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Shrink at the Movies: “Tootsie” (1982)

“Tootsie” (1982)


While it’s not technically the 30th anniversary quite yet of one of the most successful film comedies of all time (that comes December 17, 2012), I love this film so much that I’m going to celebrate its milestone anniversary early. And why not? Its stars are still relevant today; Jessica Lange, who won an Oscar for her role as “Julie Nichols” in “Tootsie”, just won a Golden Globe as Best Supporting Actress in a TV Drama for her role as Constance (the Southern Menace, like a Blanche DuBois from Hell) on “American Horror Story.” And “Tootsie’s” star, Dustin Hoffman, is starring in the new HBO series, “Luck.” You just can’t keep a good “Tootsie” star down (if you look closely, a pre-“Golden Girls” Estelle Getty is seen briefly in a scene where Dorothy dances with Les).

There are so many directions that a psychotherapist can go in commenting about “Tootsie” that I feel like a person with ADD at a laser light show. Do I comment about Gender Issues? Couple and Relationship issues? Homophobia? The creative, if somewhat desperate, measures of the Unemployed Actor to cope with his unfortunate state? Looks-ism? Courtship Rituals of the Urban Hip?

OK, OK, one at a time. For “Tootsie” is all of these, and more, and remains such a treasure that according to Wikipedia, in 1998, the Library of Congress deemed it “culturally significant” and added it to the National Film Registry for preservation.
Based on an original story by Larry Gelbart (of TV “M*A*S*H” fame) and originally titled, “Is It Really You?”, “Tootsie” is a boy (who is dressed as a girl) meets girl story, until girl finds out the girl she kinda likes is actually the boy and punches him in the stomach for arousing girl’s latent lesbian tendencies under false pretenses while boy is trying to raise money to produce and star in boy’s roommate’s play as boy actually falls in love with girl and she falls for boy, only after being out of the dress. Or rather, both of them being out of the dress. Really. (See the Wikipedia listing for the full synopsis).

In my private practice as a psychotherapist in Los Angeles, I have worked with so many un- or under-employed actors and writers that I think “Tootsie” is realistic enough to be a documentary. Or at least the depiction of how young, hungry, and broke (let’s not forget broke) young artistes can be. In this regard, it’s as reliable as the Farmer’s Almanac (OK; extra points if you get the classic film reference I just made there, from another diva in a dress – leave comment if you know it).

Desperate times call for desperate measures, and Dustin Hoffman’s character, Michael Dorsey, is an unemployed actor who has been deemed “difficult” by his agent (director Sydney Pollack) and others all over New York and can’t get the $8,000 he needs to produce and star in his roommate, Jeff’s, (played by Bill Murray), new play. After hearing that his friend (quasi-girlfriend) Sandy has auditioned for a role on a soap as a matronly hospital administrator, Michael dons dress and wig and actually nails the gig instead. Locked into the elaborate ruse, he falls in love with co-star Julie Nichols (Jessica Lange) and hijinks ensue, especially after Julie’s dad (Charles Durning) falls for Michael-in-Drag, aka “Dorothy Michaels.” The movie’s central theme of “I was a better man with you as a woman than I ever was with a woman as a man” is played out masterfully with hilarious dialogue as Michael tries to extricate himself from the successful fiasco of his own too-clever making.

What kinds of issues, from my professional perspective, does the film entail along the way?

