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Monday Movies Is Strong Enough To Be the Woman That Was the Best Part of Our Manhood

I loved Tootsie the first time around, and I want to say “it holds up,” but really it does much better. There was far more for me to enjoy seeing it in 2012 than I ever could have understood at the age of eight, when it first came out, thirty years ago, in the summer of 1982. (Didn’t hurt that I just saw it at the magnificent Orpheum Theatre as part of the LA Conservancy’s Last Remaining Seats series.)

As much as it lodges in the mind as a canonical 80’s comedy, next to Splash and coming up on Ghostbusters and Working Girl, Tootsie retains a lot of the grit and texture of 1970’s film drama. Director Sydney Pollack shoots the New York of hustling hand-to-mouth actors with the same eye he used for Three Days of the Condor (indeed, with the same director of photography, Owen Roizman). He creates a lived-in city of shared, under-furnished apartments and messy streets, and he populates it with working people–men and women who labor at their art and business.

Dustin Hoffman’s Michael Dorsey, a passionate craftsman of acting with a reputation as a prima donna, is the artist as a not-quite-anymore-so-young man. His decision to turn himself into Dorothy Michaels–to shed the identity that dogs him and try out for a female part that his friend, student and ill-advised lover couldn’t get (Teri Garr) allows Hoffman to showboat grandly, but the showboating is grounded in what Pollack has established, believably, about Dorsey’s character–he’s both a workhorse and a talent. In character as hospital administrator Emily Kimberly, Michael-as-Dorothy improvises fierce, feminist lashings to reroute the soapy scripts she’s been given. But before Dorothy shows up to work, we get to see Michael’s laborious self-creation: the makeup, the padding, the curlers, the outfits.

Tootsie‘s feminism is problematic, but sly as well. There’s an element of “mansplaining” in the film — Dorothy is hailed as a hero to women, and there’s a clear analogue to the white savior in the suggestion that all that feminism needed was someone who deep down wasn’t a woman to get the ball rolling. Dabney Coleman’s philandering soap director, and the near-rapist elderly star played by George Gaynes, are easy targets as broad phallocrats. But as Michael recognizes his own character in their actions, the story deepens. “I was a better man with you, as a woman… than I ever was with a woman, as a man,” says Michael to his co-star Julie, delivering the line with tongue-tied inelegance to hide the simple poetry.

Tootsie poster

More interesting than the film’s attempted feminism is its attempted patriotism. Dorothy does a magazine cover in front of an American flag; her rise to fame is accompanied by a red-white-and-blue Amtrak train hurtling into the pastoral hinterlands, where Julie’s father Les owns a sun-kissed farm decorated with extremely wholesome-looking wood furniture. There’s an insistence that Dorothy’s feminism, pushy and individualistic, is the right fit for America, whose women and men alike have been left adrift by sexual revolt. She’s not just popular; she’s a populist symbol.

A personal coda: in my experience with drag, it is powerful magic. My drag persona, adopted for a community pageant in 2002,  chose me more than I chose her, and she frightened my first wife.There’s something that feels very honest and familiar about the distance Dorothy takes Michael out to sea.

What did you see, and where did it take you?

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June 18, 2012 - Posted by | Monday Movies | , ,

1 Comment

  1. I was on vacation, which can be an exhausting business, so my wife and I often like to fill the down time with a movie or two. Actually, we most often pop in to catch a movie while waiting for a more structured event, like a ballgame. Anyway, in the nooks of our trip, we were able to squeeze in Prometheus and Men in Black 3.

    I enjoyed Prometheus on the whole. My quibbles were that it seemed to drag on a bit at the end and it left (in my head, at least) some important questions about various characters’ motivations. I also wondered why they had Guy Pearce play an ancient man in a film where he was never shown at his current age.

    MIB 3 was pretty fun, probably better than the second installment of that franchise. Josh Brolin did a remarkably good job of sliding into the Tommy Lee Jones character. So much so that when they go back into the future and show the actual Tommy Lee Jones, I found myself surprised that it hadn’t been him all along. Also startling in the transition from Brolin to Jones (did they hatch this idea while on the set of No Country for Old Men?) was just how old Jones looked.

    Finally, we had free HBO the week we were on vacation (of course) so we DVR’d a shit ton of movies while we were gone. The first of those we watched was Unstoppable. Not the Wesley Snipes movie, the Denzel Washington one. I thought it was just ho hum, even for what it was supposed to be. What struck me, though, was how much they fictionalized everything in a story “inspired by a true story”. They not only moved the runaway train from Ohio to Pennsylvania, but used fictional cities in Pennsylvania. The train was set to run off the tracks in a Pennsylvania town called Stanton with a population of 752,000. I wonder if they didn’t want anybody in real cities to feel they had ever been in danger.

    Comment by mattintoledo | June 19, 2012


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