Thursday, November 7, 2013

Classics: 1982; Hollywood's Year of the Drag By Lauren Ennis

What would Mrs. Robinson say to this?!
The 1970’s and 1980’s saw a resurgence in the popular Depression era genre, the screwball comedy . During this time, Hollywood began releasing films that featured lovably eccentric characters in unusual (and often unrealistic) situations reminiscent of the wild antics so often employed in 1930’s comedies. Like their predecessors, these films often used the fun of their characters’ shenanigans to highlight important lessons about life, love, and the importance of remaining true to one’s self. Two of the most successful of these neo-screwball comedies, Tootsie and Victor/Victoria used a well worn plot device to make new insights into modern life. In many ways the films complement each other  as opposite sides of the same gender-bending coin, that provide commentary on the absurdities of society. Here are four ways in which these classic comedies reflect one another while utilizing their own unique and hilarious twists.

1.     LIFE’S A DRAG: In both films the protagonist is forced to think of a creative way to earn a living after being rejected for work despite their obvious talent. In Tootsie, actor Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman) must overcome his reputation for being difficult to work with and in Victor Victoria, soprano Victoria Grant (Julie Andrews) must cope with the harsh reality of unemployment during the Great Depression. Both characters find the solution to their dilemmas by assuming a new persona and switching genders. Michael quickly finds success as a soap opera star under the persona of dowdy character actress Dorothy Michaels, and Victoria becomes a nightclub sensation as the impossibly androgynous drag queen Count Victor Grazinski. With the help of their best friends and agents, both performers are able to maintain dual lifestyles while keeping their true identities hidden from the public.

2.     PERSONAL VS PROFESSIONAL: Despite their success, both Michael and Victoria later come to regret their decisions when their professional deceptions complicate their personal lives. For Michael, revealing his true self would destroy his source of income and prevent him from helping his struggling friends put on their play. While keeping up the ruse for the good of the play, he also finds himself in a web of complex romantic entanglements as he starts to fall for his co-star, Julie (Jessica Lange), while simultaneously being romanced by her widowed father (Charles Durning). Similarly, Victoria’s success is essential not just for her own financial standing but also that of her best friend and manager, former nightclub performer Carole “Toddy” Todd (Robert Preston). Victoria also unwittingly finds herself in the midst of a love triangle as she catches the eye of ultra macho gangster, King Marchand (James Garner), leading him to question both his relationship with his moll, Norma (Lesley Ann Warren), and his sexuality. Both Michael and Victoria are unable to reveal their true feelings for their new love interests without blowing their cover and risking their professional success. As a result, they are ultimately forced to reevaluate their priorities and the cost of their newfound fame.
How do you solve a problem like Victoria...or Victor...

3.     ROMANTIC RIVALS: Both films also utilize their protagonists’ romantic rivals to their optimum comedy and plot effect. In Tootsie, Michael nearly loses the chance to audition as Dorothy because the soap opera’s chauvinistic director, Ron (Dabney Coleman), refuses to take the mild mannered ‘actress’ seriously. This incident provides Michael with insight into the discrimination that women regularly face in the acting profession. Throughout his time as Dorothy, Michael is consistently treated in a derogatory manner by Ron, causing them to clash on the set in a way that nearly costs Michael his contract. The situation only becomes more tense when Michael realizes that he has feelings for Julie, who is already dating Ron. Through his friendship with Julie, Michael begins to see how Ron’s mistreatment of her mirrors his own mistreatment of the women who have been in his life, leading him to reflect upon his behavior. Similarly, Victoria’s rival, Norma, proves to be both an obstacle in her career path and a catalyst to her personal growth. When Norma notices how intently King is watching ‘Victor’ perform, she becomes jealous until she realizes that Victor’s number is part of a drag act and assumes that ‘he’ really is a man. She then goes on to tease King for being foolish enough to mistake Victor for a woman, leading King to feel insecure and begin questioning his sexuality. This only alienates him from Norma, and in a direct threat to Victoria's career, leads him to become determined to discover the truth about Victor. Later, after King and Victoria have begun a relationship, Norma does all that is in her power to ruin her ex’s chance at happiness by 'outing' him to his mob cohorts. As a result of Norma’s vindictiveness, Victoria is ultimately forced to reconsider her goals by choosing between her relationship and her career.

4.     LESSONS TO LEARN: Living as the opposite sex provides Michael with insights into how the other half lives. Michael’s friendship with Julie and conflicts with Ron teach him about sexual politics and the importance of treating people with respect. Early in the film, Michael pretends to be sexually interested in his friend, Sandy (Terri Garr), in order to hide his double life. After their one night stand, Michael begins avoiding Sandy and argues that he doesn’t “owe her anything” as he never promised to be committed or faithful. When Michael (as Dorothy) confronts Ron about his mistreatment of Julie, Ron’s attempt to defend himself is almost identical to the argument that Michael used to defend his treatment of Sandy. Similarly, when he attempts to use a conversation between Dorothy and Julie to his advantage in pursuing her, she adamantly rejects him and he learns that there is a difference between being honest with a woman, and being invasive. Through his experiences living as Dorothy, Michael finally realizes that his regard for women is sorely lacking. He begins to remedy his old habits when he approaches Julie as a friend rather than as a suitor after his secret is revealed and tells her “I was a better man with you as a woman than I ever was with a woman as a man”. In Victor/Victoria, it is not Victoria who has a lesson to learn, but her boyfriend, King. At the start of the film, King sees life in clearly defined black and white terms. When he becomes infatuated with ‘Victor’ however, he begins to understand that life is far more muddled than he ever imagined. Later in the film, he is shocked upon learning that his “rough, tough, mean son of a bitch” bodyguard, Squash (Alex Karras), is gay. After spending more time with Squash and the gay men in Victoria’s social circle, however, he learns that he was relying upon stereotypes in his views of homosexuality and sees how ridiculous stereotypes are. By the film’s finish, King has learned that people are not defined by their sexual orientation and are far too complicated to be categorized and explained away by stereotypes.  Thus, with the release of both Tootsie and Victor/Victoria, 1982 truly was the year of the drag in Hollywood. Both films live up to their 1930’s screwball counterparts by pairing light-hearted hijinks with serious lessons about respect, tolerance, and equality. These films are a reminder of the high quality, intelligent, entertainment that comedy can be when in the right hands.
Our hero's in their natural habitats



  1. So Julie Andrew's knows "Victoria's Secret" (ba dum ch!). How does Victor/Victoria stack up against another cross dressing film like "Glen or Glenda"? What's your take on it Miss-E???

  2. Well, many a film has tried to equql the wonder that is Glen or Glenda, but no film can surpass it (come on, it has buffalo stampedes!)