Wow, it’s been a while since I’ve been here, for which I apologise. But I do actually have a good excuse for having neglected the 80s Film Club for so long – I’ve been writing a book about, yes, 80s films. It’s out next month and is called Life Moves Pretty Fast, published by 4th Estate (I don’t know why authors always say who published their books, it’s not like anyone ever looks up books by publishers. But far be it for me to go against authorial tradition.)
Anyway, let’s get back on board the 80s Film Club with one of my favourite films, not just of the 80s but really of all time (although, to be honest, that is kind of a tautology: if it’s one of my favourite films of the 80s, it’s obviously one of my favourite films of all time.) I am talking about one of the funniest, sweetest and most feminist films of all time. I am talking, quite obviously, about Tootsie.
Now, over the past few decades there seems to have been a collective sense of amnesia about how women in 80s films were depicted. Thanks, I suspect, largely to Susan Faludi’s unquestionably brilliant appraisal of the era, Backlash, 80s films are largely dismissed by critics and feminists as trashy misogyny, advocating that single women over 35 should be shot to death by good little wives (Fatal Attraction), or that women love being tortured and humiliated (9 1/2 Weeks.) Certainly there are some properly cringe inducing moments in 80s movies when it comes to feminism, such as the wife in Die Hard realising at the end of the film that she was completely wrong to try to pursue her high-flying job away from her grumpy husband, and, to prove she has learnt her lesson, she reverts to using her married name and gives up her apparently outrageous desire to be go by her maiden one. Thank God the strident bitch learnt her lesson, right?
But if you look beyond the work of Bruce Willis and schlock merchant Adrian Lyne, you see that, actually, 80s films were terrific for women, and certainly a lot better than mainstream Hollywood movies today. I’ll write about the depiction of working women in 80s films in another post (probably in one about Baby Boom, another true class act of a movie), and I’ll deal with the plethora of absolutely brilliant women’s movies in that decade in another post (probably about Steel Magnolias, OBVIOUSLY.) Abortion in 80s movies, meanwhile, is another pet subject of mine. But today, I’m just going to restrict myself to looking at feminism in 80s films, and in this regard Tootsie is an exemplar.
It’s hard to believe now, in a time when actresses are scared to identify themselves as feminist out of fear it will alienate their audiences, but there was a time when Hollywood actually made explicitly feminist movies. The 70s was probably the high point for this, with movies such as My Brilliant Career, Up the Sandbox and The Stepford Wives. But the 80s were pretty great for this, too. I don’t know why 1980s’ 9 to 5 isn’t watched more today, but it should be, with Lili Tomlin, Jane Fonda and Dolly Parton all torturing their boss (Dabney Coleman) to give them more respect in the workplace, better working hours and office childcare. Seriously, what more do film audiences want today? Also in 1980 there was Private Benjamin, in which Goldie Hawn rejects the easy marriage ending in order to continue life on her own. Tootsie then continued the trend, but it used a vehicle even more unexpected than a Goldie Hawn comedy or Dolly Parton’s cleavage to advocate the second wave feminist cause: it used a man.
I must watch this movie at least five or six times a year, and there is not a single instance when it fails to cheer me. Every line, every inflection is absolutely perfect, especially when it comes from Dustin Hoffman or Bill Murray, who nearly steals the film in a tiny role as Hoffman’s flatmate Jeff. Personally, I could do without Jessica Lange’s weird breathy southern accent (which is never explained, incidentally, seeing as her character grew up in upstate New York), but, to quote another film featuring cross dressing men, nobody’s perfect. (But having sounded that forgiving note, I do still think Terri Garr should have won the Oscar for this film and not Lange.) I love that Commandant Lassard plays the lecherous soap star and I LOVE that Dabney Coleman, apparently everyone’s favourite 80s sexist, is Dorothy’s nemesis in the movie. It’s a perfectly structured film and, hell, it’s just really, really funny. There are so many lines that make my giggle to myself on the bus when they just pop in my head:
“Shame on you, you macho shithead!”
“Well, don’t play hard to get.”
“THAT is one nutty hospital.”
In fact, it’s so funny that the feminism really sneaks up on you, not least because it comes via the nasal-voiced Hoffman. Next time someone tells you feminism can’t be funny, show them this movie.
When we first meet Michael Dorsey (Hoffman), he seems like an overly-intense, pretty self-involved aspiring actor. Sure, he’s nice to his friend Sandy (Garr), walking her home and helping her prepare for an audition, but he hardly seems like an advocate for women’s rights. Until, that is, he dresses up like a woman and becomes Dorothy. At this point, he stands up to Ron, the sexist director (Coleman), and castigates the entire crew of the soap opera for promoting the idea “that power makes women masculine, or that masculine women are ugly. Well, shame on you for letting a man do that!”
