Last month, a video went viral in which Dustin Hoffman talked about his experience making the 1982 film “Tootsie”. The actor was moved to tears as he recalled preliminary make-up tests, in which he found himself, made up as a woman, “shocked that I wasn’t more attractive”. He claims the experience led to an epiphany in which he realised that he would never approach a woman of such an appearance, based purely on her (lack of) looks. “There are too many interesting women I have not had the experience to know”, he concluded “because I have been brainwashed”.
It is a strikingly honest admission, and yet not surprising to anyone who has seen “Tootsie”, one of the most head-on confrontations that mainstream Hollywood has ever made with issues of gender roles. The film was a wild success when released, nominated for ten Oscars and grossing the equivalent of over $400 million in the US alone, second only to “E.T.” that year. Considering the type of films that are able to make that amount of money these days - and the kind of roles they typically offer their female characters - it is somewhat extraordinary to recall just how commercial a hit a film like “Tootsie” was.
“Tootsie” is, in fact, the story of a man - namely Michael Dorsey, played by Dustin Hoffman. Michael is an actor, talented yet unemployable due to his reputation for being difficult to work with. When his friend Sandy (Teri Garr) misses out on a part in a soap, he decides to audition himself, disguised in drag, and somewhat miraculously gets the part. Only his agent and his roommate - played by director Sydney Pollack and Bill Murray respectively - are in on the secret. To everyone else, ‘Dorothy Michaels’ is the sweet-hearted, plain-talking and rather dowdy woman she appears - and that’s where the fun begins.
As Michael starts work on the soap, he is immediately struck by how preposterously Dorothy’s character Emily Kimberly has been written. When an older male co-star is scripted to attempt an uninvited kiss, Dorothy responds by slapping him in the face. The crew are shocked - but the female producer is delighted, while the chauvinist male director professes himself thrilled with such feistiness. Dorothy is allowed to play the scene as she chooses, and soon her ballsy improvisations become a trademark. Time and again, Michael-as-Dorothy-as-Emily speaks up against the sexism and misogyny inherent in the scripts, not to mention the leery behaviour of the director. “Think of me as a person, not as a woman”, Dorothy demands. “You are the first female character who is her own person” the producer breathlessly confides.
Of course, there is something potentially unsavory in the fact that it takes a man to vocalise thoughts which the female crew members clearly share but do not dare express. What prevents the film from portraying Michael as the saviour of womankind is the fact that he is only this passionate and committed in his female persona. As Michael Dorsey, the man, he is in fact a bit of loser. Indeed, the film gleans most of its pathos from the fact that Dorothy is a much more appealing person than Michael is - and it is sad each time we are reminded that she is, in fact, a charade. Being cast as a woman gives Michael license to express sensitive qualities that simply do not gel with his hot-headed macho self. As Michael he is vain, tempestuous and self-obsessed, and he starts to realise it. “I think Dorothy’s smarter than I am”, he forlornly tells his roommate. “I just wish I looked prettier. She deserves it”.
This seemingly innocuous line in fact reveals a perspective that emerges as both the film’s greatest strength and one of its weaknesses, or at least limitations - its take on the customs of romance and dating. Inside work and outside, Dorothy is pursued by various suitors. This is of course a great source of comedy, but it also allows Michael to witness how absurd male courting rituals are when seen from the other side. From the much older co-star who more or less forces himself upon Dorothy, only to back off respectfully when another man enters the room, to the absurdly presumptuous advances of another co-star’s father, Michael becomes rapidly well-versed in how it feels to be a woman on the dating scene.
It is perhaps then disappointing that the film does not reap more dividends from this potent set-up. For a start, Dorothy is bombarded with attention. While this is heartening and certainly entertaining to watch, when one recalls the honesty of Dustin Hoffman’s comments regarding women he had neglected to know, it seems a shame that the film does not have the bravery to show how it might feel for Dorothy to be simply cast aside or ignored as a potential love object. Nor is there much exploration of the fact that women who society deems “outspoken” are rarely so roundly celebrated as Dorothy. Again, while it is a pleasant fantasy to observe, the fact is that so-called “opinionated” women are often met with scorn and abuse, and it might have been interested to include that as part of Michael’s learning experience.
As it is, we are not entirely clear how much Michael has learned by the end of the film. Early on, he takes an instant liking to his pretty, blonde co-star Julie (Jessica Lange), and it is she who he remains interested in by the end. Not his somewhat more untamable friend Sandy, who is all but ridiculed as she screams “I’ve read The Second Sex, I’m responsible for my own orgasm”. I like to imagine Michael learning to empathise with a woman moved to such passionate expression of her opinions in the face of restrictive gender binaries. But no, his eyes remain firmly on Julie - hardly a reprehensible decision, but not the film’s boldest move.
Perhaps it is unsurprising, with “Tootsie”’s star, director, producers and three out of four writers being male, that the film seems at times masculine in its approach, with all the insights and limitations that this implies. Ultimately though, these criticisms do not prevent the film from being a marvel and a delight - a shining example of how feminist discourse can ease into the cinematic mainstream. As a classic Hollywood production through and through - right down to the preponderance of males among its key creatives - it is really quite remarkable how full of bold feminist pronouncements and ideas the film is. As Michael proclaims himself, in his final dramatic speech, “proud enough to be a woman that was the best part of my manhood”, his sincerity is not in doubt. Now if only Hollywood would give as much creative freedom to women as it does to men like Sydney Pollack and Dustin Hoffman, we might hope for more of the same, and then some.