[To celebrate one of our strangest holidays, Groundhog Day, I’ll be AmericanStudying that film as well as four others in the long and unique career of Bill Murray. Leading up to a crowd-sourced post featuring your takes on these and other Murray classics!]
On the challenges and benefits of re-viewing complicated classics.
Although by 1982 Bill Murray had already transitioned from his breakout role on Saturday Night Live to movies and had begun to enter the comic actor A-list with films like Caddyshack (1980) and Stripes (1981), he has a relatively small supporting role in Sydney Pollack’s romantic comedy Tootsie (1982), playing Jeff Slater, a playwright and the roommate of protagonist Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman). But he has one of the film’s most famous lines (as Murray so often does; I don’t know any actor who delivers comic lines more pitch-perfectly than he has for more than four decades now), as well as one that gets at the problem I’m highlighting in this post: struggling actor Dorsey has begun cross-dressing as a woman, imaginary actress Dorothy Michaels, in order to secure a part on a daytime soap opera; he and Slater are trying to choose an outfit for a particularly important scene, and as Dorsey talks about clothes and how they do or don’t flatter his “female” body, Murray’s Slater notes, “I think we’re getting into a weird area here.”
It’s understandable that Slater would find his roommate and friend’s newfound “female” perspective to be weird, but it’s also clearly (and perhaps inevitably in a movie released 40 years ago) the case that the film overall presents Dorsey’s cross-dressing as both strange and silly (as well as driven by purely professional goals, rather than any psychological or emotional needs). The situation also leads to some casual violent homophobia that’s largely played for laughs: Charles Durning’s Les Nichols, the father of Dorsey’s soap opera co-star and eventual love interest Julie Nichols (Jessica Lange), falls in love with and even proposes marriage to Dorothy; when he finds out that Dorothy was really a man, he tells Dorsey, “The only reason you’re still living is because I never kissed you.” While the film doesn’t endorse that violent homophobia by any means, it also continues to present Les as sympathetic after he expresses it; indeed, Dorsey buys him a beer shortly thereafter and it seems that the two men will be friends. All of that might make sense and work within this 1982 film, but it looks very different and far more problematic on a 2022 viewing.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t view Tootsie today, however, nor that there aren’t contemporary benefits to doing so (besides enjoying a successful romantic comedy, which it remains). For one thing, there are few ways to engage with historical attitudes and narratives better than seeing how they were represented in popular culture—obviously some cultural works express and endorse such blatantly hateful attitudes that it might be more destructive to engage them; but many others, like this film, simply reflect some of the problematic narratives of their era and allow us to better understand them as a result. And for another thing, almost all cultural works also include other perspectives, including surprisingly progressive ones—such as one of Tootsie’s final lines, when Dorsey apologizes to Julie by saying, “I was a better man with you as a woman than I ever was with a woman as a man…I just gotta learn to do it without the dress.” I’d call that a pretty thoughtful rejection of toxic masculinity, in romantic relationships and overall, and that’s a theme that’s even more important in 2022 than it was in 1982.
Next MurrayStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Takes on other Murray films?