Tootsie at 40: a dazzling comedy with something serious on its mind

The classic American screwball comedies of the late 30s and 40s are revered for their sparkling dialogue, their intricate plotting and their mixing-and-matching of glamorous, witty Golden Age icons like Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, Jimmy Stewart, Barbara Stanwyck and Claudette Colbert. But one of the important, under-appreciated qualities of those movies – what made Adam’s Rib, Bringing Up Baby, The Lady Eve, His Girl Friday, and others really pop – is there was something serious at stake. These romcoms were not all meet-cutes and gimmicks, but cultural arenas for a battle of the sexes that was being waged off screen, too. Happy endings were achieved through intense negotiations.

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There was something in the water 40 years ago when Tootsie, a self-conscious and ingenious throwback to the screwball era, was released to great acclaim and huge box office takings. It seems no mistake that two of its stars, Dustin Hoffman and Dabney Coleman, had appeared in a couple of the most talked-about films of recent vintage, Kramer vs Kramer and 9 to 5, both about men and women renegotiating the terms of their relationships at home and in the workplace. Hoffman’s career-driven character in Kramer vs Kramer learns that fatherhood isn’t a ceremonial role after his wife leaves him and he figures out how to make French toast for his son. Coleman’s boss in 9 to 5 serves as the ultimate example of women having to navigate a hostile, sexist workplace.

Tootsie splashes around in the same choppy waters, with Hoffman and Coleman playing characters who are not that far removed from those earlier roles – Hoffman as a brusque, disagreeable personality who tries to get in touch with his “feminine” side, Coleman as the boss who calls his female subordinates “sweetheart” and tends to get a little handsy on the job. The script for Tootsie – credited to Larry Gelbart and Murray Schisgal, though passed through multiple uncredited writers (including Elaine May and Barry Levinson) – has a satisfying throwback quality, with a deft pile-up of complications leading to an unforgettable payoff. But again, the most important throwback quality is that it has something on its mind.

At this point in his career, Hoffman’s reputation as a brilliant but difficult actor made him the ideal choice to play Michael Dorsey, a New York actor whose persnickety attitude has made him a pariah coast to coast. When his agent George, played in a scene-stealing role by the film’s director, Sydney Pollack, reminds him of a commercial shoot where he played a tomato and refused to sit down, Michael gets typically defensive: “No one does vegetables like me! I did an endive salad that knocked the critics on their ass.” After coaching his actor friend Sandy (Teri Garr) through a whiffed audition on a daytime soap called Southwest General, Michael makes the radical decision to put on a dress, a wig and make-up, and audition as “Dorothy Michaels”. Dorothy gets the part.

From there, Michael’s double life turns into a minefield on and off the set, especially once his character, given to unscripted feistiness, becomes an instant fan favorite. His relationship with Sandy gets weird after an incident in which she catches him frantically changing out of his “Dorothy” wardrobe and his only cover is to say he wants to sleep with her. Things get even stickier in production, when he has to fend off a sexist director (Coleman) and a leering older cast member, and he develops a close relationship with a co-star, Julie (Jessica Lange), who turns to Dorothy as a friend, not knowing that she is a he, much less that he’s falling in love with her. Even Julie’s dad (Charles Durning), a widower, develops a thing for Dorothy.

The cast is loaded with seasoned character actors and comics, including Bill Murray in perfectly sardonic tone as Michael’s roommate, a playwright who greets the mounting absurdities at his doorstep with deadpan bemusement. But it’s Lange’s Oscar-winning performance that gives Tootsie the anchor it needs, light and funny at times, but also a reminder of just how narrow a path actors like Julie have in an industry that disposes of them quickly. She can’t afford to be as brazen as Michael as he turns Dorothy into a feminist flamethrower, and it’s through her vulnerability that he can see his own vanity and privilege in the business.

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Hoffman brings the right amount of self-awareness to Michael, whose obsession with craft and notoriously prickly personality shorten the distance between actor and character. He takes the Dorothy transformation seriously enough to seem plausible – when Robin Williams tried something similar as Mrs Doubtfire, less of an effort was made – but the way Hoffman modulates between the high Dorothy voice and his natural, gravelly tone leads to some of the biggest laughs in the film. Much of the fun in Tootsie comes from Hoffman’s suggestion that Michael is mostly having a blast, even as his ruse becomes totally unsustainable. He loves getting away with it. It’s the role of a lifetime.

With so few comedies like it at the time – or really at all since the first half of the 20th century, with occasional blips like Some Like It Hot or What’s Up, Doc? excepted – Tootsie still feels like the revival of a lost art form, tangling and untangling the plot with crack timing. But it’s a fascinatingly specific barometer of the early 80s, no less thought-provoking than Kramer vs Kramer in its insight into gender roles and the false assumptions a man like Michael might make while pretending to be a woman. Even an actor of his scrupulousness has something to learn.