In Tootsie, directed by Sydney Pollack, Dustin Hoffman plays Michael Dorsey, an out of work actor in New York with a bad reputation. The reputation comes from being difficult and taking stands against simple direction on stage. He’s also an acting coach, his speeches give great confidence to inspiring actors, most of them also out of work. One of the best things he tells them is, “Don’t play a part that’s not in you.” Then he disguises himself as a woman, tries out for a role on a daytime soap opera, and gets it. Suddenly, Michael is leading the lives of both Michael Dorsey and Dorothy Michaels
It’s isn’t enough for Hoffman to play Michael as Dorothy, but rather gives Dorothy a whole different personality. In the story, we can credit this as Michael being a great actor, and really, it’s just Hoffman being a fantastic actor by not letting us see the layers. While Michael is a bit of a schemer, womanizer and can loose his cool quickly, Dorothy is much more collected, kind and can command with a fiery elegance many women cannot attain well. Perhaps Michael’s masculinity helps Dorothy pull that off just right.
A story of a man disguised as a woman is rarely done so well. Usually, it’s only a gimmick that results in nothing more substantial than some mildly amusing situations of sexual awkwardness. Here, there’s a compelling story driven behind the two halves of Hoffman that awakens some thoughtful social commentary as well as hilarious situations, ranging from Hoffman’s sudden voice changes to some Auntie Dorothy babysitting time.
Michael soon finds some unexpected female roles that come along with being Dorothy. One of his first days on the show, he sees he has to do a kissing scene with the show’s doctor. The look on his face when Julie (Jessica Lange) tells him, “We call him The Tongue,” is priceless. Cunningly, he uses Dorothy’s strong, commanding side to improvise his way out of the scene. It’s moments like that that bring Dorothy Michaels fame and launch her to become a modern icon of the strong proud woman. But is Michael up to the responsibility of being a strong, female role model? As much as he’s learning about being a woman, he is not a woman, yet he’s feeling a new kinship to women, but doesn’t realize the damage he could do with it if his lie is exposed.
There’s also the platonic relationship Dorothy forges with Julie, while Michael is attracted to her. It’s this double-edged sword that gives Michael a chance to get to know Julie better than he probably would have known her as a man. But we’re afraid that the friendship, trust and safety Julie feels with Dorothy can only be broken if the truth about who she really is comes out. It’s really astounding how well this odd love triangle of multiple personalities pulls at our hearts and minds where there isn’t one person of the three that we find complete fault with. We’re rooting for everyone, knowing that they can’t all win.
“I was a better man with you as a woman than I ever was with a woman as a man. Know what I mean?”