Theatre in Film Series: Tootsie (1982)

Written by Ashleigh Gardner

August 8, 2016

Have a love affair with theatre and film? Me too! It’s an ongoing relationship that’s a thrill to have, and Performer Stuff’s Theatre in Film series celebrates the great films that effectively depict a life in the theatre. Part III in our ongoing tribute to theatre-centric cinema continues with the 1982 knockout hit (featuring a cross-dressing Dustin Hoffman), Tootsie.

Tootsie (1982)

Director: Sydney Pollack
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Jessica Lange, Teri Garr, Bill Murray, Charles Durning, and Geena Davis

What happens:

No one will work with actor Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman). His perfectionist demands on film and theatre sets make him impossible to direct, and he’s been blacklisted in the acting community. When he hears that his friend Sandy Lester (Teri Garr) has auditioned for a role as a female administrator on a soap opera but did not get the role, Michael decides to throw caution to the wind. In order to raise $8,000 to produce a play written by his friend friend Jeff (Bill Murray), Michael dresses up as a woman — Dorothy Michaels, attends the audition, gets the role, and becomes a television sensation as Emily, the feisty, feminist hospital administrator. To complicate matters, Michael is attracted to his co-star, Julie Nichols (Jessica Lange), who only knows him as Dorothy. Additionally, two men have made advances toward Michael-as-Dorothy: older cast member John Van Horn (George Gaynes) Julie’s widowed father Les (Charles Durning). Realizing he has no way of escape, Michael improvises a monologue during a live broadcast of the soap opera, revealing to the entire cast and crew and television audiences that he is Dorothy/Emily’s twin brother who has come to avenge her. Though his relationships with everyone from Emily and Les to Jeff and Sandy are on edge, he manages to apologize and repair friendships in light of his gigantic deception.

Why it matters:

Though Tootsie mainly deals with television work, many topics addressed in the film carry over into the world of theatre: blacklisted actors, failed auditions, lack of funds, and playing characters far removed from the visions we have of ourselves.

Michael Dorsey limits himself by refusing to honor requests and demands of directors, both in Hollywood and in New York. He tarnishes his reputation nation-wide, and can’t find work because he’s been blacklisted. This is a common problem for actors who are difficult to work with: they’re late, they’re disrespectful of cast and crew, or they drop roles without notice. Michael’s failure to perform professionally are part and parcel of his failed auditions, too. In a montage, his headshot is repeatedly passed from person to person, thrown away, or ripped in half, a series of images indicative of an actor who is either not right for the role or, frankly, not right for the business.

Michael’s lack of funds is normal for every actor, even the experienced ones. Additionally, Michael’s portrayal of Dorothy Michaels resonates with actors whose roles don’t necessarily align with who they are as people. Michael is a crass, demanding, and womanizing young man; Dorothy, on the other hand, is a nurturing, protective, and proper older woman. His drastic switch reflects his talents as an actor, though he’s been looked over for many opportunities because of his atrocious attitude.

Michael-as-Dorothy is, in a sense, live theatre for everyone around Dorothy. Michael’s nearly non-stop public drag performance forces him to create a history and persona for a fictional person and live it out as if it were truth, something that is demanded on a daily basis for theatre actors onstage. Michael, desperate for work, must use his method acting technique — a technique that has gotten him in trouble in the past — to land a role. What has been his primary obstacle in the past is now his absolute strength, despite his inflated lie nearly costing him credibility and relationships.

Below is the scene in which Michael Dorsey playing Dorothy Michaels playing Emily Kimberly (on the soap opera) reveals that he is a man.

This film is the first featured in Part III of “Theatre in Film”. See below for the others in Part III.


Want to start with Part I? Check out 42nd Street (1933). Didn’t get to read Part II? Begin with The Band Wagon (1953).

Ashleigh Gardner received her AA in Theatre/Drama/Dramatic Arts from Valencia College and her Bachelors Degree in English Literature and Masters Degree in Literary, Cultural, and Textual Studies from the University of Central Florida. She is a playwright, an actor, and’s Editor. 
Thumbnail image from Tootsie. Photo copyright © Columbia Pictures 1982.