They say to understand someone else you should try to walk a mile in their shoes. With Sydney Pollack’s Tootsie (1982) Dustin Hoffman got to get a glimpse of what women in the acting industry go through by playing an actor who pretends to be a woman in order to get a role and of course a good paycheck. Given what we know today about the gender pay gap between men and women in Hollywood, this makes the whole premise of Toostsie even funnier in an ironic way.
The concept of men pretending to be women has of course been a premise for many comedies, some crude (White Chicks) and some classics (Some Like it Hot). One of the first movies I saw in that sub-genre was Mrs. Doubtfire, which some people felt was ridding on the coattails of Tootsie. When I got to watch Tootsie a few years ago when it was playing on TV I sort of understood that point given the similarities in plot. However Pollack’s film has a lot more interesting things to say, some about working actors, and many about working women in general.
Hoffman’s Michael Dorsey is a very capable New York actor who would very much like to raise money and star in a play written by his roommate Jeff (Bill Murray, who steals every scene he’s in). The problem is that as good as Michael might be he is not famous or rich and because of his reputation as a difficult actor to work with. His exasperated agent George (director Sydney Pollack) tells him he can’t even get a job doing commercials. The conversation between these two is wonderfully written highlighting their arduous relationship. When George tells Michael his job is to field offers for Michael, not read screenplays from his roommate, Michael angrily responds with “’Field Offers?’ Who told you that? The Agent Fairy?”
Following the argument, Michael has a brainwave. If Michael Dorsey can’t get a job then he won’t audition as Michael Dorsey. He will audition as Dorothy Michaels, a no-nonsense actress. His disguise and attitude earns him a big role on a General Hospital-like soap opera where her character is originally written as an unoriginal female character. However Dorothy/Michael decides to play her as more of a feisty feminist who is not afraid to speak her mind, making her a big hit on the show.
The situation of course leads to many hilarious misunderstandings, beginning with Michael developing an attraction towards Julie (Jessica Lange) one of his co-stars on the show who has no idea there is a man hiding underneath that wig and make-up. Making things even more awkward is when Julie’s widowed father (Charles Durning) becomes attracted towards Dorothy, which is really one of the worst possible ways to meet a potential future father-in-law.
However the writers of Tootsie wisely decided not to make this just a farce, but an examination of what actresses go through in their line of work. As Dorothy, Michael has to deal with a sexist director (Dabney Coleman) who thinks Dorothy is too soft-spoken for the part and calls her nicknames like “honey” and ”toots.” Then there is older cast member John (George Gaynes) who almost forces him on Dorothy at Michael’s apartment only to be interrupted by Jeff. Having seen some weird things going on in that apartment ever since Michael started wearing a dress, he responds with two words: “You slut.” It’s a politically incorrect statement nowadays, but uttered by Murray in that particular scene, it is pure comedy.
Tootsie remains funny today thanks to the great writing and performances, and it remains relevant as a social commentary on gender issues for those same reasons. In an interview Hoffman has said that during make-up tests he wanted to be convincing enough as a woman that the audience would not have to suspend their believability. When the make-up was good enough he wanted to look like a beautiful woman, but he was told that was as beautiful as he was going to be. This made him realize how many women he had not spoken to in his life because they were not beautiful enough, which made him want to do the movie even more.