Can we still enjoy the Dustin Hoffman hit in a time when proven predators are being outed?
Released in 1982, the famously long-gestating Dustin Hoffman comedy Tootsie — which went through several major reworkings of its script, including an uncredited pass by the great Elaine May — became one of the most critically and commercially successful films of its year. Hoffman stars as Michael Dorsey, an egotistical, perfectionist, down-on-his-luck actor who, desperate for a part, dons drag and poses as a woman, “Dorothy Michaels,” to audition for a supporting role on a soap opera. Winning the part, and winning over both his deceived female colleagues and the show’s audience with “her” no-nonsense, never-back-down attitude, Michael/Dorothy also learns what it’s like to live as a woman as he struggles against gender stereotypes and fends off unwelcome male advances. As his masquerade deepens his empathy and understanding, he begins to encourage and support the other women around him, including the co-star (Jessica Lange, who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress) whom he befriends as Dorothy and tries to romance as Michael.
Long held up as a prime example of Hollywood progressivism, Tootsie (especially with its setting inside the entertainment industry) obviously retains its timeliness in the era of #MeToo, in ways both intentional and otherwise. Do the recent allegations about its star’s long history of sexual misconduct and assault negate its message about female empowerment and solidarity, or was that message inherently compromised from the outset? Further, in the context of contemporary cultural conversations about gender identity and fluidity, does Michael/Dorothy’s masquerade evince a progressive or a fundamentally conservative and reactionary attitude towards gender performance?
Prior to her in-person introduction to the film as part of TIFF Cinematheque’s Elaine May retrospective, programmer Alicia Fletcher invited a panel of guests from the filmmaking and film programming worlds to discuss the complex legacy of Tootsie, the film’s problematic gender politics, and the charged question of whether we can still enjoy artworks whose makers we now know to be terrible men.
ALICIA: I’d like to start with how we all first encountered Tootsie, because I feel that it would really be different watching it as a kid versus watching it now. For me, I don't remember actually seeing it — I just know it was always with me. It was this kind of omnipresent 1980s artifact; I probably knew Dustin Hoffman as Tootsie before I knew who Dustin Hoffman was.
ALLYSIN: The first time I saw it probably would have been late-night TV, which is where I saw a lot of my first movies. As a kid it's a lot different, because your exposure to drag movies is pretty limited. My exposure to drag and gender variance and gender performance in movies was a way different experience than this movie. And, I also only knew Dustin Hoffman from Hook when I saw this movie for the first time. You don't get exposed to Dustin Hoffman as a kid a lot… oh, Jesus! Poor choice of words!
ALICIA: Do you think Tootsie may have encouraged you to consider drag?
ALLYSIN: Oddly enough, no. I consistently forget it's a drag movie, because the drag in it is much more a disguise. It's the same as with Mrs. Doubtfire — but frankly, [Robin Williams as] Mrs. Doubtfire is more of a drag queen, in a way, than [Hoffman as] Tootsie.
LUIS: I didn't watch Tootsie until after film school, when I started going through Criterion films. I'm much like Allysin, where Mrs. Doubtfire was what I knew as a “drag movie.”
SARAH-TAI: I was never a Tootsie fan. It was one of those movies that was always on TV that I confused with other films that were always on. So there's this one giant movie in my head, and it's Tootsie, Nashville, and Airplane! [All laugh] I honestly thought it was the same movie.
ALICIA: I wonder if the Tootsie/Nashville [confusion] might be because of the scene in Tootsie where she's in front of the flag with the sequin dress, because the iconography is the same as Nashville. Airplane!, though, I've got no idea.
SARAH-TAI: I don't know either. And I still haven't even seen Airplane! And I probably won't see Airplane!
So I didn't fully comprehend [Tootsie], obviously. I rewatched it as an adult, and even then I still felt removed from it, because I didn't have that contextual base. I kept thinking it was not the movie that it was.
ALICIA: I remember being a kid and not understanding the gender politics; I was confused by it. It didn't make sense to me that women were treated differently than men. The whole premise of the film when you're a little girl – or a little boy – watching it is just kind of silly, because you aren't aware yet of just how bad it's going to get, in terms of how people are treated, [when you’re an adult].
