life becomes a train wreck of misdirection, dirty old men, lesbians, and an almost homosexual engagement. It’s all great fun.
I’ll attempt to give you an idea of the mayhem: He has a close friend of six years, Sandy (Teri Garr), whom he sleeps with because she catches him in his underwear in her bedroom (when all he was really trying to do was try on her dress). This taints their friendship, and Michael, as Dorothy, compounds the problem by falling for one of his co-stars, Julie (Jessica Lange). Julie, however, is with “Southwest General”s director, Ron (Dabney Coleman), who isn’t faithful to her. Her father, Les (Charles Durning), falls in love with Dorothy and wants to marry her. But Dorothy has to fight off the advances of another man, “Southwest General” veteran, John Van Horn (George Gaynes). After babysitting Julie’s daughter, Dorothy makes the mistake of trying to kiss Julie, which leads Julie to think that Dorothy is a lesbian, and that ruins their friendship. Sandy, meanwhile, suspects Michael of cheating on her with Dorothy, which of course, is impossible. All these conflicts bring Michael up to a boiling point, and inevitably, he erupts.
What surprises me about this movie is that Pollack manages to contain all this hysteria. He never lets its ridiculousness get out of control. On the surface, Tootsie is as calm and collected as a monk, but simmering underneath is a tangled web of interconnected subplots that threaten to burst at the seams. What Pollack makes us believe is that the story Tootsie has to tell is a simple one: Actor needs work. Actor dresses up as woman to get work. Actor — now actress — gets work, and discovers the flaws of his lie. But this simple story has a lot more heart than that, and it’s through this flaw that Michael sees the error of his ways.
Something still bugs me, though: Are people really that blind, to not see a man dressed as a woman even when he’s standing less than a metre away from their faces?
Best Moment | Michael seeking advice from his agent at two o’clock in the morning. The confusion and comedy in the air is great.
Worst Moment | Nope.