Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 19: Tootsie (1982)


Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Tootsie (1982) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 147 of the first edition hardback, Ebert recalls a time when his eccentric newspaperman colleague Paul Galloway hired professionals to dress him up like Tootsie at the height of the film’s popularity. It didn’t quite elicit the desired effect. According to Roger, Galloway wasn’t offended that no one mistook him for a woman. He was upset that no one recognized him as Tootsie.

What Ebert had to say in his review:Tootsie is the kind of Movie with a capital ‘M’ that they used to make in the 1940s, when they weren’t afraid to mix up absurdity with seriousness, social comment with farce, and a little heartfelt tenderness right in there with the laughs. This movie gets you coming and going.” – from his 1982 review for The Chicago Sun-Times


There’s a lot of pressure for Tootsie to perform for a modern audience for two entirely different reasons: 1) it’s often lauded as one of the greatest comedies of all time & 2) gender identity politics have shifted drastically in the three decades since the film’s release. I think it helps both of the film’s expectation problems if you consider it more in the context of over-the-top farces like Some Like It Hot & (maybe to a lesser degree) Mrs. Doubtfire, where deeply flawed men learn a lesson about humility & empathy by surrendering their gender-based privilege instead of a joke-a-minute laugh riot with pointed things to say about gender politics, something the film pretends to be in brief, fleeting moments. Tootsie’s cultural significance can be a little puzzling when you consider that it was nominated for ten Academy Awards & still makes the cut on a lot of Best Films of All Time lists, since to be honest, it’s not all that funny on a minute to minute basis, something that should probably be a requirement for a great comedy. As an intricately woven farce, however, it’s a fun screenplay to watch unravel as the walls separating its protagonist’s Victor Victoria-type double life crumble and his lies amount to a total shit show of bruised egos & hurt feelings. Instead of watching Dustin Hoffman’s total jerk protagonist get his much-deserved comeuppance, we see him realize how much of an asshole he truly is once he trips up on his own tangle of deceits. It’s a surprisingly sweet trajectory for a film that can be nastily bitter in its early goings-on & the farcical fever pitch of its third act is a lot of what makes Tootsie such a pleasant memory overall.

A top-of-his-game Dustin Hoffman stars as an unemployed theater actor who is talented, but notoriously difficult to work with due to an oversized hubris. Unable to land a job due to his tarnished name, the unrepentant asshole channels his frustration into an indignant female character with a ludicrous, high-pitched voice and lands a major role on a televised soap opera as his in-drag persona, unbeknownst to the cast & crew. This dynamic allows both for some delicious mockery of soap opera melodrama (seen also in less respected comedies like Joy & Delirious) and for some occasional pointed criticism about gendered work place politics, something the actor was blind to as a man. As much as he now has a soap box for complaints about how power makes a woman be unfairly perceived as “masculine” or “ugly”, a voice that inspires other women to speak up for themselves in a hostile work environment, donning a dress doesn’t instantly make him a better person. Tootsie is smart to hold onto the idea that its protagonist is a deceitful, selfish ass, allowing very little room for him to be excused for his manipulative transgressions, especially when it comes to his two love interests: a supposedly dear friend & an unsuspecting coworker. Watching this film as a kid I had never picked up on how much of an asshole Dustin Hoffman’s character is in this film; watching it now it’s the only thing I can focus on at all. Luckily, the film feels the same way & deals with his actions accordingly.

There’s not a lot going on in Tootsie formally that would really justify its inclusion on a Best Films of All Time list outside the weird imagery in a montage that includes a surreally out-of-place Andy Warhol cameo and a shot of Tootsie saluting before a Patton-esque American flag backdrop. The film’s performances are mostly serviceable, with very few moments allowed for a standout actor-centric showcase. I was especially bummed over  Bill Murray’s performance as a wisecracking bitter artist roommate, who was even more of an ass as the film’s starring role, as his entire part boils down to vocal discomfort with the idea of crossdressing (in what I’m afraid was supposed to function partly as an audience surrogate). If there’s anything impressive about how this film was made it’s in the efficiency of its screenplay. Not only does the mass confusion & chaos of the climax amount to a complex web of hurt feelings; the lead-up to that moment is also surprisingly effective. I especially liked the way the film bravely jumps into the drag persona conceit without an initial dressup montage and the way line readings from its fictional soap opera mixes with its protagonist’s true sentiments as well as the way the protagonist’s identity becomes confused as he starts making decisions based on the desires of his female avatar. Besides, you have to somewhat respect a film that can effortlessly work in a line as convoluted as, “I was a better man with you as a woman than I ever was with a woman as a man, you know?” and make it count for something. Some of Tootsie’s gender-identity politics are as outdated in a modern context as its total garbage “Go Tootsie go! Roll Tootsie roll!” pop music theme song, but it’s still a well written film with a timeless message: don’t be an asshole.


Roger’s Rating: (4/4, 100%)


Brandon’s Rating (3.5/5, 70%)


Next Lesson: Help! (1965)

-Brandon Ledet

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