SARAH-TAI: You also don't yet have that knowledge of what you're not supposed to look like, or what you should look like, in terms of gender, sexuality, and self-fashioning.
ALLYSIN: As a kid seeing this movie, it definitely would challenge, or at least skew, your opinions on self-image.
ALICIA: Hoffman had a hard time – or at least he claimed to – with his own image [from doing this film]. He claimed that it wasn't just that he was dressing as a woman, he was dressing as an unattractive woman. And that really upset him, because he realized, "When I go to parties, I never talk to unattractive women. So I've alienated myself from interesting conversations with interesting, ugly women."
ALLYSIN: What a hero, right?
LUIS: And at the time [this interview] came out, there was this huge celebration of him addressing his own misogyny, when really it was just him saying "Look at all the opportunities I missed out on." It's still all about him.
ALICIA: We can talk a lot about – and we have to talk a lot about – Dustin Hoffman, and what it means to watch Tootsie in 2018, when there is this litany of accusations against him from multiple women. What can we take from Tootsie in 2018 knowing that Dustin Hoffman is playing a character that's very true to his own life? You do see a scene very early in the film, where he invades a woman's personal space at a party, grabs her necklace, touches her in a way that seems very unwelcome, and then kind of feels bad about it afterwards when he's Dorothy. But of course, in real life, it was much more serious.
ALLYSIN: Isn't it fascinating that it's a plot point in the movie that he feels remorse, because that would have been out of the ordinary [in 1982]? Imagine: a man felt bad for doing that to a lady! What an interesting character that’s developing here: "Oh my goodness, I'm changing! I felt sympathy for a woman I inappropriately touched at a party. Who am I?"
ALICIA: It's very upsetting.
ALLYSIN: But also, it's not shocking. I had a discussion the other day with someone about the accusations made against Morgan Freeman, and this person said "Can you believe that Morgan Freeman is now involved in all of this?" And I said, "You could tell me that, literally, any man in Hollywood or any industry right now that had, in the past, either assaulted or made a female uncomfortable, and I'd believe you. I wouldn't question it at all."
ALICIA: It’s fascinating that the whole premise of this film is about trying to expose this. But in exposing it, it somehow reinforces it as well.
LUIS: The thing is, if you look at Michael's character, there is no development. At the end, he doesn't apologize to any of the women he's affected, he only apologizes to the man he's affected [Charles Durning as Jessica Lange’s father, who had been courting Michael/Dorothy]. He never says "sorry" to Jessica Lange. He just says "I did it because I needed money." And you're [supposed to be], like, "Okay, cool."
ALLYSIN: And the apology isn't so much focused on "I did things to you," it’s much more like, "I'm embarrassed, and I’m going to cover my ass for dressing as a lady for the past few months. Oh, and I'm in love with you."
LUIS: He's doing it because he wants her, basically.
SARAH-TAI: I was noticing, when taking a sharper look at the film, all these moments that were almost like inadvertent narrative set-ups where you'd think that the automatic response would be for him to apologize for his wrongdoings, but then he just doesn't follow through in any way.
LUIS: It would be interesting to see the script in the hands of a different director, because [Tootsie co-star] Teri Garr talked about Sydney Pollack and said, [straight out], "He was a [sexist]." I'm wondering if you gave the same script to Mike Nichols, how he would have handled it. Because watching this and then watching The Birdcage, I see drag handled in a very different way.
ALLYSIN: [Tootsie is] a really weird drag movie to talk about as a drag performer, because there's no element of camp to this movie. The drag isn't focused on fun or expression, it's a chore that he has to do.
SARAH-TAI: When you watch a drag movie, the drag makeover is a centrepiece. And in this movie, it's just "Oh yeah, I just have to do make-up, bing bing bang."
LUIS: The first time you see him, you don't even see the transformation — it just cuts.
ALLYSIN: All of a sudden, she's just there.
ALICIA: That's a really good point. I was shocked by that cut, because before that you’re seeing him in crisis, he's not getting jobs, everyone thinks he's an asshole (because he is an asshole) — and then all of a sudden there's a jump cut, and he's walking down the street as a woman. And you're like, "What happened? What went through his head?"
