I loved Tootsie the first time around, and I want to say “it holds up,” but really it does much better. There was far more for me to enjoy seeing it in 2012 than I ever could have understood at the age of eight, when it first came out, thirty years ago, in the summer of 1982. (Didn’t hurt that I just saw it at the magnificent Orpheum Theatre as part of the LA Conservancy’s Last Remaining Seats series.)
As much as it lodges in the mind as a canonical 80’s comedy, next to Splash and coming up on Ghostbusters and Working Girl, Tootsie retains a lot of the grit and texture of 1970’s film drama. Director Sydney Pollack shoots the New York of hustling hand-to-mouth actors with the same eye he used for Three Days of the Condor (indeed, with the same director of photography, Owen Roizman). He creates a lived-in city of shared, under-furnished apartments and messy streets, and he populates it with working people–men and women who labor at their art and business.
Dustin Hoffman’s Michael Dorsey, a passionate craftsman of acting with a reputation as a prima donna, is the artist as a not-quite-anymore-so-young man. His decision to turn himself into Dorothy Michaels–to shed the identity that dogs him and try out for a female part that his friend, student and ill-advised lover couldn’t get (Teri Garr) allows Hoffman to showboat grandly, but the showboating is grounded in what Pollack has established, believably, about Dorsey’s character–he’s both a workhorse and a talent. In character as hospital administrator Emily Kimberly, Michael-as-Dorothy improvises fierce, feminist lashings to reroute the soapy scripts she’s been given. But before Dorothy shows up to work, we get to see Michael’s laborious self-creation: the makeup, the padding, the curlers, the outfits.
Tootsie‘s feminism is problematic, but sly as well. There’s an element of “mansplaining” in the film — Dorothy is hailed as a hero to women, and there’s a clear analogue to the white savior in the suggestion that all that feminism needed was someone who deep down wasn’t a woman to get the ball rolling. Dabney Coleman’s philandering soap director, and the near-rapist elderly star played by George Gaynes, are easy targets as broad phallocrats. But as Michael recognizes his own character in their actions, the story deepens. “I was a better man with you, as a woman… than I ever was with a woman, as a man,” says Michael to his co-star Julie, delivering the line with tongue-tied inelegance to hide the simple poetry.
More interesting than the film’s attempted feminism is its attempted patriotism. Dorothy does a magazine cover in front of an American flag; her rise to fame is accompanied by a red-white-and-blue Amtrak train hurtling into the pastoral hinterlands, where Julie’s father Les owns a sun-kissed farm decorated with extremely wholesome-looking wood furniture. There’s an insistence that Dorothy’s feminism, pushy and individualistic, is the right fit for America, whose women and men alike have been left adrift by sexual revolt. She’s not just popular; she’s a populist symbol.
A personal coda: in my experience with drag, it is powerful magic. My drag persona, adopted for a community pageant in 2002, chose me more than I chose her, and she frightened my first wife.There’s something that feels very honest and familiar about the distance Dorothy takes Michael out to sea.
What did you see, and where did it take you?