Tootsie: How a Risky Character Created a Character Who Took Risks


This month the Sunday Night focus is on character change—a timely theme given this season where nature springs back to life in a parallel image of Christ’s resurrection.

Many Christians observe the time leading up to Easter, aka Resurrection Sunday, in a Lenten fashion. They fast and pray in imitation of Christ’s 40-day withdrawal in the desert in preparation for his public ministry. Historically, Lent also developed as a time when new converts were given a chance to fully reflect on the risks that came with their commitment to Christ.  After all, Church leaders wanted to fully prepare their baptismal candidates to withstand the temptations and persecutions of the Prince of this world.

So what does this have to do with this week’s theme movie, Tootsie?

One word: risk-taking.

See, the premise of Tootsie hangs on the  conceit that an out-of-work actor (Michael Dorsey, played by Dustin Hoffman)  needs to take a risk to dress up as a woman to get the best-paying  job of his career.

Although he sees the work on a soap opera as being below his talents, he also perceives his  creation of Dorothy Michaels—the character he must pose as to take the job—as “one of the greatest acting challenges any actor can have.” 

If his gamble pays off, however, he will then be able to finance the deep, meaningful (and depressing) play written by his roommate, Jeff, (Bill Murray) and starring his friend and acting student, Sandy (Teri Garr).

Here’s the problem, though. Michael has to keep his secret from Sandy because he got the part instead of her.  Except in order to do so, he has to start dating her.  Except he’s not in love with her, he’s in love with his soap-opera co-star Julie (Jessica Lange) who he forms a meaningful friendship with. Except that he has to keep the secret from her as well, which puts him in an awkward position when Julie’s Dad falls for Dorothy. Meanwhile, Dorothy has to navigate the #metoo antics of a misogynistic director and an overly friendly co-star who works a kiss into every scene.

Despite all those problems, Michael’s gamble pays off.

So then he ends up with an even bigger problem. Dorothy’s strong, yet feminine performance (Captain Marvel could learn a few things from Dorothy) is such a hit with the audience that the producers want to extend her contract. If Michael ever wants that chance with Julie, the woman of his dreams, he now has to take an even bigger gamble–reveal on live TV that Dorothy Michaels is just character, played by a man.

That gamble doesn’t pay off so well. Julie punches him in the gut and he gets fired.

But here’s the point of the whole story. The premise is about an out-of-work actor playing a woman. The argument is about the way that men treat women and how women want to be treated by men. In order to do either meaningfully, a man has to take a risk and see things from a woman’s perspective.

There’s a classic scene early on where Michael gets a chance to act out Julie’s fantasy of a man approaching her at a party and making a direct pass at her. However, when Michael uses the exact words she used, she throws her drink in his face. Of course that would happen— Michael is still playing a role in order to meet his needs from the relationship, and she can sense that.

It’s not until the end of the story after Michael has suffered the insufferable nature of men that he is able to reach out to Julie with an authentic desire for relationship. They were friends, after all. It turns out she missed him. Because all along Michael was on a journey. In his words: “I was a better man with you as a woman, than I ever was with a woman, as a man.”

Michael’s gamble paid off in a way he never expected, but in a way that the audience hoped for all along.

But back to Easter. When a person makes a commitment for Christ, they take a risk. They don’t know how it will play out in their lives. And their only guarantee—the hope of eternal life—is done completely in faith. Like Peter getting out of the both, you have to step out and trust Jesus, even if your next step is a mis-step.

So as you prepare for Easter, or prepare for your next career opportunity, or prepare a character performance, here are few takeaways that can help:

In order to change your current state of being, you have to take risks. Michael wanted money for Jeff’s play. Keep in mind that he got the money. He also got a chance to have a real meaningful relationship with the woman of his dreams.

When you take a risk you do not know how it will turn out. The gamble can pay off in a way that becomes a bigger challenge that takes a bigger risk. Or you can take the risk and nothing happens. Or only bad things. And taking risks is not a one-off deal. Life is a continuum of risk-taking.

If you realize that the change is what counts, you’ll overcome the challenge.  Even though Michael got the money and the girl, he got something that was more meaningful—character change. As followers of Christ, we are called to the same. God’s grace in this life can come with love, money, success and fame.  But God’s love also comes through trouble, loss, and failure. The more we as his discples can conform to the character of Christ, the more we can see his grace and love in every outcome.

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