ALLYSIN: I think it's because if they showed him getting into it, it would make the drag more acceptable. It would make the idea of an actor exploring femininity to get more work too "gay," for lack of a better word. I think that if they showed the transformation, it would make it a gay movie. And this movie isn't really a gay movie either. It's a really straight movie. And toxically masculine.
ALICIA: I would say it was outwardly homophobic.
LUIS: And transphobic.
ALICIA: Yes — it doesn't ever say the word "trans," but it is. To the extent where the father of Jessica Lange's character says to Michael "If we'd kissed, you'd be dead now." And as you were mentioning, Luis, the father is the only character that Michael apologizes to!
ALLYSIN: To talk about that cut again, where all of a sudden he's a woman — it [not only] takes all the power away from the transformation, it also immediately establishes the fact that his feminine appearance is a joke. That cut is meant to be, "That's hilarious! He's a lady now!"
LUIS: And it also kind of makes it seem like being a woman is easy.
ALLYSIN: Like, "I just have to put on a wig and some glasses."
ALICIA: Is it easy, Allysin?
ALLYSIN: Absolutely not! I messaged you guys in the email thread to be like, "Do I need to be in drag for this?" Because, if I had, I would've had to start at 11:00am, and I'm hungover as f-ck. [Laughs]
But, there’s this interesting thought I just had: Tootsie is one of these movies, [this kind of sub-genre of movies], that make a straight man go through [some kind of] experience to see what [being] a woman is like. Do you remember that Mel Gibson and Helen Hunt piece of sh-t What Women Want?
LUIS: That was the first DVD I ever had, so I would just play it for the joy of watching a DVD. (Much laughter)
ALLYSIN: Straight up, that movie is super enjoyable, but f-cked up. Mel Gibson can read everyone's thoughts, and all that women are [apparently] thinking about is "Nail polish! Pantyhose! Work is hard!" It's ridiculous, and it takes any power away from a man actually understanding anything about a woman.
There's a lot of movies like that, where a man somehow gets a glimpse into what women go through — and it's always [portrayed] like a curse. There's never any thought of empathy, or trying to understand [a woman] without having to go through some sort of supernatural affliction.
ALICIA: Junior is another one. Which is actually a remake of A Slightly Pregnant Man, one of my favourite Jacques Demy films.
[On that matter of empathy]: if I were Jessica Lange in Tootsie, keeping in mind that she and Michael/Dorothy slept in a bed together, that her father is in love with Dorothy, that she was lied to — and also that she’s in a very vulnerable position, she's a single mother, she's an actress afflicted by sexual harassment, she's dating this terrible director — I'd be really angry that another man lied to me, and used me. Instead, [at the end], they're going to fall in love, and then the credits roll, and everything's gonna be fine.
SARAH-TAI: It’s such an intimate, almost even a kind of violent betrayal. [This movie is] about a cisgender man who is lying about being a woman to gain both emotional currency with women and social currency as a woman.
ALICIA: A film that just popped into my head is Some Like it Hot. It's a film I always get asked to program, and I always say no, because I feel it's very transphobic and very homophobic.
ALLYSIN: Yeah, with Some Like it Hot, it's that same thing: "I'm disguised as a lady. I'm slipping under your radar. I'm gonna get into your life."
The neat thing with Some Like it Hot is that, [even though it's a] messed-up movie in a lot of ways — and homophobic, and transphobic — it started introducing the idea of taking gender and cross-dressing less seriously. But also, back then it was taken so much less seriously. In the ’50s you've got people like Danny La Rue, you've got Dame Edna Everage through the ’60s and ’70s, you've got the Warhol era. There was a lot of drag that was acceptable to people. Gender was so much less focused on as being a very serious topic; people could dress how they wanted, and it was, "Oh, that's fun."
ALICIA: It's amazing to think of the 1950s as less conservative than 1982, but in terms of gender transformability, and how Hollywood imbibed it, it absolutely was. [But also, both] Some Like it Hot and Tootsie were the top comedies of their years: they made incredible money at the box office.
ALLYSIN: Same with Mrs. Doubtfire!