Gender Issues – One has to be careful in depictions of drag, so as not to mock the very serious and important experience of the transgender person. Even as our society has grown, somewhat, on sexual orientation issues, most people are still quite ignorant on gender identity issues (though the high-profile trans experience of Chaz Bono helps to bring the issue into awareness and discussion). The issue in “Tootsie” is not about gender dysphoria issues, which, although bandied about as a “diagnosis” in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, aka the “DSM”, or “Bible of mental health disorders”, it’s considered a flawed diagnosis and not really representative of the transgender experience. “Tootsie” is also not a depiction of Tranvestic Fetishism, which is being sexually and emotionally aroused by wearing clothes of the opposite sex. The gender issues in “Tootsie” really boil down to the effect of an elaborate disguise, which also serves to sensitize the somewhat chauvinistic Michael Dorsey into an increased empathy for the Female Experience, or at least a glimpse into it. The film’s exploration of the norms, expectations, contradictions, ironies, and just plain bum deal dynamics of gender role expectations in heterosexual relationships is a consistent theme throughout. While one may think that “Tootsie” is about the crazy world of actors, theatre, and television, it is ultimately a romantic comedy that explores the foibles of human relationships (especially heterosexual ones, where the Mars/Venus perspectives collide hilariously).
Couple and Relationship Issues – Furthering the romantic comedy theme and the commentary on modern relationships, “Tootsie” is a survey of the different forms relationships take. There is the frustrated, angry, unrequited love by Sandy to Michael; there is the “bromance” of starving artist/roommates Michael and Jeff; the darker tone of a vague threat of rape by the soap’s notoriously lecherous John Van Horn (George Gaynes); the funny-but-slightly-sad romantic feelings of lonely dad Les to Dorothy; Julie’s dysfunctional relationship with soap director Ron (Dabney Coleman, who is the darker side of Michael Dorsey personified); and Michael’s sincere relationship to Julie as a love-struck guy, and even the relationship from parent (Julie) or quasi-parent/babysitter (Dorothy) to Julie’s daughter, Amy. (One wonders if a great sequel could be in the works where Julie’s baby, Amy, grows up and dons “drag king” garb to reach a desired goal, figuring if it worked for her stepdad to marry her mom, maybe it will work for her? Screenwriters take note!) The film’s laundry list of the different types of relationships is actually heartwarming in its depiction of the many ways people develop feelings for one another – for better or for worse.

Homophobia – For 1982, before “Will and Grace” and various other positive depictions of gay men in television and movies that were to come later, “Tootsie” inevitably handles issues of homophobia in subtle and mostly funny ways, without lapsing into the vulgar homophobic “humor” some movies indulge in (shame on you, “Hangover.”) Julie’s father, Les, is the “tough guy” embodiment of almost a “gay panic” when he learns the middle-aged woman he’s fallen for is actually a young male actor in drag. Les’ line, “The only reason you’re still living is because I never kissed you” is perhaps the film’s worst, un-funny, extremely dark line that stands out like a corpse at a children’s birthday party. It’s meant to be yet another “funny” line, but there is nothing funny about the threat of violence to gay men by weak straight men indulging in their Gay Panic “defense.” The only way Les redeems himself (to Michael, Julie, and to the audience) is a subsequent line, “To tell the truth, you weren’t bad company” — leaving the door open for Michael, out of drag, to eventually win over his possibly future father-in-law. The other depiction of same-sex relationships is the subtle romance between Michael, as Dorothy, and Julie, who develops warm and almost “maternally romantic” feelings toward Dorothy. It is kind of a cruel tease that Julie is falling in love with the person she’s with most (Dorothy) but is tortured by not being a lesbian to reciprocate. Her feelings are sensitively handled late in the film, with Julie’s line, “I really love you, Dorothy. But I can’t ‘love’ you.” That sets up a very justifiable punch in the stomach to Michael after his big “reveal” scene when the entire ruse is up on national television during a live episode of “Southwest General.” “John Van Horn” knows that Jeff is “Dorothy’s” roommate, and gives the line after the reveal scene, “Does Jeff know??”, which was a hit every time in the four times (yes, four) that I saw “Tootsie” in theaters on its release. Bill Murray, as Jeff, has a very funny line when he asks Michael earlier, facetiously, “I’m just worried you’re going to go to Hell for all of this”, a nice play on Christianist homophobia, transphobia, and oppression. Ultimately, the film could have benefited not from a “play” on same-sex relationships between various characters, but depicting an actual happy gay or lesbian relationship to balance the various forms of parody.

Desperate Measures of the Unemployed Creative Professional – Michael’s response to the above line from Jeff is, “I believe in unemployment, but I don’t believe in Hell.” This embodies Michael’s devotion to his craft, in that Hell, for an actor, is not fire and brimstone and pitch forks in the ass, but merely unemployment. I’ve worked with many actor and writer clients in Hollywood who would agree! Actors and writers (I lump these together for discussion here, though in actual therapy, they are very different “minds”) demonstrate an unusual dedication to having the opportunity to work. They will do double-shifts waiting tables, they will study and put in countless hours of rehearsal and class, they will sacrifice the creature comforts their peers in other fields have; they will spend their last time on just the right outfit for a big audition or pitch meeting; in short, they will do almost anything to work. The idea of a straight male actor being so desperate that he dons drag in order to raise money to do a “real” play as a male is by no means far-fetched. (Perhaps it is far-fetched that he gets away with it for so long; in reality, Dustin Hoffman’s heavy whiskers would break through makeup in a relatively short time on the set, but even this is explained away in the film as Dorothy’s “mustache problem” that she is “sensitive about.”) Part of the therapy and/or career coaching I do with creative professionals is helping them evolve artistically while at the same time making a living in a competitive profession as a self-employed artisan. I think the general public would have an even greater appreciation for the actors they see, and the scripts they see produced, if they really knew the lengths that actors, writers, and other creative professionals go just to be able to work. We forget in an average night out at the movies that hundreds or thousands of people have worked thousands of person-hours just to bring us our two-hour idyll.

