It is truly fascinating to go back and watch successful mainstream movies from a few decades ago and see how what was once regarded as ludicrous is now considered the politically correct opinion held by all the right people.
For example, we’re now told that actors are no longer supposed to do the acting thing. I mean, you can’t cast a straight person as a gay character, that’s bigoted. Similarly, unless you want to be called a fascist, you better ensure that the ethnicities and even nationalities line up perfectly. The quaint old notion about using drama to underline the universal human experience has apparently hit its expiration date, so movies where people of different sexes and races play one another are now verboten. Linda Hunt’s amazing turn in The Year of Living Dangerously is right out.
I’m enjoying the irony of people who call themselves “anti-fascist” imposing Nazi Germany’s racial laws on entertainment, but let us set that aside to enjoy the absurd exception to this rule: the trans phenomenon. How remarkable that the simple expedient of growing one’s hair out allows a man to become Woman of the Year or crush women’s records in NCAA sports. (By the way, why is long hair now a feminine trait?)
Ah well, sometimes it’s best to settle back and watch the earlier, funnier 80s version of the present moment (on physical media of course). Join with me into a journey back to 1982 and experience the cheerful absurdity of Tootsie.
Meta Within Meta
It seems like ancient history, but Hollywood could once produce movies containing social commentary that were also highly entertaining. Indeed, the social commentary was part of the joke. Tootsie is one of those films.
You may have seen the iconic poster of Dustin Hoffman in drag, and figured it was basically a remake of Some Like It Hot, but there’s a lot going on here.
Hoffman is of course a fanatical method actor, and he really only plays one role, which is him playing a role. He only does “Dustin Hoffman does X.” Thus, the first joy of Tootsie is watching Hoffman do a parody of himself as a egotistical method actor who is so arrogant as to be unemployable. At the same time, he is the center of a dedicated circle of drama students who hang upon his every word.
Frustrated by his inability to land a good role (and too arrogant to keep the ones he gets), Hoffman decides to try his luck on female roles. The film makes it clear that this is not a sexual fetish but the ultimate expression of method acting. Hoffman’s goal is to immerse himself in being a woman to better play the part of a woman.
Naturally, it works, and he’s hired to play a hospital administrator on a daytime soap opera (transparently based on General Hospital).
Sex Differences Are Real
One of the salient points of the film is how difficult it is for a male to appear female. For Hoffman’s character, this is part of the epic challenge and at several points we get a glimpse of the harness that he has to wear to complete his deception. For example, when in character, he always wears scarves, turtlenecks or something with a high collar to hide his Adam’s Apple.
Essentially, he is accepting the fundamental truth that appearance matters, which is a total repudiation of today’s shrill insistence that we disregard the evidence of our own senses.
This is why attempts to back-date the trans phenomenon or trying to link link classical comedy films with Drag Queen Story Hour are deeply dishonest. Cross-dressing is nothing new, and it has a long pedigree in show business, but it was not explicitly sexual. It cut both ways, allowing both sexes to laugh at the mannerisms of the other. Victor, Victoria was the distaff version, where Julie Andrews played a woman playing a man playing a woman.
Tootsie channels this, using classic gags like showing how hard it is a walk in high heels.
And of course, Hoffman is straight, so much so that his admission into the world of scantily clad women necessarily creates awkward moments in terms of both his own modesty and his need to prevent his subterfuge from being pointedly revealed.
There is of course a complicated love story involved in the film, and despite the overall absurdity of the plot, Tootsie has some interesting things to say about how men and women relate to each other and the different ways they express their feelings. To be clear, Tootsie isn’t breaking any ground here; everyone knew this in 1982, but it’s refreshing to see that confidence shown on the screen.
As noted above, Hoffman isn’t gay, but his assertive, spunky yet homely woman naturally has all the guys chasing her, with the expected hilarious results. I’m not going to give the spoilers away but suffice to say that for all the progressive “you go girl” spirit of the film, it is sympathetic for people who were deceived by the gender-bending and the possibility that it was motivated by homosexuality. This is another truth that has been lost. Today when someone “comes out” in an existing relationship or uses a disguise to gain emotional or physical intimacy, the woke reaction is universal support, with nary a thought for the pain this causes on the other party.
The truth is that a betrayal is a betrayal, and Tootsie reflects this.
It is strange that an arch cross-dressing comedy could offer such strong moral lessons for the present moment, but that’s where we are.
A Fleeting Moment in Time
Tootsie was produced when first-wave feminism seemed to be at the crest of the hill and expresses confidence that if women simply find their inner strength, they can compete with men on equal terms. Yet I’m sure that if anyone called the surviving production team today on the “transphobic” message of the film, they would immediately condemn it.
It’s a funny film, and one of the surprises is Bill Murray, who plays Hoffman’s roommate. Murray usually takes the center stage, but here he plays the bemused onlooker, what used to be called “the straight man.” (I suppose I should explain that in comedy teams, one person often plays the zany jokester, and the other a credulous everyman who keeps a straight face throughout all the antics. Typically, the straight man gets a larger percentage of their pay because his is the much harder role.)
Murray is great in this subdued role which was unusual for him at the time.
The rest of the cast is great and the big reveal is an all-time classic.