Length: 116 minutes
Release Date: December 17, 1982
Directed by: Sydney Pollack
Genre: Comedy / Drama / Romance
Tootsie is a hilarious comedy, featuring an all-star cast, led by Dustin Hoffman, Jessica Lange, Terri Garr, Dabney Coleman, Bill Murray and Charles Durning. Directed by Sydney Pollack, the movie explores subtle themes regarding gender. Set in Manhattan, the 1982 film follows an actor’s quest for work. Along the way, the actor learns the importance of treating women and men equally. Critics and audiences alike have endorsed the film, and Roger Ebert loved “Tootsie,” giving it four out of four stars. The film weaves three primary comedic devices throughout its plot that encourage audiences to think about the roles of gender in society.
Michael Dorsey, played wonderfully by Dustin Hoffman, is the story’s protagonist. The story opens with Dorsey searching for work. An unemployed actor, Dorsey’s reputation as a talented but difficult perfectionist proceeds him, which makes it impossible for the frustrated front man to find a job.
One night, Dorsey’s acting student Sandy Lester, played by Terri Garr, discusses an upcoming audition in a soap opera. Lester auditions for a role on a soap opera, but fails to get the part. Dorsey, in a moment of either madness or genius, decides to audition again, but dressed as a woman. Calling himself “Dorothy Michaels,” Dorsey lands the part, setting the stage for the rest of the film.
This establishes one of the primary comedic devices at play in the film. From this point forward, Dorsey must dress as Michaels whenever interacting with the cast of the soap opera. While Dorsey’s character – hospital administrator Emily Kimberly – is supposed to be a weak woman who fawns over male doctors, Dorsey portrays Kimberly as a sassy, spunky feminist. Over time, Dorothy Michaels becomes something of a hero to her fans. She eventually becomes a star of daytime television.
Along the way, Dorsey begins to fall in love with one of the other actresses in the soap opera, setting up the second primary comedic device in the film. Julie Nichols, played by Jessica Lange, is a beautiful, quiet and gentle actress and single mom. While pursuing Nichols, Dorsey must continue to be Michaels. Initially, Nichols is in a relationship with the show’s director and primary villain, Ron Carlisle. Carlisle, played by Dabney Coleman, treats Nichols terribly, causing her quite a bit of grief.
Eventually, as Dorsey and Nichols grow closer, Nichols agrees with Dorsey’s advice and breaks up with Carlisle. Dorsey tries unsuccessfully to woo Nichols, both as himself and while dressed as Michaels. Nichols eventually confesses to Michaels that she is attracted to her, but not ready for relationship with a woman. At one point in the story, Michaels visits Nichols’ father at the family farm. It is here that the plot reveals the film’s final major comedic device. Nichols’ father Les begins to fall for Michaels. Les, played by Charles Durning, repeatedly courts Michaels, who must escape from one awkward situation after another. Eventually, Les proposes to Michaels, asking her to think about it.
Michaels’ success culminates in the studio seeking to extend her contract. Desperate for a way out, Dorsey figures out a way to escape from the situation in which he finds himself. Dorsey waits for a live broadcast of the show, and prepares to change things forever. At an important point in the episode, Dorsey embarks on a long monologue about women’s rights. At the climax of the speech, he rips off his wig, demonstrating that Michaels is actually a man playing the part of a woman. Dorsey announces that he is Michaels’ twin brother, and is playing the part in her honor.
When Dorsey reveals that Michaels is a man, he manages to do so in a way that allows the network and himself to avoid embarrassment. Accordingly, most everyone is satisfied, if shocked, with the revelation. However, Nichols feels betrayed, and punches Dorsey in the stomach off stage. The movie ends as Dorsey finally convinces Nichols to forgive him. To do so, Dorsey delivers the movie’s iconic line, “I was a better man with you as a woman than I ever was with a woman as a man.”
While successful as an uproarious comedy, “Tootsie” is a thoughtful film that explores gender roles through the odd juxtaposition of a man playing the part of a woman, who is a strong feminist. Additionally, the film explores the difficult life of working actors, and the social setting of Manhattan. The movie also makes fun of soap operas, portraying them as silly, over-dramatic programs. The movie leaves audiences uplifted and exhausted from laughter.
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