Tootsie: A smart comedy about acting, romance and sexism in the workplace

Tootsie, Sydney Pollack’s 1982 film about an unemployed actor who finally gets a job when he disguises himself as a woman, was tailor-made for an actor of Dustin Hoffman’s caliber. It’s a role that perfectly suits his personality and is a testament to his versatility. The film is also a smartly written romantic comedy that doesn’t succumb to the usual clichés that plague many of the run-of-the-mill romcoms that come out today.

Hoffman’s character, Michael Dorsey, reminds me of a joke that director William Friedkin once mentioned at a filmmaking academy. He talked about how difficult it was for him to work with actors who had so many questions about the characters they play. He much preferred actors who just listened to his direction and uttered the lines that are in the script instead of asking him way too many questions about the character’s motivation, behavior, style of walking, entry in a scene etc. He gave two examples: Benicio Del Toro and Nick Nolte.

Dorsey is a similar perfectionist actor who becomes a big headache for every director he comes across and gets rejected from every audition he goes to. One could say that this film is a joke that Hoffman — a method actor — makes about himself. Dorsey thinks of himself as an incredibly talented actor who deserves much more and better chances than any other actor working out there. Dorsey’s agent George, played by Pollack himself, tells him that given his reputation, he is never going to get hired by anybody and advises him to get some therapy. Dorsey takes this as a challenge and makes the drastic decision of dressing up as a woman to audition for a part in a soap opera which his friend Sandra (Teri Garr), another struggling actor, failed to get. When Dorsey, going by the name “Dorothy Michaels”, gets the part, his agent is flabbergasted and calls him crazy.

By doing this role — that of a hospital administrator — Dorsey hopes to raise some money which he can use to produce his friend Jeff’s (Bill Murray) play. Dorsey’s new workplace is dominated by a sexist director Ron Carlisle (Dabney Coleman) who is intimidatingly taught a lesson or two in sexual equality by “Dorothy”. This is applauded by the female members of the crew and cast, especially the female lead Julie Nichols (Jessica Lange), who plays a nurse. Dorsey eventually falls in love with Julie — who is smart and extremely adorable — but his “Dorothy” persona and his relationship with Sandra — a drama queen who is prone to excessive self-pitying — have greatly complicated things. Moreover, Julie’s father has taken a liking to “Dorothy”. Dorsey now has his hands full. With characters and situations like these, the film is essentially a 2-hour sitcom with some memorably hilarious exchanges between all of them.

Amidst all these jokes are some pertinent statements about sexism, sexual harassment, and gender equality. In one scene, a middle-aged actor tries to rape “Dorothy” and when Jeff makes a joke about this later, Dorsey tells him that rape is no laughing matter. What’s so interesting about this film is that it makes all these statements from a man’s point-of-view.While Dorsey is no saint — at one point, he realizes that he shares a few character traits with Ron — his experience of working in the soap changes him considerably, and this affects his relationship with both Julie and Sandra. The problem with some “men in drag” movies is that they tend to become sexist themselves. Tootsie, however, doesn’t fall into that trap. It’s careful and sensitive about what it says and shows.

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