ALICIA: But somehow, the studios never learn to push it further: [to] make [their] money [without] being so cruel. [To] make a film like this and not be mean, not be homophobic, not be transphobic.
ALLYSIN: Do you folks feel like there's ever been a movie like that?
LUIS: I'm thinking about that movie — really long title — To...
ALLYSIN: To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar?
ALICIA: That's a proper drag movie.
SARAH-TAI: Literally about drag queens.
ALLYSIN: About performing drag queens, and, arguably, trans women. Because Patrick Swayze's character is never out of drag in that movie; they never take that away from her. It's not like in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, when occasionally you see Terence Stamp in a vulnerable place, being out of drag, even though [his character] lives as a trans woman.
There's not nearly as much embarrassment [in Wong Foo]. It’s totally an empowering drag movie; it's sweet, but they [also] never go through a change: they start as drag queens, and they end as drag queens. And it's never about seeing things from the other side, because they already accept so much of their femininity.
ALICIA: [Returning to Tootsie and that question of meanness,] I would love to see what Elaine May was doing to the script; to look at this script before, and then look at it after. If you're bringing Elaine May in [to work on your script], then something's wrong [with your movie]. This would've been around the time that she was punching up Labyrinth and a few other films…
ALLYSIN: Is Labyrinth a drag movie?
ALICIA: [Laughs] I want to say yes!
LUIS: I mean, there's David Bowie, and I consider him drag.
ALLYSIN: Absolutely. I would say Labyrinth is pretty drag. Jareth is a pretty draggy character.
LUIS: I consider movies with Dolly Parton to be drag movies. She’s a drag queen.
ALLYSIN: 9 to 5 is a drag movie with no drag queens in it.
Do you know this weird drag movie that no one talks about called Flawless, with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robert De Niro? Hoffman is the drag queen in it, and she’s also a vocal coach; she lives above a super-homophobic, transphobic cop played by Robert De Niro, who says just vile things to her for the first third of the movie. So the cop has a stroke, and needs to regain his speech, so he’s assigned for vocal lessons to … Drag Queen Philip Seymour Hoffman! And then, of course, They've Gotta Get Along.
It's f-cking ridiculous — it's a really weird movie. This is a drag movie where, again, Hoffman starts as a drag character and ends as a drag character, [and also] goes through a lot of f-cked-up sh-t; she gets beaten up, very severely I remember. And then De Niro ends up going after the guys that messed with her, and he becomes very protective of Hoffman. So there is a kind of change in this movie: a change of open-mindedness, "I'm seeing something from the other side," etc. But the difference is that it's two men relating, not a man and a woman. If it was a movie about De Niro going to get lessons from a vocal coach and the coach was played by a woman, they'd f-cking marry at the end of the movie. But because it's Philip Seymour Hoffman, they become buddies — an Unlikely Duo. It's interesting, because the drag is only okay because [the movie is about] relating to another man.
SARAH-TAI: [You can see that same male-centric viewpoint in] Tootsie and Mrs. Doubtfire. They’re not about the art of drag, the craft of drag, or even drag as survival. Drag is just a pragmatic choice for someone — namely a straight, cis man who is not a drag performer — to gain something that they don't have.
LUIS: To go off your point, the context of how [Tootsie] was made was that Dustin Hoffman paired up with a playwright and they started writing the script based on the life of Renée Richards, who is a tennis player who had gender confirmation surgery. To think that this film about a man who dresses up like a woman to gain something was originally based on Renée Richards, who is a trans woman, is just so wrong.
ALLYSIN: Well, that's the male perspective, that those two things are equal. A professional athlete having gender confirmation surgery and a man dressing as a lady to get a job are the same thing to men... or to those men.
ALICIA: So here's the thing: having watched Tootsie a few times, and rewatching it this week to do this panel, I still enjoyed it. I still laugh, and I find it interesting as an artifact from 1982 of a conservativism that we're fighting against in 2018. Regardless of Dustin Hoffman being a predator, I really love this film.
SARAH-TAI: It’s a very classically well-crafted film, despite the missteps that we've talked about.
ALLYSIN: It's a good film about bad shit. Objectively, it is a good film. It's well-written, it's well-made. It's just about bad shit.