Even if Michael’s fury is rooted largely in his frustration at not getting to audition, those are some relatively thoughtful feminist issues he’s tackling right from the start, and it becomes clear he truly believes them. He later complains to Jeff how much he hates the director patronising Dorothy and this leads to him tackling Ron’s irritating habit of referring to all the women on set with nicknames, which prompts one of my favourite exchanges in the film:
Ron: Take, Tootsie
Dorothy: Dorothy Michaels: Ron? I have a name it’s Dorothy. It’s not Tootsie or Toots or Sweetie or Honey or Doll.
Ron: Oh, Christ.
Dorothy: No, just Dorothy. Alan’s always Alan, Tom’s always Tom and John’s always John. I have a name too. It’s Dorothy, capital D-O-R-O-T-H-Y.
Dorothy, Michael admits to Geoff, might well be smarter than Michael, and the rest of the world agrees. While Michael couldn’t even keep the role of a tomato in a commercial, as Dorothy he is a gold-plated hit. One of the most delightful – and, sadly, most dated – strands in the film is how Dorothy’s character on the soap, Emily Kimberly, becomes a TV icon because Dorothy turns her into a militant feminist. “My secretary wants to be like Dorothy Michaels and I want to fire her!” growls Michael’s agent George (Sydney Pollack.) There is a lovely montage in which we see Dorothy modelling for the covers of various magazines, all because Emily advocates things such as electric cattle prods to “zap [sexual harassers] in the badoobies.” I know there’s a lot of talk now about how trendy feminism is – BEYONCE LIKES IT, Y’KNOW?!?!?!? – but it’s hard to imagine a militant feminist character on an American daytime soap now, or that she would become nationally celebrated. Watching this movie is like seeing the tail end of feminism’s second wave disappear around the corner.
Ron isn’t the only reconstructed man in the film. Julie’s (Lange) father, Les (Charles Durning), represents the kinder side of the pre-feminist man. He falls head over heels in love with Dorothy even though he worries she might be “one of those liberators.” Dorothy (somewhat dismayingly, to be honest) tells him she’s “not that militant” and, reassured, Les embarks on his theory of feminism:
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for equality. Women ought to be entitles to everything and all. Except sometimes I think what they really want is to be men, like men are all equal in the first place, which we’re not. I remember years ago there wasn’t talk about what a woman was, what a man was. You just were what you were. Now they have all this stuff about being like the other sex, so you can all be the same. Well, I’m sorry, but we’re just not. Not on a farm, anyway. Bulls are bulls and roosters don’t try to lay eggs.”
Now, in a lot of ways this speech is fairly reasonable: women should have equal rights, yes; men and women are not the same, no. But the film is, of course, completely undermining it because the whole point of Tootsie is that when men and women stop thinking of themselves as different species, they become better people. As Michael says to Julie at the end, “I was a better man with you as a woman than I ever was with a woman as a man.” (Julie, frustratingly dense to a fault, looks completely bemused by this.) It is by seeing how Ron treats the women in his life that Michael learns that being a man is not an excuse for treating women like crap: he learns, from being a woman, that women are humans, like him. And this is apt because that was precisely the lesson Hoffman learned that made him want to make this film.
In a 2012 interview with the American Film Institute, Hoffman explained that the idea for Tootsie began with the question, “How would your life be different if you were born a woman?” To answer this, Hoffman went off to be made up as a woman to see if he could pass as the opposite sex and not “some guy in drag.” When he saw the results, he was, he recalls, “shocked that I wasn’t more attractive.” At this point, Hoffman “had an epiphany”: “I said, I think I’m an interesting woman [but] I know if I met that character at a party, I wouldn’t talk to her… There are too many interesting women that I haven’t had the experience of knowing because I have been brainwashed.” This is why, Hoffman concludes, crying in the interview, Tootsie “was never a comedy for me.”
Now, I can forgive Hoffman a lot for Tootsie, and that includes some luvvie-ish excesses. But his close feeling for the role explains how he was able to play Dorothy in a very funny movie, but never play Dorothy herself for laughs. There are never any jokes at Dorothy’s expense – all jokes are at the expense of those who underestimate her. It’s not easy to make a movie featuring a man in drag without resorting to campness, gender stereotypes or downright slapstick, but Hoffman succeeds with aplomb in this. By the end of the film, Michael isn’t necessarily a man you’d want to know, but Dorothy is absolutely a woman you’d want as a friend, and that is some trick for an actor to pull off.
Now, if the film really had the courage of Hoffman’s convictions, it would end with Michael getting back together with the brilliant and unjustly treated Sandy instead of swanning off with the more conventionally beautiful (and boring) Julie. But, like I say, I forgive Hoffman a lot, even Rainman, and I forgive Tootsie this tiny flaw. Because, really, this is not just a perfect feminist film, it’s one of the all time perfect comedies.