Criterion Review: Tootsie

In a tearful and candid interview, Dustin Hoffman once explained his impetus to make Tootsie: expecting himself to be a beautiful woman in make-up test, he was shocked not only to discover that he wasn’t, but also realised that if he met the woman staring back at him in the mirror, he would have dismissed her for not being attractive enough. After his revelation, Hoffman knew he had to make the acclaimed 1982 film, claiming afterwards that it was never a comedy for him. In one is surely one of his best performances, Hoffman plays actor Michael Dorsey, who, out of desperation for work, auditions for a female role for a soap opera under the guise of Dorothy Michaels.
Despite sharing the stylistic trappings of so many 1980s urban comedies – Three Men and a Baby, Big, Crocodile DundeeTootsie transcends its generic conventions with a wonderfully nuanced turn from Hoffman, a terrific supporting cast that includes Bill Murray and Jessica Lange, and a screenplay that is as sensitive as it is funny. Tootsie’s finely balanced writing is one of the film’s greatest strengths, being consistently funny without ever turning the central premise into a gag: Dorothy is hilarious, but she is never the butt of the joke. The nuance of this sleight of hand really can’t be overstated: not only is Hoffman required to create both Michael and Dorothy, but also Dorothy’s soap character Emily, and it’s in the scenes where the soap opera is being filmed that the complexity and depth of Hoffman’s performance truly takes hold. It’s important, too, that Dorothy is a far better person than her male counterpart, channelling Michael’s self-regarding narcissism into a righteous anger at the treatment of women by men.

In a scene in which the star of Dorothy’s soap, John van Horn (George Haynes), attempts to force himself on Dorothy, she dryly states that rape isn’t a laughing matter. The film plays this scene close to comedy, but Hoffman’s line leaves the audience in no doubt over what has really happened here, and is a stark reminder of the way that much of our media basely plays sexual harassment for laughs. Tootsie is a comedy that dares its audience not to laugh at Dorothy as a figure of fun, but to see her as a full person with a valid and important voice. Michael Dorsey is ostensibly the protagonist, but it is Dorothy who is truly the main character. Moreover, the film doesn’t punish Dorothy for attracting unwanted male attention.

It’s they, not she, who are held to account for their desires, and after the truth comes out are left with the choice to get over their masculine insecurities or be left behind. However, it does stick in the craw somewhat that after sleeping with his friend literally to avoid social embarrassment, and deceiving the woman with whom he is supposedly in love, Michael suffers virtually no consequences for his deceptive and exploitative behaviour. This, however, is a small blemish on a film that could so easily have been crass, po-faced or just unfunny. Instead, Tootsie is a remarkably well written, complex and rewarding film that continues to speak to society’s treatment of women and our attitudes to the nature of gender.

Tootsie is released on blu-ray as part of the Criterion Collection in the UK.

Christopher Machell | @MagnificenTramp

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