“Tootsie” stars Dustin Hoffman as Michael Dorsey, a middle-aged unemployed actor, who with some make-up and a new wardrobe becomes Dorothy Michaels, daytime television's most popular star. After realizing what Hoffman had done his agent (played by the film's director, Sydney Pollack) exclaims, “Jesus, I begged you to get some therapy.” Hoffman retorts that he almost didn't get the part because they thought he was “too feminine.” The comic element of the film is entirely based on the premise of a man choosing to be a woman and on how society looks down on this.
Released on December 17, 1982, after months of advance publicity, Columbia Studios was expecting Tootsie to race past Close Encounters of the Third Kind to become the most successful Columbia film ever. This is amazing for a film about a man who “finds his inner self” in drag. Charles Eidsvik wrote that “Tootsie's open appeal to America's distrust of appearances, and thus the film's sentimental embrace of `inner' as a value, is one reason for Tootsie's box office success.” “Tootsie” was the first mainstream feminist film to make a lot of money at the box-office, and, more importantly, to change the way that both men and women thought about sex roles.
By bringing feminist issues to the forefront in a classically entertaining film, Tootsie had a great effect in consciousness-raising. In fact, Tootsie made many feminists prematurely optimistic about the future of feminism in American popular culture. Along these lines, Molly Haskell once wrote: “The scenes in which Jessica Lange and Hoffman become friends, then intimates – those moments in which two very different kinds of women discover a bond in their mutual vulnerability – set off with infinite grace the image of `sisterhood' that we expected to be the grand theme of the decade ” “Tootsie” awakened in men and women of the early 1980s a general appreciation of “sisterhood,” and strangely enough a sisterhood for both men and women.
“Tootsie” certainly changed early 1980s attitudes towards relationships: the idea that each person carries both male and female traits had never before been so boldly stated in a film as when Dustin Hoffman tells Jessica Lange, who plays a submissive, sexy soap star he falls in love with, “I was a better man with you as a woman than I ever was as a man with a woman.” These lines summed up the ideal early 1980s heterosexual relationship, where the man was aware of feminist issues as well as the “sensitive” side of himself. Viewers intuitively realized that we had come along from “Frankly, Scarlett, I don't give a damn,” and changed their sexual attitudes accordingly.
The film was reassuring to women because the Dustin Hoffman character does change. In the final scene of the film he apologizes to Jessica Lange: “I just want to say I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to hurt anybody, especially you.” He goes on to admit that he has learned his lesson, and that now he has to learn how “to do it without the dress.” He tells Lange that “You have to admit, at this point in our relationship there could be advantages to my wearing pants.” They walk off into the sunset as Lange talks of borrowing Hoffman's yellow Halston.
Initially, Hoffman is a “typical male,” patronizing his unemployed and rejected girlfriend (Teri Garr) in a condescending way. But after he gets in touch with his female side, through playing Dorothy Michaels, he becomes a better man. As he puts it, “I was strong enough to be a woman, that best part of me.” His consciousness is raised and his sexual complacency is eradicated.
Some critics have argued that Tootsie subtly changed attitudes towards the gay community, although it was not ostensibly about gay issues. However, the ramifications of Michael Dorsey's impersonation of a woman in the story suggests gay issues. For instance, in one scene Bill Murray asks Hoffman “It is just for the money isn't it It's not so you can try on these little outfits” Michael's relationship with his girlfriend Sandy becomes more and more complicated as he continues to hide his new job from her, and as Jessica Lange's widowed father (Charles Durning) falls in love with him, as Dorothy Michaels.
Garr, flustered after Hoffman gives her a box of candy actually from Lange's father, with a card thanking him for a “lovely night by the fire,” finally asks Hoffman “Are you gay” He answers “In what sense” In another scene the possibility of a “lesbian” relationship between Dorothy Michaels and the Jessica Lange character is raised. Lange resists when “Dorothy” almost kisses her and later tells Dorothy, “I love you, Dorothy, but I can't love you.” Some critics have doubted how progressive the film really is, though. Vito Russo, for instance, in The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies writes that “… Tootsie can successfully pretend to have something to say about sex roles.” By way of inference, though, Tootsie may have expanded tolerance of gays in the homophobic early 1980s through its gender switching.
The film's mainstream feminism received approval from the National Society of Film Critics, winning best picture, actor, supporting actress, and screenplay, and from the New York Film Critics, winning best director, supporting actress, and screenplay. As well, it was nominated for ten Academy Awards, including four for the actors: Hoffman, Lange, Garr and Durning. Tootsie wasn't only popular with the Academy, but also won the common people's praise with the Your Choice For the Film Awards. More telling of the film's effect, though, is that Hoffman became an honorary member of the New York Branch of Women in Film ten days before the film's premiere.