Thursday, January 31, 2019

2019 Blind Spot Series: Tootsie

What's up, good folks. If you're a regular, you might have been looking for a Thursday Movie Picks post. Well, two things are going on this particular Thursday. First, and foremost, I don't really have anything to contribute to this week's topic. The other thing is that I made myself a promise to post a review of all of this year's entry into the Blind Spot Challenge in the month that I actually planned to at the start of the year. It would've been a real downer to blow it in the first month. That said, please check out Wandering Through the Shelves to get your fix for Thursday Movie Picks. After that, check out Returning Videotapes, the site of Sofia, our Blind Spot host.

Oh, wait.

Before you do either, read what's below. It's all about my pick for this month's Blind Spot...

Why did I watch it? This is one of those movies that I've been meaning to see forever. And I really mean it. A lot of blind spot picks are movies I've seen bits and pieces of over the years. I can't say that about Tootsie. The reason I can't say that is because I've actively avoided it because whenever I came across it, it was in the middle somewhere and I kept turning because I was going to watch it soon. Soon, in this case, turns out to be thirty-six years. I was helped by the fact that no one in my real life circle was singing this film's praises or pressing me to see it. And as great an actor as Dustin Hoffman is, the mere fact of his presence has never made me watch a movie. I've come to all of his greatest hits long after they were released. The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy, All the President' Men, and Rain Man are all movies I saw for the first time within the last decade.

There was another, more socially relevant reason to watch Tootsie. With any old film, you want to see how it holds up, but whether or not this one does is particularly interesting. It's about a man in a dress. In 1982, when it was released, the world was a lot more cut and dry. You were either strictly and exclusively straight or shunned by society and relegated to its fringes. By 2019, the number of so-called "acceptable" sexual orientations and gender identifications have multiplied and every one of them is fighting valiantly for the civil rights afforded them by the U.S. Constitution while some try to withhold those rights for various reasons. How would Tootsie play in such a world? Is it a film ahead of its time, or a relic of a long gone era? Somewhere in between? Neither?

It starts with us meeting Michael Dorsey (Hoffman). He's a struggling actor, an acting coach, and cook in a restaurant. A large part of his trouble is that he's such an unyielding perfectionist, no one will work with him. He shares an apartment with Jeff (Bill Murray), a gone-nowhere playwright, and is kinda/sorta besties with Sandy (Teri Garr), also a struggling actor and one of his students. Sandy goes out for a part on a popular daytime soap and is shown the door without even being allowed to perform. After applying lots of makeup, a wig, some falsies, and whatever else to make himself look like a woman, Michael adopts a southern accent and the name Dorothy Michaels and goes out for the same part. He does this partially to raise money so he, Jeff, and Sandy can put on the play Jeff wrote, and partially to prove to his agent, George (Sydney Pollack), that someone will indeed hire him. He gets the job and quickly becomes an integral part of the show. He also befriends and becomes smitten with Julie (Jessica Lange), one of the show's stars who also happens to be dating Ron (Dabney Coleman), the sleazy director.

All of the setup above is interesting, largely due to Hoffman's command of the screen. The man is regarded as an all-time great for good reason. He's one of those actors who makes you watch him. He does it here by varying his line deliveries from subtle and snarky to angry and self-righteous. Plenty of actors try to turn this trick, but he does it so effortlessly we're never shocked by either. Both sides of Michael's personality feel organic and not like a guy doing anything for effect. But of course, once his Dorothy persona is introduced, everything he does is for effect. Essentially, he's a guy giving a performance of a guy giving a performance of a woman whose job it is to give performances. His Oscar nomination is well-earned.

Unfortunately, other parts of the movie aren't up to the same standards. I have to start with two of Hoffman's co-stars: Jessica Lange and Teri Garr. Both were also nominated for Oscar gold. Lange actually walked away with the statuette.  I thought she was fine in her role and Garr was a bit better, but neither blew me away. Garr gets to actually do something. Her subplot about her unrequited love for Michael provides some of the film's best moments, and is a nice rollercoaster ride all on its own. On the other hand, Lange's character does nothing that isn't required of a female lead in a rom-com directed and written by men. What I mean is, the film's very male point of view ignores the fact that Michael is a jerk to everyone around him. He may be compelling to us viewers, but we're also keenly aware that he isn't giving Lange's Julie any real reason to be attracted to him. He just does whatever he wants to with little regard for anything other than the pursuit of getting laid. They try to dress it up by having him seemed to be redeemed by showing dismay when he hears Ron say some of the same things he's said to women. However, it doesn't quite feel like a genuine reclamation of his character. It feels more like he's better equipped to get into her pants - a criminal who has gone to prison and come out a better crook, so to speak.

