Tootsie after 40 years remains a small revolution

Tootsie after 40 years remains a small revolution

Sidney Pollack's Tootsie turns 40 and in many recent rankings it has been indicated as the best American comedy of all time, and if not the best, certainly one of the most legendary and the most complex, profound and intelligent, able to fully represent the spirit of an era, but also to renew the representation of society. What is certain is that in this 2022, many years later, the film that saw the return of Dustin Hoffman in great pomp remains a pearl, able to tell us not only about the America of those years, but also to go in depth as regards issues such as identity, the role of women in society, the relationship between the sexes. These are issues that still hold the table and are still open and unresolved, but which this film has helped to make universal.

A desperate actor who invented an opportunity

Tootsie arrived at a very particular historical moment, when America was at the beginning of the so-called Reagan cycle and the Big Apple was beginning to show the first, profound signs of a renewal and even radical change, not always harmonious and easy, which would have completely changed its soul and identity. In that New York which was the last reserve of New Hollywood, when television and a new idea of ​​film production were gaining more and more ground, cornering the authors, he, Sidney Pollack, based on one of the most complex, articulated screenplays and courageous American cinematography, created a unique masterpiece of its kind. In fact, Tootsie was able to make use of the most irreverent, anarchic and chaotic irony, to speak to us eloquently and without any kind of mediation, about what was changing in those 80s, about the lie hidden behind the careerist rhetoric that dominated every narration.

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This film naturally would never have been the masterpiece it still today he is loved by the public without him, without Dustin Hoffman, one of the most chameleon-like, histrionic and sensitive performers of his generation, who already in those years was moving successfully between one genre and another with a mastery that the would have made legendary. Hoffman is Michael Dorsey, an actor who is anything but lacking in talent and ability, but now regularly set aside from the artistic environment due to his capricious character and maniacal perfectionism. By now essentially dumped by his agent George (Pollack himself) forced to deal with poverty and poor prospects, however, he would have created a new possibility for himself. In fact, Michael accompanies his insecure actress friend Sandy (Teri Garr) to an audition for a role in the popular series "Southwest General" and here he has the brilliant illumination: Dorothy Michaels was born. With her charisma and her talent, Michael passes that audition, finally becoming a character loved by the entire American public, a celebrity at 360 degrees.

This deception will also benefit his flatmate and playwright Jeff ( Bill Murray ), but it will undermine the balance of his life, of the love he begins to feel for the beautiful set mate Julie (Jessica Lange awarded with an Oscar for her interpretation), of the freedom she was sacrificing on the altar of success. All elements that Tootsie will use as a sort of mask behind which to talk about incommunicability, the difficulty of being truly free but above all about how much gender determines what we can or cannot have in life. Because the reality is that this comedy also opened the door to a concept of personal identity devoid of mere gender, or rather that surpassed its cage. Something that would have evolved over time to clear the representation of the LGBTQ+ community and to re-read the present and the past with the eyes of the weakest and the marginalized. Something that is common today in the entertainment industry, but precisely this film, for the first time, put before everyone's eyes.

A film that symbolizes an era of upheaval

Tootsie, it must be remembered. it was also an unrepeatable miracle of writing, because the plot had passed from hand to hand for many years, from those of Don McGuire to Robert Evans, from Dick Richards to Bob Kaufman, to then be perfected by Larry Gelbart and Murray Schisgal.

Which is another proof of how much the film industry has changed, given that today such a process is almost always a guarantee of disaster, however at the time a transversal, hybrid semantics was condensed in it between small and big screen, between reality and fiction. Another element that contributed to the film's great success was the fact that it didn't simply try to entertain, but it also revealed the most gory and unbearable backgrounds of the entertainment industry, consistent with the society of the time. Hoffman, to quote his own words, was perfectly aware during filming that the fact of playing a brilliant but unattractive woman gave him the opportunity to understand how this condition was a harbinger of a condemnation to a not indifferent solitude, to a sort of ostracism and a devaluation by the male-centric society for which he himself had been responsible in the past.

