Tootsie, Dustin Hoffman, and women

“But I was a better man with you, as a woman… than I ever was with a woman, as a man. You know what I mean?”
– Michael Dorsey to Julie Nichols, from the movie Tootsie

Dress like a tall, strong woman. Platforms help, as do hand weights to keep strong arms toned.

Dress like a tall, strong woman. Platforms help, as do hand weights to keep strong arms toned.

In 1983, the movies Tootsie and Gandhi were both up for Best Actor awards. Ben Kingsley won over Dustin Hoffman. I saw both movies, and while I greatly admired Kingsley’s performance and the movie – and how could you not give an Oscar to Gandhi – I thought Hoffman’s dual performance of portraying volatile actor Michael Dorsey and actress Dorothy Michaels was a tour de force and worthy of the coveted statue. You could feel Hoffman getting into and understanding his female role. Tootsie has remained one of my favorite movies ever since.

I thought about Tootsie recently when a few Facebook friends posted a clip of part of a Hoffman interview from a few years ago that recently went viral. He talked about the premise of the movie coming from a discussion between him and his long-time friend Murray Schisgal, an American playwright and screenwriter, when the latter wondered how a man would be different if he were born a woman – not what is it like to be a woman. Hoffman thought the make-up team should be able to make him a beautiful woman because he considered himself an interesting woman and therefore expected to be beautiful on the outside as well.

You should watch the clip yourself, but basically he talked about how he had missed out on meeting too many interesting women in his life because they didn’t possess the physical beauty that was his – and society’s – measuring stick for approaching or wanting to know these women. He called it a “brainwashing,” and the clip ends with an emotional Hoffman proclaiming that Tootsie was never a comedy for him. No wonder it went viral! First of all, for me, I adore Dustin Hoffman. I think he’s a great actor. You can feel the intensity and integrity in all the characters he portrays on film. It was touching and refreshing, respectively, to see him so moved and to admit to what many men do – determine whether they want to get to know a woman based on her looks. It’s great that he understands the loss of not knowing so many interesting women in the world.

Silver pops against black: Lava 9 earrings (Berkeley, CA), Carmela Rose bangles and Asian Art Museum flower bracelet (San Francisco), and Kate Peterson necklace (El Cerrito, CA).

Silver pops against black: Lava 9 earrings (Berkeley, CA), Carmela Rose bangles and Asian Art Museum flower bracelet (San Francisco), Kate Peterson necklace (El Cerrito, CA), and Museum of Modern Art ring (NYC).

While I congratulate Hoffman on this epiphany, I have to take issue with something that I noticed about the movie and the characteristics and what it was saying to me and to others long before I saw the Hoffman interview clip. I loved the character of Dorothy Michaels. She was a firecracker who spoke her mind and yet was sensitive and wise. However, the two main female characters – Julie Nichols, played by Jessica Lange, who won Best Supporting Actress for her role, and Sandy Lester, played by a pitch-perfect Teri Garr – were not strong women. Julie drank too much and knowingly dated a womanizer who treated her shabbily. Sandy was lovable but had low self-esteem. (Although she finally stuck up for herself in her finest moment in the movie after Michael told her that he never said he loved her: She fought back, proclaiming, “I never said I love you, I don’t care about I love you! I read The Second Sex, I read The Cinderella Complex, I’m responsible for my own orgasm. I don’t care! I just don’t like to be lied to!” She triumphantly turned her back on him and stomped out, with the prized box of chocolates given to Michael by Julie’s father tucked under her arm.

But who was the strong woman? Dorothy Michaels! Who taught Julie to take control and not be a doormat to her director lover Ron Carlisle, played by Dabney Coleman? Dorothy Michaels. When I realized that, I thought to myself that the inadvertent message is that women can’t be strong, or that they need the help of a man to be strong, something that I’m sure was unintended. Maybe others can weigh in on this seeming incongruous message because to be sure there are challenges in the movies to gender stereotypes. For instance, Dorothy lets it loose on Carlisle during her audition for the role of Emily Kimberly, hospital administrator for a popular soap opera, when Carlisle tells “her” she’s not right for the part because he’s “trying to make a certain statement” and “looking for a specific physical type”: “Oh I know what y’all really want is some gross, caricature of a woman to prove some idiotic point that power makes a woman masculine, or masculine women are ugly. Well shame on you for letting a man do that, or any man that does that. That means you, dear. Miss Marshall.” Of course, Miss Marshall, the producer, sports power pantsuits, wears her hair in an androgynous bob, and has a tough swagger, but you expect this cliché in a movie about the sexes.

A close-up of accessories for a mixed-fabric summer dress.

A close-up of accessories for a mixed-fabric summer dress.

At the end of Tootsie, when Michael Dorsey rips off his Dorothy Michaels wig to reveal who he is after a long, rambling monologue, he faces Julie and says: “I am Edward Kimberly. Edward Kimberly. And I’m not mentally ill, but proud, and lucky, and strong enough to be the woman that was the best part of my manhood. The best part of myself.” This is the moment in the movie that references Hoffman’s discussion in the interview clip about how a man would be different if he were born a woman. It seems to me that in imagining what it would be like and putting ourselves in that situation we actually strive to be the best that we can be. We imagine ourselves as the opposite sex to be interesting, strong, and beautiful inside, which ultimately makes us beautiful on the outside no matter who says what.

Tootsie, which was deemed by the U.S. Library of Congress in 1998 to be a “culturally significant” film and preserved in the National Film Registry, still has a lot to say about men and women – our roles and our perceptions. Whereas the American Film Institute ranked Tootsie the “second funniest film of all time” in 2000, Hoffman was adamant in saying that it was not a comedy for him, and in a nod to its cultural significance, his performance is above and beyond the male-actor-playing-a-woman role such as Robin Williams’ Mrs. Doubtfire. I love so many lines from Tootsie and the sentimental-but-wistful theme song “It Might Be You” sung by Stephen Bishop. Now I have another reason to love the movie, thanks to Hoffman’s honesty and his generosity in sharing his epiphany about women with all of us.