80s Movie Challenge Week 45: Tootsie (1982)

Can you believe it 80s loving pals? 90% of the way through our trek through the decade! This week in #80sMC Paul Childs takes us back to 1982 for a walk on the wild side of an actor who will do anything to get a job as he looks at our list’s most Oscar-nominated film – Tootsie!

Spoilers follow…

There’s a select group of films which, years after release are very much defined by their ending. Ones that spring to mind are probably The Empire Strikes BackThe Usual Suspects, Citizen Kane, The Sixth Sense and Planet of the Apes are just a handful of such films.

Tootsie, another film which is as well knows for its denouement as the rest of the story is, however, a different beast. While those other films present us with new information that makes us reevaluate what we’ve seen before (The word you’re looking for is Twist, Ed.) Tootsie doesn’t so much keep us guessing what is going to happen, but rather when and how the inevitable will unfold.

Of course Michael Dorsey’s deception – posing as an actress in an attempt to get a job – was going to be uncovered. It was the only way the film was ever going to end. It’s the journey that makes the big reveal at the end so enjoyable.

Of all the films in our 80s Movie Challenge list, this one is the most recognised by the Academy, weighing in with a whopping ten Oscar nominations. Sadly, thanks largely to GandhiAn Officer & A Gentleman and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial it only limped home with one gong on the night; Best Supporting Actress for Jessica Lange (who was also nominated for Best Actress that year for her eponymous role in Frances). That doesn’t mean it’s not good.

In the US it was only held off the year’s top spot by that little chap with a penchant for telecommunications. In 1998 Tootsie was selected for preservation in the National Film Library – an honour only afforded to a select few (less than 800, which seems like a lot, but really isn’t when you take a century’s worth of cinema into account).

I remember there being a big fuss about this coming out when I was a kid. A man dressing up as a woman? A prospect both hilarious and preposterous (I was young and naive). It’s one of the rare times I remember as a kid when my parents went to the cinema on their own rather than as a family. I’m sure there were probably other films they went to see – my brothers and I were certainly looked after by our fair share of babysitters in the 70s and 80s – but this is one of the few times I recall them getting excited about a film. My parents never were big moviegoers, so for them to be hyped up over any film was a big deal. The only other times I remember them making a fuss over films was for Poltergeist (where they had friends round to watch it on VHS), Fatal Attraction and The Evil Dead.

The latter was watched while we were staying at my Auntie Ann’s house (who I spoke about and her importance to my own film journey way back at in February with our look back at Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan). I’d seen the poster for The Evil Dead in the video store and really wanted to see it. I was eight. I snuck down from the bedroom and peered through the gap in the lounge door. I saw one particularly iconic, terrifying scene. That was enough for me. I didn’t want to see it anymore.

No, that’s not one of Dustin Hoffman’s early attempts at doing his own makeup

I crept back up to bed. We were staying in Auntie Ann’s farmhouse. In the middle of nowhere. Drenched in darkness. Shrouded in a low lying mist. And there were noises outside, tree branches tapping on the window, creaks as the house “settled”, that horrific shriek foxes do that sound like an eight-year-old boy being torn apart by demons…

Yep. I soon learned that when my parents said a film was for grown-ups, there really was nothing of interest to me.

And Tootsie really is a film for grown-ups. Yes, there’s some stuff in there that 80s kids might have found enjoyable. Like, for example, the bumbling but licentious John, played with an almost Benny Hill-like lechery by Police Academy’s George Gaynes. Or the film’s central premise – a man dressed in women’s clothing was always humorous to those who grew up with the aforementioned Hill, The Two Ronnies, Les Dawson and their ilk. Little did we know at the time the quite serious point the film was making with its seemingly sensational gimmick.

It’s not adult, as such in content. There’s a modicum of swearing. A hint of nudity. Nothing I hadn’t seen before. But I know that as a younger kid, I would have been bored silly by gender politics, long conversations and romantic subplots.

I finally saw Tootsie for the first time when it was shown on British TV for the first time on Boxing Day in 1986. It was aired before the watershed and therefore a slightly softened version – but then 11-year-old me enjoyed it immensely, especially the outrageous ending. However, it wasn’t until many years later, when my wife (then girlfriend) asked me to watch it with her that I’d watch it again. We had recently started seeing each other and one of our early dates was to see Mrs Doubtfire at the Cannon cinema in Liverpool. That night’s film had reminded her of another of her favourite movies.

