Jessica Lange as Julie Nichols in Tootsie
Best Supporting Actress at the 55th Annual Oscars (1982)
“Don’t you find being a woman in the eighties complicated?”
When actor Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman) finds out that nobody wants to hire him because he’s too difficult to work with (a classic problem for Hollywood men, no space for difficult guys there), he dresses as a woman and gets a job on a soap opera (excuse me, “daytime drama”).
Who exactly is Julie Nichols? Well, she’s an actress and a single mom. She’s vaguely a mess, in that she drinks too much (but telegenically, without getting drunk!) and picks bad men. It’s not much of a spoiler to say that at the end of the movie, she gets together with the guy who has been living a complete lie for their entire relationship, so she doesn’t get any better at the man choosing. She’s got a little bit of sadness in her past, since her mom died, but her childhood mostly seems idyllic. She’s still got a lovely relationship with her father, and goes to his farm upstate to ride horses.
If it feels like I’m just listing off characteristics … yeah, Julie is kind of a group of cobbled together traits. Despite this movie nominally having something to say about how women get disrespected, it pushes its female lead into the background, leaving her as mostly a hot nothing, undermining its own fucking message. The writers assign Julie a backstory, but there’s no sense that she exists when she’s off-screen. What drives her? For instance, does she enjoy her job as an actress? It seems like she randomly picked this career. What happened to leave her raising a 14-month-old baby alone? Who knows? She’s an oddly devoid character.
Jessica Lange is a great actress with two Academy Awards, but both are for odd roles in her oeuvre. Blue Sky is more her style, but the movie itself is very silly. And while Tootsie is (unfortunately) a film with a big cultural legacy, Lange isn’t really doing what she does best. I think of her as vampy, and over-the-top, and here, she’s just a smiley, regular woman. She plays the role of Julie very straight: not that she had many options with a flatly written character, but it’s not the greatest fit. Lange is at her best in this movie when she gets to lean into the minimal darkness of her character: I most enjoy the moments when she’s swigging wine and ranting about men.
It also doesn’t help that this film contains a much more compelling supporting performance by Teri Garr, who is neurotic and engaging and sympathetic. Up until now, I’ve only known Garr because she’s constantly in the NYT Crossword (“Actress Garr from Tootsie”), and was thrilled to see how great she actually is. It’s disappointing that she lost to a less interesting performance from the same damn movie. With that being said, I do love how much Lange glows in this film. She’s bright and lively, and absolutely gorgeous, but this performance wasn’t very special.
Tootsie is a “classic” that I knew the plot of, but had never seen, and I guess now I’ve seen it. It’s completely absurd, like, we’re supposed to believe that this guy is in AWFUL drag every day for months, and no one figures out. He shares a room with Julie, and she doesn’t figure out that he’s slathering on massive amounts of make-up?! It’s full of gay panic and incredibly anti-trans sentiment, propagating ideas like men in dresses are liars, cross-dressing is inherently funny, masculine women are ugly, blah. It completely destroys any points it makes about sexism by centering a man. Not to mention, the whole thing is that Dustin Hoffman’s character is a difficult actor that no one wants to work with, so he has to dress up as a woman to get a job: like, actual Hoffman was a jackass for years and got two Oscars, get out of here. With all that being said, I’m not even that mad at this movie because its offenses are so obvious that I can’t even be bothered to get worked up. (He said after writing a paragraph-long screed).
Was the Oscar deserved?
No, this didn’t feel notable to me.