There are many things in this life that I do not understand. With those topics that are too sublime, I try to leave to God. There are aspects of our lived experience, though, that can be grasped. I do not wish to reduce everything to an either/or proposition. In other words, not all choices are black or white. For example, the line between trying to understand things and letting go and letting God, as an old Christian saying goes, is not a clear one. It is good to seek to be informed on subjects, but one needs to be careful about developing an obsession. There is a great deal of wisdom in anticipating when you have hit that limit and backing off, and it is a line that moves. I realize I am speaking in generalities, so here is an example. I know what it is to struggle. I cannot say that I have been presented with too dire of circumstances, but when I am dealing with problems, I often want to know why they are occurring. Faith teaches that there is nothing wrong with such mental exercises. The obsession comes in when you begin to believe that you are the only one that can deal with these issues. The sooner you get out of God’s way, the better. Believe it or not, this has a lot to do with today’s film, Tootsie (1982), the American Film Institute’s (AFI) sixty-ninth greatest American film of all time out of its top 100. In short, I would not have made the same decisions as Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman) for a myriad of reasons.
Initially, it does not appear that anything is amiss for Michael in Tootsie, nor is it clear why the movie has such a title. He is an un-employed actor that runs a class for other people in show-business. In the opening montage, while you see him imparting acting tips, you also witness him being rejected for several parts. Often the rejection comes because he quarrels with somebody on set. One person with whom he does not fight is his roommate, Jeff Slater (Bill Murray). They return home to their apartment one evening, Michael complaining about show business and Jeff doing his best to listen until they get in to a surprise birthday party for Michael. He is touched, but finds that his schmoozing with the various attendees, including the attractive Sandy Lester (Teri Garr), gets him nowhere. And he is a firm believer that an actor’s first priority is to be working. He also finds others in similar predicaments, such as when he brings Sandy to a studio to read for a part for which he helped her prepare, only to have her be immediately rejected. She wants to return home and give up her ambitions of acting, but Michael convinces her to stay by sleeping with her. The following day, he brings his frustrations to his agent, George Fields (Sydney Pollack). This is where Michael learns that his attitude on sets have given him the reputation of being somebody with whom nobody will work. In the midst of his agent’s tirade, Michael comes up with an idea. Cut to the next scene and he is now Dorothy Michaels, an actress going to audition for the part for which Sandy was rejected. The force of his persona as Dorothy essentially carries him onto the soundstage and into a role on an afternoon soap opera. Two people know of his real identity: George and Jeff. Otherwise, Michael takes all the precautions he feels he must to maintain his Dorothy character, including doing his own make-up and dressing separately. Despite getting involved with Sandy, on his first day of filming he begins to develop an attraction for one of the other actresses, Julie Nichols (Jessica Lange). Aside from the blatantly obvious, there are a number of obstacles to him getting into any kind of romantic relationship with her. For starters, there is the fact that she is already involved with the show’s director, Ron Carlisle (Dabney Coleman), even though he is a womanizer and does not take any woman seriously. Indeed, the name of this movie is the derogatory nickname he gives to Dorothy. Another potential issue is the increasingly inappropriate affections of the show’s primary male lead, John Van Horn (George Gaynes). He is not the only one developing feelings for Dorothy. As Michael continues to grow into his role, such is his talent that it brings him a certain level of notoriety as Dorothy. It is also in this female guise that a close bond forms with Julie. He helps her with her acting, but also becomes a confidant. Such is their friendship that Julie invites Dorothy to her childhood home for a weekend. Remember what I said a moment ago about other men getting the hots for Dorothy? Julie’s father, Leslie “Les” Nichols (Charles Durning), is one of them. It all comes to a head one night following Julie breaking things off with Ron. She comes home to Michael as Dorothy. She begins talking about wanting something she cannot have in her relationship with Dorothy. Michael takes this as a signal for them to kiss, but is rejected. Michael then goes home to find John waiting for Dorothy outside his apartment. Jeff returns home before anything untoward happens. Yet, not long thereafter Sandy knocks on the door. Michael tells her that he is in love with another woman, which does not go over well. The stress of these events has Michael wanting to do whatever he can to get out of his contract to the soap opera. He does so by choosing a live shot honoring the character played by Dorothy, revealing her to be a man. From here, it is all about swallowing pride, starting with apologizing to Les. Michael then turns his attention to Julie, and the final shot is of them walking down the street together.
I do not know about you, but the proverbial record scratch moment in Tootsie is when you see Michael walking down the street dressed as Dorothy. To be fair, I knew this moment was coming. You cannot get around it from the thumbnail for renting the movie, or if you have a passing knowledge of such so-called classic titles. Yet, I still do not understand the decision. This is not simply me, square practicing Catholic that I am, saying that opting for cross-dressing makes little sense. In the scene just before the big reveal, Michael spends a lot of time talking about his principals as a person and professional. But then he goes out onto the job market, essentially, as a woman and he is successful? Please understand I am not trying to invite a gender debate. I also get that acting is about portraying somebody you are not. What makes matters worse is dishonesty. I might have been more sympathetic to Michael if he had handled his situation differently. It is Sandy that articulates this best during the night when Michael had to face all his potential suitors. She talks about how lying is harder to take from another person because it hurts more. The truth can be painful. I see our fallen world where people increasingly turn away from God to be a hard truth. That is why the Church is honest about it and takes step to combat it. If it were lying, you would see little change in what it has done over the centuries. People commit to such fabrications because it becomes comfortable. This describes Michael, and he only comes clean when it seems like he has no choice. I do not find this admirable.
Therefore, I do not find Tootsie admirable. Please know that this has nothing specifically to do with cross-dressing. What I do not like is the lying. No matter how difficult facing the truth may be, it will always be easier if it is addressed sooner than later.