LUIS: What I like about it is what it doesn't do. You don't see any of the female characters fighting. They're all in these close quarters on [the soap opera] set, and you never see them nitpick with each other. They all just support each other.
ALICIA: It would pass the Bechdel Test, if it wasn't Michael/Dorothy [there all the time].
ALLYSIN: It's unfortunate that the general tone here is, "If you want to enjoy this movie, [just remember:] it could have been worse!"
LUIS: You know what else is another strong point in this film? The handling of Jessica Lange's motherhood. No one ever asks, "Who's the father?" It's just like, "I'm a single mom, this is my thing."
SARAH-TAI: One thing about this movie is that I'm not sure where to give it the benefit of the doubt. We were talking about how there's no conflict between the women characters, how Jessica Lange’s single motherhood is a non-issue — but are those things intentionally positive? Or does this film just not value women enough to fully develop their characters?
LUIS: That's why I said it's good in what it doesn't do. If you would have brought those points up to the producers, the writers, maybe they would've destroyed those points. There are so many hypocrisies and ironies in the film, and you're not sure what is on purpose, and what is not on purpose.
ALICIA: If you remade Tootsie in 2018, who would be the actor you cast as Michael/Dorothy?
LUIS: I don't care as much about the actor, I care about the director. I would want a female director — a trans director. That would totally change things up.
SARAH-TAI: I've got to be honest, I wouldn't want to see this remade.
ALLYSIN: Actually, I would love to see this movie remade if they made it completely gender-reversed: if it was a woman dressing as a man to get a job.
LUIS: See, the interesting thing about this movie is that it’s this weird reversal. He's an asshole as a man and he can't get any work, but then as soon as he's an asshole as a woman, people start celebrating him. It's the exact opposite [of reality]. If any other actress walked on that set and acted like Michael/Dorothy, they'd be fired.
ALLYSIN: I wonder if the only reason they put up with Michael/Dorothy fighting back and speaking up for herself is pheromones: they can sense that there's a masculine energy to her.
ALICIA: Dabney Coleman's character, the TV director, almost says that: during Michael/Dorothy’s screen test, he says, "There's something about her. Something's off."
ALLYSIN: He can smell a bro! He can sense one of his own.
SARAH-TAI: That’s the part of the movie I actually dislike the most: that Michael/Dorothy becomes this feminist champion by standing up for herself and other women. As if women hadn't been doing that forever, and being penalized and silenced for it.
LUIS: And it's not true feminism [either], because he doesn't help anyone if it's not helping himself.
SARAH-TAI: I feel like that's the trap — and I don't really want to say “the trap,” because it makes it seem like it's unintentional — but what a lot of these cross-dressing comedies from the ’80s and ’90s imply is that a cisgender man is better at being a woman than any woman could possibly be.
ALLYSIN: That's a really good point: if you want to be a woman who gets what they want, and can get anything out of anyone, you have to be a man while you do it.
The funny thing I was just thinking is that all the things this movie is about, it’s actually not about. It's a movie about drag that has nothing to do with drag; it's a movie about feminism that has nothing to do with feminism. It's not even really about acting, [about acting as] a skill. At the end of the day, it's a movie about men. It's a movie about guys, and what guys do, and what guys can do, and what guys can get away with.
There's [also] a thing we haven't really talked about yet. There's a common trope in the drag movie, the idea of “getting away with it,” or tricking people. And that's an inherently transphobic idea, because the idea of someone presenting [themselves] differently from their assigned gender is consistently [stigmatized] — trans women get murdered [by men because] "You surprised me," or "You tricked me." The idea of “getting away” with drag is problematic in general.
SARAH-TAI: [The thing about Michael/Dorothy’s “getting away with it” is that] there is inherently no risk to it. At the end of the day, the gag is over. The dress will come off, and you still have a straight, cis man who this story has been centred upon.
ALLYSIN: Think about everything we've talked about today already! Things that no one that made that movie would've talked about, or thought about.
LUIS: Basically no one who made this film was aware.
ALICIA: Think what it would be like to have been a fly on the wall with the development team for this film: how they're going to market it, how it's going to be branded.
