30 Years: Working Girl (1988)

Working Girl   (1988)

30 YEARS ON: Working Girl, the story of an ambitious young woman stuck as a secretary due to her big-haired appearance, is a mixed bag of progressive second wave feminism tainted by antiquated low expectations.  Written, directed and produced by white men, the feature is not as cringeworthy as you might expect. Mike Nichols, famed comedian, theater and film director (The Graduate, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, The Birdcage) nails the subtlety of Tess McGill’s struggle (such as being third billed when you ARE the working girl).  The film tackles Tess covering for her haughty boss, who also claims to be thirty-years-old (and even a little younger than Tess), when she breaks her leg skiing on what she believes to be an engagement getaway. Filling in on her meetings and stealing back an acquisitions idea she originally proposed, Tess handles fallout with her cheating boyfriend (Alec Baldwin in filthy 80s bro mode), flirtations with her handsome co-pitcher (Harrison Ford in 80s handsome guy mode), and her crafty boss taking her best ideas (Sigourney Weaver, queen bitch).  The 30th anniversary in my 30th year year adds just a bit more intrigue.


Tess (Melanie Griffith) is hungry for an opportunity to stretch her heels in the corporate world.  She is remarkably reserved for someone faced by sexual harassment (an all too telling cameo from Kevin Spacey) and finds her value discounted by her male coworkers, but when she is given a female boss, she is promised a “two way street” in their professional relationship.  When that two way street has erected spikes in your path and her boyfriend is found incredulous with other tits swinging in his face, she decides it’s her time to play the game and get what’s hers. For anyone pushed aside because they chose to play the nice guy can find strength in Tess.  Passively confident, she averts gaze as she solidly if nervously delivers her pitch to executives. Griffith has such a mouselike demeanor and a little pip of a voice, and her words–controlled, mannered, scared–are piercing. When questioned on her knowledge of obscure subjects, her dispute is simple but quietly brilliant: “I read a lot of things. You never know where a good idea will come from.”  She exemplifies a fantasy of female empowerment that 1988 was surely enthralled with grossing over $100 million worldwide, not adjusting for inflation.

Sigourney Weaver as the villainous, manipulative Katharine Parker–quoting Coco Chanel, and all smiles, all teeth…very sharp teeth–is Zuul with an MBA.  Thoroughly pants-suited by the ever wonderful Ann Roth (English Patient, Oscar win; The Nance, Tony win), she befits masculine acceptable femininity as the dominatrix of their boardroom fetishes.  Also nominated this year for her portrayal of gorilla advocate Dian Fossey, gorillas under the supervision of Ms Parker would wind up running an efficient Costco. When shown competition from the spirited, hungry secretary, she’s about to shake with rage under her lacquered on smile.  Weaver adds a devilish grin to her monster boss two decades before her drama school classmate Meryl perfected it. “Perfect. Everything is in place,” she says smiling, talking of her potential engagement vacation. This is a woman used to things going her way, and there’s a tension in watching her work as she unfurls the user that she is.  Narcissistic and hilarious, she nails line readings for a woman fully assured in herself (“After all, I am me”). Her bedridden to do list may be the best scene in the movie. She’s a fantastic adversary meant to push Tess into her corporate journey, and she’s a wicked pleasure to watch; likely Weaver’s most fun role.

It’s one Oscar win was for Carly Simon’s choir-tastic theme “Let the River Run,” but it couldn’t have been far off from its other nominations.  Pulling a double nomination in supporting actress, Weaver was tremendous as the villain, but Joan Cusack was indispensable in her every scene. The most nominated SNL alum (with 2 total), Cusack nails every scenes.  We were laughing constantly when she’s on screen until she has to lay down some truth and she proves that she’s the MVC (Most Valuable Cusack). Mike Nichols’ hand is on every bit of this movie. He taught Nora Ephron how to make romantic comedies, and he draws out hushed perfection in Griffith’s delivery.  Kevin Wade laid down one hell of a running base, an easy second behind my beloved A Fish Called Wanda. The film was rightly popular from one of the great dramatic directors of the time. Go watch HBO’s Becoming Mike Nichols for a documentary about his earlier life and work.


In the age of #MeToo and Wonder Woman (2017), the film inherently comes off as a period piece.  There was some timidity that bothered me in the moment. After watching John Oliver’s interview turned conversation with the Senatorially slut-shamed Anita Hill, which happened 3 years after this movie, I find a polite, quiet woman who succeeded by sticking her neck out with her strong ideas and work ethic to be solidly endearing for the time.  For the time is a difficult sentence to swallow, because “For the time” can be corrupted or an excuse that if maintained serves to further damage a minority or affected party. But looking at these films 30 years on is an exercise of exploring the 30 year gap that truly separates an era. I consider it the classic line–like the Mason-Dixon line of popular media–so (re-)discovering noted features from three decades back helps to timestamp the world around me and where it might go.  I feel like this should be a yearly activity.


If you’re interested and are good at planning for Thursdays in December, I’ll have to rewatch on 12/20 for the 30th anniversary.  I’ll save some room on the couch.


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