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Tootsie after all was the masculine and paternalistic nickname with which Dorothy is addressed on the set by the director Ron (Dabney Coleman), an absolutely terrible individual, male chauvinist, annoying seducer and perfect example of that male mentality which in fact conditioned every social relationship between the sexes. The film was in fact a finger pointed at the way women were treated and conceived in that decade, which saw the exhaustion of the momentum connected to the second wave of feminism, which had done so much to change things and revolutionize society. But now, with the cultural and social climate completely changed after the times of protest, the world moved on more conservative tracks, in which women returned to being pure aesthetics, a body to be sold and used from a purely male perspective. And here then is that she is only valid if she is beautiful, if she is available, here is the harassment in the workplace, the small blackmails, being a mere trophy. However, Dorothy presented herself as an evolution and almost a mix between emancipation and careerism, still today a difficult paradox for many feminists, connected to the need not to become like the men who fought each other.

Dustin Hoffman, magnetic for spontaneity and charisma, moves following a plot that develops on two parallel channels, both important, both central in speaking to us of the struggle of the individual against society. Because in his Pirandello dimension of a story in which the mask and the real face merge and blend together, in which the difficulty of an actor is shown in understanding who he really is in the end, where Dorothy ends up and where Michael is still there, Tootsie stood also as a cry for help from a world. Hoffman in the role of Michael moves in the cinematic New York that is increasingly giving up the baton of command to Los Angeles, with the small screen regaining its power, with productions that standardize everything, that simply want faces to sell a lot at the kilo. Michael Cimino had failed with Heaven's Gate, Spielberg in 1975 with Jaws had shown a new way of conceiving blockbusters. We see Michael as a waiter, while he tries to survive in an upstart environment, in which the American dream of a comeback, the one carried forward by Ronald Reagan and the yuppie myth, roams.

Between inclusiveness and representation of the other

The men that America at the time praised and carried in the palm of its hand were no different from those who chased Dorothy on the set, from Les ( Charles Durning ) or by Ron Carlisle ( Dabney Coleman ). They are self-confident, arrogant, they collect women like ties, they don't take no for refusal, they feel armed with a sort of existential passe-partout. Michael, on the other hand, is to all intents and purposes the opposite of what a man should have been for the America of those years, the one that exalted itself for Rambo and Rocky, who praised Wall Street and rampant lions like Jordan Belfort or his alter ego Gordon Gecko. To all intents and purposes Michael as a man is a loser, an outcast, the very negation of the successful alpha male, even for a petite, absolutely not virile physicality. But the moment he becomes a woman, a woman different from the others, from those who are forced to accept romantic relationships or unsolicited attention in order to make a career, he finds himself with an unprecedented power in his hand. Because Michael knows men, he considers himself a man even while he modulates his voice or disguises himself, and he knows how they reason, what they aim for, how to keep them at bay. He's not afraid of them.

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And it is here that the film makes an incredible leap in quality, it becomes cinema that speaks to us about society, but who also speaks to us about cinema, the laws that they govern, all while continuing to make us laugh out loud, between twists, misunderstandings and various absurdities. Hoffman quickly becomes the woman all women want to be, because she is strong, independent, admired and successful. But his security is based on a conscience that only apparently makes him a queer symbol or of modern fluidity, and he realizes this as time passes: if he had been born a woman, he would not have had that confidence and those means, which are based on the conscience of having greater freedoms in society anyway, on a truth that others ignore. In this play of shadows and lies, in this vulnerability of his that hides a well-intentioned lie in full light, Tootsie's great teaching is actually articulated: keeping in mind the differences between the sexes in society is the only way to to be truly inclusive, to be truly empathic beyond form. But at the same time, this element must not become a paternalistic and victimistic limitation.

That's why 40 years later, Tootsie is so important: for the way he was able to stand out as the first example of a representation of a point of view that was distant from the male one, anticipating the urgency of a review of human relationships in the social pact.

Later, the third feminist wave would come, we would have had the customs clearance of the LBGTQ+ community, of minorities, also completely changing the entertainment industry, putting men like Weinstein on the dock, of whom Ron was a very realistic representation. The drama, the real drama, is that even today we haven't managed to correct the shot, also because the entertainment industry in the end (we see it continuously in various films), instead of going in depth, was satisfied with tricks, with small offerings, with a characterization of the female universe, paradoxically poorer than that which a male actor made of it in that 1982. Because vulnerability, imperfections and mistakes, in contrast with the infallibility pursued by modern entertainment, made Dorothy an incredibly wealthy role model, as was Michael, the man who by pretending to be a woman was a better man.

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