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Wayback Wednesday: Tootsie (1982)

Was…was that Andy Warhol?

Here’s one thing you should know about me: I am a total sucker for any kind of movie that involves any kind of costumed shenanigans. Seriously, if your movie requires the main character to disguise themselves in any kind of costume – ANY KIND – that then leads to madcap antics and cases of confusion and mistaken identity…you have one satisfied viewer in me. What I’m saying is, if your movie has the same premise as a Bugs Bunny cartoon, I’m pretty much guaranteed to like it. Tootsie (1982) has all the wackiness that someone like me requires from a costumed comedy like this. Of course, as lighthearted as this iconic movie is, it’s also full of excellent performances, quality writing and a memorable signature song!

Credit: / Columbia Pictures

Tootsie tells the story of Michael Dorsey, an unsuccessful character actor with a deep passion for the craft who despite his talent, cannot land any acting jobs. When his friend Sandy fails to land a role on a popular soap opera, Michael disguises himself as a woman and secures the part for himself. Going by Dorothy Michaels, Michael’s life turns upside down as Dorothy’s outspoken attitude and talent bring both himself and the show attention he never would have dreamt of.

This is one of those movies that people really love and like Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) or Some Like It Hot (1959) – check out my review, here – prominently features the aspect of drag, used to overwhelming comedic effect. And yet no one puts together that they enjoy drag. If you’re at all a fan of the ridiculous antics and extreme measures Robin Williams goes to in Mrs. Doubtfire than you need to check out Tootsie. It’s like Mrs. Doubtfire set in the workplace. Y’know, it’s about time we were gifted with a new comedy where someone dresses in drag out of desperation and turns the lives of everyone around them upside down. Maybe we could even have an actual drag performer play the part! Hurricane Bianca (2016) is the closest we’ve come in years but even the utter fabulousness of Bianca Del Rio wasn’t enough to distract from how underwhelming that movie was. I’d also recommend Tootsie if you were tickled by the on-set / behind the scenes shenanigans of a television set like Soapdish (1991). By the way, check out my review for that movie, here. OOF, nothing in this movie hits harder than the opening montage that showcases the tragic dichotomy of the performing arts: a love for the craft that ihas to stand resolutely against the heartbreaking and inevitable rejection of the audition process when they’re always looking for someone a little different. 

It’s been a while since I’ve watched Tootsie and I forgot just how much I enjoyed it. The entire movie is good, silly fun that manages to be an entertaining comedy as well as have a subtle uplifting message about female empowerment. Granted, that message is coming from a man merely disguising himself as a woman initially for his own financial gain, but over the course of the movie Michael truly understands what it means to walk a mile in a woman’s shoes. I understand that he improvs more juicy dialogue rather than the stale lines he’s given on the soap opera in order to perform better material, but in the process Michael inadvertently transforms Dorothy into an emboldened symbol for women everywhere. Whether it’s refusing to put up with workplace harassment, or advocating for women to fight for what they want, Dorothy ends up being as inspiring as she is fun. And boy, is she fun. Hoffman plays Michael playing Dorothy playing the soap opera character Emily fantastically, resulting in a performance that is as joyful to watch as it is layered. What an intriguing challenge as an actor! 

Hoffman deserves adequate praise for his starring role but if I’m being honest, when I watch Tootsie it’s all about Jessica Lange for me. I am such a fan of this incredible actress. As someone who’s watched Lange for years on dramas like American Horror Story (2011 – present) and Feud (2017), it’s so refreshing to see her in a movie that has her playing the most unencumbered and romantic role that I’ve seen from her. It’s so jarring to see her smile and play a loving mother and goodhearted woman when I’m so used to her playing more ruthless and unscrupulous characters. The range! As Dorothy’s co-star Julie, Lange is beautiful and perfect. I just love her. Her soft-spoken voice is enchanting and as a viewer you just gravitate to her whenever she’s on screen. Her inherent charisma and unquestionable talent even earned Lange a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for this movie. 

I always forget that other fantastic actors like Bill Murray, Geena Davis, Dabney Coleman and Teri Garr round out the cast of Tootsie. Each are perfectly wonderful in these smaller supporting roles but let me just say this: no one plays a chauvinistic asshole quite like Dabney Coleman. His character is similar to the one he played in 9 to 5 (1980) – check out my review, here – and it’s hysterical. Speaking of hysterical, watching how exuberant, unbridled and loopy Garr is in this movie, it’s no wonder she was chosen to play Phoebe’s mom on Friends (1994 – 2004). As Michael’s friend Sandy, Garr and Hoffman play off each other so well as friends that it’s a shame she gets relegated to a storyline that has her mostly being frustrated at Michael blowing off their dates. 

Another part of Tootsie that I’m not a fan of is when Michael goes up to Julie’s family cabin for the holidays. It’s at this point that the movie stops dead in its tracks. Nothing particularly funny happens and you’re not necessarily rooting for Julie and Michael to get together so it’s an unwelcome portion of the movie. And you just feel sorry for Julie’s dad who’s fallen in love with Dorothy so really, this portion doesn’t yield anything worthwhile. We could have cut a majority of this to make time for more scenes of Michael doing his Dorothy makeup. He is Dorothy almost immediately in this movie and the transformation is a believable drag look! He better werk! 

Tootsie could have failed spectacularly. It could have ended up being a cringey, unfunny, tonally insensitive movie that aged like cottage cheese under a heat lamp. But instead it gives me great pleasure to say that Tootsie more than holds up. 40 years later, this movie is just as hilarious, poignant and enjoyable as it was in 1982. I absolutely do NOT want this movie to be remade but as I said earlier, I would be down for Hollywood to go ahead and make more movies in the vein of Tootsie. More comedies! More workplace shenanigans! More drag! ALWAYS more drag!

Have you seen Tootsie?

Let me know in the comments or on social media! 


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