Looks-Ism – In therapy with clients, especially in Los Angeles but it probably happens elsewhere, I’m surprised at how often “Looks-Ism” is a theme. We all know about the status that comes from a profession or how much money one has, but in LA, a part of how someone is judged, even on things like trustworthiness and competence, is how they LOOK. (In my animated lampoon of local LA health clubs, co-created on and still available on YouTube, “Selecting a Gym in West Hollywood”, I had a character repeat, “I want to be thin and popular – it’s the only way to live.” Meant as parody, I’ve been told by clients that it has apparently been adopted as an actual mantra by the locals…) . When “Tootsie’s” soap opera casting director, “Rita” (Doris Belack) says to her cameraman on a studio intercom, “I want to make her look a little more attractive. How far can you pull back?” The blasé cameraman deadpans, “How do you feel about Cleveland?”. Earlier, Jeff surveys the early-morning debut finished product of Michael’s transformation to Dorothy and surmises, “Well, it works…But don’t play hard to get.” Later, Dorothy has a rant with director Ron, confronting him on the idea that “Masculine women are ugly” – when only recently Michael was guilty of chauvinistic behavior himself. Julie, of course, is beautiful, and even radiant, and it’s easy to see how Michael would go to great lengths to win her over. But the depiction of Les as the “older romantic” who is gray-haired and beer-bellied is a reminder that beauty (like Dorothy’s makeup) is only skin-deep. Even the “message” that the slightly dowdier Sandy (Teri Garr) does not “get the guy” is a little disturbing in its looks-ism, but one could also argue that Sandy loses Michael not because of her looks, but because of her neurotic personality that clashes with Michael’s equally-neurotic personality that ultimately seems to charm Julie.

Courtship Rituals of the Urban Hip – “Tootsie” could certainly be argued as the ultimate in “how I met your mother” stories. The rituals of an earlier, pre-Dorothy Michael include hitting on Julie at a party and her responding by tossing a drink in his face. Early on, Michael gets caught trying to try on one of Sandy’s dresses for practice and gets caught with his own clothes off and gets out of it by seducing Sandy. Julie agonizes over breaking up with Ron. All of these underscore Julie’s line about “finding being a woman in the 80’s complicated”, to which Dorothy (ironically) agrees. As an audience, we relate to these filmic hijinks because who among us hasn’t done things in the context of dating that we regret? Who among us would not use a magic “Do-Over” at certain points in a relationship? Elaborate disguises aside, relationships are still challenging.
Part of “Tootsie’s” success is not only its masterful modern use of the age-old “disguise” ruse, made popular by Shakespeare in “Twelfth Night” and so many other classic stories, but ultimately in its reassuring and sweet romance. In the final scene, a repentant Michael professes his real (no tricks this time) love for Julie, admitting that if given a second chance, he’s “just gotta learn to do it without the dress.” Julie reluctantly forgives in an mischievous smile, asking Michael if he can “borrow the Halston” as they literally walk off into the sunset of a busy Manhattan street.
The sweet notion that if we come clean, are honest, and “learn to do it without the dress” (aka the bullshit pretense that complicates so many relationships), we, too, will live happily ever after. A part of couples therapy can be to strip away the distractions (like so much dress, padding, and makeup) and get to the good part that’s underneath (I meant underneath the pretense, not under the dress).
If you haven’t already seen the film (and that would be rare), I realize there is a certain “you had to be there” quality to this analysis. And while few things in life are certain, it’s a pretty safe bet that you will enjoy the time invested in your life that it takes to see the amalgamation of genius that is “Tootsie.”

For you, “Tootsie,” I’ve been thinking about what film to add my Top 10 Favorite Films of All Time list, and in the words of the film’s theme song (penned by Alan and Marilyn Bergman), “something’s telling me it might be you; yeah, it’s telling me it must be you; and I’m feeling it will just be you – all of my life…”

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