I can’t imagine why Mrs Doubtfire made her think of Tootsie

It was during this second viewing that I saw the film’s message beyond Man Dressed As Woman = Funny. And it wasn’t even a subtext! It was the main message of the film, hidden in plain sight. Of course, Tootsie was a film about female empowerment and sexism. Why hadn’t I seen it before? It highlighted the way women were treated in the street, in the workplace, in the minds of men who wanted to treat them as objects. And I was outraged!

We’ve had other films with a strong feminist message in our 80s Movie Challenge, such as 9 To 5, Working Girl and some might argue Fatal Attraction, but none where the message is delivered in such an unusual way. Watching again last night as the outspoken Dorothy Michaels rights wrongs perpetrated against her “fellow” women, I have to admit, I’m not sure I found the film as potentially empowering as I once believed it to be. It’s not until a man in disguise experiences pinched bottoms, offensive pet names and unwelcome advances that someone decides to do something about it. Michael Dorsey to the rescue! Hurrah! The man will save the day for the poor feeble women who can’t stand up for themselves! That’s the message I kind of took away from last night’s viewing.

Many of these 80s Challenge titles have left a similar slightly bitter taste in the mouth. Earlier in the year when Jane rewatched Heathers and The Breakfast Club, two films which once spoke volumes to teenagers and helped the maturing Generation-X understand who there were, she found that, while their heart was in the right place – at the time – certain attitudes and values, which were once acceptable, were, shall we say, a little more suspect with the gift of hindsight.

Maybe I’m reading too much into it. Maybe I’m wrong. I know my wife still loves the movie and it still makes her laugh and cry in all the same places, despite having watched it multiple times. I don’t know. Something about it just feels a little off.

Perhaps that’s down to the feud between Dustin Hoffman and the film’s director Syndey Pollack (who also has a small, but brilliant role in the film as George, Dorsey’s put-upon agent). Their animosity seems to have roots in one memorable scene, where a man tries to steal a cab Dorothy has hailed. Despite Pollack being the director, the scene very much plays out the way Hoffman wanted it to go – played for laughs with Dorothy dragging the man out of the taxi and hitting him with her shopping bag. Pollack’s vision for the scene was far more dramatic with Dorothy getting upset at how she was being treated. While watching the rushes back, despite preferring his own take on the scene, Pollack knew exactly what would happen. Hoffman’s version made the final cut.

Of the process, Pollack said “You can’t make an actor do anything”, which is fitting in a kind of bittersweet way because that’s the setup for the film. Nobody will work with Dorsey due to his reputation as a difficult actor so he creates Dorothy, walks right into a role on a major soap opera and then continues to be difficult, but this time, using her position to fight what she perceives to be injustices, improvising instead of reading lines from the autocue which she believes makes her character look weak or stupid. This attitude constantly got Michael fired. It lands Dorothy on the cover of Cosmopolitan.

If only it were that easy.

Those grumbles aside, Tootsie is still a very enjoyable film. The laughs are never forced. The flowering romance between Hoffman and Lange, while a little creepy if you read too much into it, is believable and sweet, and even if it’s a product of its time and tackles an important sensitive issue with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, Tootsie is still a good, enjoyable movie which makes you think about gender norms and the treatment of women in both the workplace and society.

Did it deserve to win more of its ten nominations? Perhaps. It was up against tough opposition, but while Up Where We Belong was a worthy competitor, I can’t help but think that Yacht Rock favourite Stephen Bishop’s power ballad It Might Be You was probably the better of the two songs. Have a listen for yourself, see what you think…

Come back again next week you precious things for more 80s mischief as our Ultimate Movie Geek Nathaniel Jepson fights his way through dangers untold and hardships unnumbered to reorder time and go back to 1987 to look at Jim Henson’s puppet-tastic Bowie-crotch-fest, Labyrinth. 

Paul Childs

As well as writing for Den of Geek and Your Truth, Paul also runs Badgers Crossing, a site for ghost stories. He loves the 1980s and thanks to a keen interest in Public Information Films he has never been electrocuted or set himself on fire.

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