Would I have felt that way back in 1982? Certainly not. Aside from the times being different, I was only eleven years old. I would've glossed over the things that give me pause in 2019 just like everyone else apparently did. That said, the movie acquits itself well in regards to the potential pitfalls of gender and orientation equality. It doesn't go out of its way to make a point, but we never get the sense that anyone is homo or transphobic. There is only one mention of Michael's sexuality that I can recall, and it's Garr's Sandy asking him if he's gay because of certain circumstances of the moment. It's a fitting question, and not one that seems like the answer itself will upset her. The fact that the answer might confirm that Michael has been lying to her does upset her. Incidentally, even this doubles down on the film's overriding philosophy that a man can be a jackass and whatever woman he wants will love him because the end of her subplot negates her character arc to the point where she really is back to where she started the movie.

Other characters are flatly drawn. Everyone not named Michael/Dorothy, Julie, or Sandy are one dimensional, or something less, if that's possible. Bill Murray is unapologetically wasted. When he first showed up in this movie, I was shocked because I had no idea he was in it. By the end of the film, I understood why I didn't know. Still, taking the film on its own terms, without burdening it with present day politics improves it, but not to the point where I ready to revise my list of the best movies of 1982. I actually enjoyed it enough that I wouldn't mind seeing it again. I just don't get the undying affection it's afforded. At the end of the day, Tootsie is a rom-com that only does rom-com things. The lone exceptional factor is Dustin Hoffman in a dress. Even that is merely used to typical rom-com ends.


  1. Glad you love this one. It just didn't work quite as well for me.

    My issue with Lange's character really boils down to the fact that everything she knows about Dorothy turns out to be a lie, yet she ends up with him after one sappy apology because happy ending.

    Murray is always great. I just wish he had something to do.

  2. I haven't seen this either though I've always been aware of it.

  3. I agree that it hasn't aged as well as it could have. I wonder if that's the gender politics or the fact that a lot of comedies don't age well.

    Tootsie is one of those films that looks in many ways regressive and retrograde to a modern audience, but in 1982, it was surprisingly forward-thinking.

  4. I see what you’re saying and while much of it holds true I still love the film.

    Dusty owns the film and he should. He never condescends to Dorothy, when he’s her he really is Dorothy filtering his reactions through her perspective. As he tells Jeff she smarter than he is, or at least has more emotional intelligence but still feisty. He based the character on his own mother, and it became a real passion project for him when she passed away during pre-production of the film. However he based his honey flavored accent on his good friend Polly Holliday (Flo from the sitcom Alice) perfecting it to such a point that he called her and had an entire conversation with her using that voice and she didn’t realize it was he.

    I agree about Jessica Lange not really being a standout though her playing of the role is tinged with a sadness that makes it a bit more full bodied and less ordinary. She had just finished “Frances” about the hellish life (including many years in an insane asylum) of tragic 30’s actress Frances Farmer and Mel Brooks who produced that film advised her to quickly do a comedy as a follow up but the residue of the role seems to have stayed with her somewhat. She was nominated for both roles that year and the supporting win was strictly a consolation prize for Frances-where she IS extraordinary.

    I can’t agree about Teri Garr though. She does disappear towards the end but when she’s on screen she’s great and it is truly a supporting performance. Her big meltdown scene where she screams and hollers and makes declarations about reading The Second Sex and whatever the other book was and being in charge of her own orgasm is gold.

    I also love George Gaynes as the blustery and buffoonish lech of a TV doctor and Sydney Pollock as Dusty’s beleagued agent plus Charles Durning as Julie’s father. They’re all peripheral characters without tremendous depth but add nicely turned bits to the overall story. I will warrant that Julie’s forgiveness is a bit swift but Michael has changed from the beginning of the film and does sort of complicitly state that he’s working on becoming a better person and needs her help getting there. But the overall success of the picture rest squarely on Hoffman’s shoulders and he does a fantastic job of carrying it and taking advantage of every spotlight moment.

    As Steve said its gender politics may seem out of step now but at the time it was really very forward thinking in its views.

  5. This is one of those movies I've always known about but never really had an inkling to actually watch. I had no idea Bill Murray was in it either!

  6. I saw this in the theatre when it came out and enjoyed it but I agree, regarding Jessica Lange.She didn't do much here but I also saw Frances, which came out the same year, and that shows her acting prowess and she should have won the Oscar for that role but I think the academy gave it to Meryl..ughhh. I do think it works and believe the supporting actors were excellent and gave so much to the story. Dorothy would not be Dorothy without all the supporting actors around him/her

  7. I've seen this many years ago and I loved it, especially Hoffman's performance. I'm sorry to hear you didn't enjoyed it more.

  8. 💛💜❤️💙🎂 My 21st birthday's in 2 weeks and I wish for a Wiggles Blogathon 🎂💛💜❤️💙

  9. Okay so you didn't love it, BUT. We agree, Dustin Hoffman is outstanding. 👏🏻 Since I'm already here, I'll add you to the January post!

  10. Oh what a great Blindspot choice, even if solely for Hoffman's tremendous performance. Like you said, effortless. He's a great for a reason, and he really sells this role. I totally get what you mean about the chauvinist POV regarding men pretty much walking all over women, and I'm right with you on Lange. She's so dull here and her Oscar win is a joke, but clear consolation for Streep hogging all the chances to reward her in lead for her tour de force in Frances. Garr is a riot though, and I just adored her performance and nomination.