ALLYSIN: That's the other thing. Marketing drag to Betty and Joe Beercan in Middle America is not an easy thing, but especially not in the Reagan years of '82, where AIDS is just becoming a problem — you know, the Gay Plague, the Lavender Menace is back, everyone is freaked out by queerness. It was an interesting time to make a drag movie like this.
ALICIA: It was a safe movie for your dad to like. My grandfather probably watched Tootsie and was like, "This is funny. I don't agree with any of this, but this is safe. What a romp.”
SARAH-TAI: I think also it's because Dustin Hoffman is the main character, and the audience is very much in on his deception. There's a safety in that, in terms of who is watching and how they are relating to the characters on screen.
ALICIA: I think you're totally right, Sarah-Tai: watching, [specifically], Dustin Hoffman in drag, this particular actor who had a number of box-office hits and Academy Award nominations, is such a key part of this film. That was the gimmick; this was a gimmick film.
Allysin, you're a makeup artist as well [as a performer]. How do you feel about the makeup artistry in this film?
ALLYSIN: What makeup artistry? [Laughs] They put a frosty blue eyeshadow on Dustin Hoffman! That's the craziest thing about this movie: they want us to suspend our disbelief that none of [the characters] would realize that it's Dustin Hoffman in a wig. That's another thing about the cut that we were talking about before: you don't see the transformation, because there is no transformation. What are they going to show? Him going to a Duane Reade and getting one red lipstick, one blue eyeshadow, putting them on in five minutes, popping a wig on, and leaving the house?
LUIS: It’s ironic, because in Dustin Hoffman's contract, there was something along the lines of, "If it doesn't look accurate enough, I'm not doing it."
ALLYSIN: Yeah, that's hilarious. As a makeup artist who transforms people's faces a lot, the way I work when I'm doing drag transformations, male or female, is that I basically knock out all your features, and build in new ones. It's an extreme form of makeup. You use almost none of your natural features. Dustin Hoffman has an incredibly difficult face to do that to. It would have been more extreme and it would have been much more like a Mrs. Doubtfire transformation if you wanted his character to look more realistically female.
The thing is, yeah, there's [always] a suspension of disbelief that the filmmakers ask of the audience, [but here] it takes away any amount of human connection between these people. [How do they look Michael/Dorothy in the eyes] and not think, "We've seen each other before," or "I recognize your bone structure"? [When Robin Williams dresses up as Mrs. Doubtfire], he is in full prosthetics doing a different voice, foam and latex appliances, a wig, glasses, fake teeth, and still Sally Field — who was married to him [in the film] for the longest time — says "You remind me of someone; your eyes are so familiar." Now that I believe. That I can suspend my disbelief for, because Sally Field still felt the essence of her husband in his eyes. Whereas Dustin Hoffman is wearing blue eyeshadow, and people are like, "Who is this woman? How fabulous!" It's counterintuitive to what actually happens in the real world, because if a trans woman who looked like Dustin Hoffman, and styled themselves similarly, walked around in that day and age... it would not happen.
ALICIA: They'd be arrested.
ALLYSIN: They'd absolutely be arrested. But in the movie, it's fine. It's totally fine. It's the lack of effort that bothers me, really.
The one thing I will give this movie that actually saves its enjoyability is that, if you're a "woke person" in 2018, it really shows you that men are dumb. And you can fool men very easily. This movie is a fantastic example of "women are smart and men are stupid," in a lot of ways. It has the same kind of subverted trope as 9 to 5: every man in that movie is a dumbass.
LUIS: Every man in Tootsie is unlikeable, awful.
ALLYSIN: And every woman, I would say, is likeable. And is presented as a relatable, likeable character.
ALICIA: I love the female producer [played by Doris Belack], the one that really champions Michael/Dorothy. She's really interesting, and she's kind of in a position of power. She's the one that really puts Dabney Coleman in his place, and is like, "No, we're hiring her."
ALLYSIN: Has Dabney Coleman ever played a nice guy?
ALICIA: God, no!
ALLYSIN: I feel like that is in his contract.
ALICIA: He's the King of Misogyny.
ALLYSIN: He really is. He's the face of '80s misogyny. He's in 9 to 5, too!