‘Tootsie’ is social commentary at its finest

Comedy - 2015Tootsie could easily be passed off as another 1980s forgettable comedy, one with a strong central performance from Dustin Hoffman but nothing terribly memorable. However, after closer inspection, the comedy from director Sydney Pollack is a well-intentioned critique of sexism in society, in particular the entertainment business where women and men are treated differently. This is a simple comedy, with a somewhat formulaic plot, that touches upon important issues worthy of discussion.

Hoffman plays Michael Dorsey, a wannabe method actor who has difficulty keeping any role for too long. He demands too much from his directors, and his options for furthering his career are miniscule. He has a cadre of friends, including Bill Murray’s Jeff, who discuss the art of acting with him, but success is always unattainable.

Trying to shake things up, Michael decides to dress as a woman and change his name to Dorothy Michaels. He auditions for a role on a soap opera and is surprised when he lands the role. Now he has a cinematic double-edge sword: He has that dream role he’s always wanted, but he needs to mask himself behind a wig, lipstick and dress. Stepping up to the challenge, Michael decides to make Dorothy a role model on the show, speaking up for herself and breaking from the script. She quickly becomes a fan favorite.

On the soap opera, Michael/Dorothy becomes friends with Julie (Jessica Lange, who won an Oscar for this role), a fellow actor who seems to have everything one could ask for — at least on the surface. However, deep down, she’s an actor wanting more from her professional and personal life. Dorothy and Julie become close friends, yet the inevitable disclosure needs to occur at some time.

Pollack, working off a script by Larry Gelbart and Murray Schisgal, never forgets that Tootsie is a comedy. The jokes are quite hilarious and hold up more than three decades later. One sequence involving Hoffman’s inability to call a taxi is still legendary. Gelbart and Schisgal’s script is smart and pointed; they take on sexism in the workplace, never pulling any punches and showing the older, traditional ways as harsh and hurtful to so many. Much of this sexism is encapsulated in the character of Ron (Dabney Coleman), the boss on the soap opera.

Other actors abound in supporting roles. From Teri Garr to Murray to Geena Davis to Charles Durning, this is quite the ensemble cast.

However, much of the spotlight is deservedly on Hoffman and Lange. They form the central connection throughout the entire piece. Hoffman is perfect as Michael and Dorothy, showing a wonderful independence when he becomes the soap opera star and a driving determination as the actor who brings her to life. It ranks as one of Hoffman’s best roles.

Lange turns in a likable and strong performance, although it’s not as showy as some of her later roles. American Horror Story this is not. The part is well written, and the audience probably learns more about Julie than anyone else. In fact, some would say that Dorothy’s mission is less about her own liberation and more about Julie’s.

Tootsie is a time capsule film that documents an important era in cinema and workplace relationships. Through the character of Dorothy, the audience is able to view the contradictions and prejudice against women. This “created” character serves as a mirror and a rallying cry for society, both then and now.

By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com

  • Tootsie
  • 1982
  • Directed by Sydney Pollack
  • Written by Larry Gelbart and Murray Schisgal
  • Starring Dustin Hoffman, Jessica Lange, Dabney Coleman, Teri Garr, Geena Davis, Charles Durning, Ellen Foley, Bill Murray, George Gaynes and Pollack
  • Running time: 115 minutes
  • Rated PG
  • Rating: ★★★★

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at Time.com, among other publications. E-mail him at john@hollywoodsoapbox.com

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