Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Nine To Five (1980)

So here’s the thing. As you could tell from my last post, I was more than a bit concerned that only one disc remaining in the “1961-1985” section of the Fox Anniversary DVD Collection had to cover six years (the last disc was 1979’s All That Jazz). Well, I just went and got the next disc, blindly as usual, and it’s Cocoon, released in June of 1985.

Now that’s a fine choice, and I predicted that it would be in this set, but that means that Fox has a FIVE-AND-A-HALF-YEAR gap in their collection. And worse yet, it happens to be from my favorite era in films (late seventies/early eighties), in part because my family got HBO around this time, and I watched every freaking movie they showed.

So clearly, this doesn’t satisfy me. So rather than grouse about it (which I did anyway because I love grousing), I decided to take matters into my own hands. I chose some Fox films to fill this gap, and I’ll blog about them just the same as I would the official selections. I wound up choosing five – five films that I consider classics in some way, and ones that I feel are consistent with the ones already in the set. They seem to be avoiding sequels, so no Empire or Jedi. And one film per signature-director, so no more Mel Brooks, as Young Frankenstein is already covered.

I wll give them this: outside the Star Wars sequels, these were pretty lean years for Zanuck’s studio. It wasn’t too hard to pick my five, since there weren’t exsctly oodles to choose from. But they’re out there, and so I feel I’m doing a service to them, and to you, if for no other reason than to be comprehensive. After all, isn’t that what a mega-box set collection priced at well over 400.00 retail should be about?

So on we go.

My first choice is Nine to Five, released in December, 1980, and this was a no-brainer. Box office hit, generally good reviews, #1 theme song, and it spawned a TV series and Broadway musical. And on top of that it was socio-culturally groundbreaking, essentially helping to launch the women-in-the-workplace movement of the 80s, calling attention to the rampant sexism and inequality that existed back then (and still does, but more on that later).

This was one of those films that was constantly on HBO back in the day. I remember recording it on our old Sylvania top-loader, and watching it over and over again until I memorized all the lines. I also remembered not quite understanding about the pot-smoking scene, and how my mom fumbled over some kind of explanation for it. (“They’re just happy cigarettes”.) But I loved it, even if I was only vaguely aware of its polemic.

Judy Bernly (Jane Fonda) begins her first day as a secretary at Consolidated, an unidentified company of some sort, taken under the wing of another secretary, Violet Newstead (Lily Tomlin). Early on, she discovers that the low morale of the mostly female staff is due to the boss, Franklin Hart (Dabney Coleman), a “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot.” Violet has a particular bitterness for the man; he consistently uses the leverage he has of deciding her upcoming promotion against her. Only another might hate him more: Doralee Rhodes (Dolly Parton), his personal secretary and object of his extramarital lust. But the sh*t really hits the fan when she finds out about his spreading rumors of their fornication to the office, and that, coupled with Violet’s promotion rejection and Judy’s general distaste for the man, is what sends all three to the bar to drown their sorrows, and then later to Doralee’s where they smoke pot and fantasize about how they’d do in their common enemy.

The next day at the office, Violet accidentally ads rat poison to Hart’s coffee instead of sugar. Just about to drink it, his chair collapses and he blacks out after hitting his head on the floor. After taken to the hospital, Violet sees her error and mistakenly thinks he was poisoned; at the hospital she and the others again mistakenly believe he had died, so they kidnap the corpse, which they later realize is not their boss. When they see Hart the next day, alive and well, they breathe a sigh of relief, but their chatter about the incident is recorded by Roz, Hart’s assistant, and he uses the info against them. Their only recourse: kidnapping, and they tie him up act his house, long enough so their leverage against him, embezzlement of equipment, can be readied for use. In the meantime, they run the office their way, offering more accommodating schedules, child care and equal pay. But Hart’s wife comes home early and releases him, permitting him some track coverage before he threatens to arrest the women. But Tinsworthy, the district manager, comes to visit. Impressed by Hart’s “improvements,” he reassigns the man to Brazil, and Judy, Violet and Doralee are free of their sworn enemy, and able to reap the rewards of their hard-earned improvements.

Seeing the film, again, after so many years, I have more admiration for it, particularly in the way it’s able to match its social relevance with strong entertainment value. It sounds a clarion for greater workplace equality, yes, but it does so with a firm awareness that it also needs to be funny. Many critics attacked the film for shifting gears halfway through, when the rat poison story started, and accusing the writer of abandoning his theme, but I don’t agree. After all, where you gonna go once you preach your point? Sure the rat poison story is broad farce, but it isn’t a tonal shift at all – it appropriately matches the tone from its first act. And abandoning theme? No, sir – it comes full circle with its message when the women remedy the oppressive ills of the office during Hart’s detainment (with the hilarious albeit stinging mandate by Tinsworthy that equal pay is “going too far”.) It’s important to have tract, but it needs to be made digestible for mainstream audiences.

But I also had another reaction when seeing it now: anger. Part of it was because I understan more of it now – as a child I didn’t get all the blatant chauvinism of the boss, or his oppressive, union-busting policies – I just thought the rat poison story was a real hoot, and couldn’t get enough of the sight of him tied up to that garage door opener. But now I’m all to aware of the adult-world themes it presents, and I’m no longer quite as mirthful about it. Another reason has to do with the times: as this was made nearly 4 years ago, why haven’t things changed more? Why are we still wrestling with the same issues Nine to Five considers, and why does the movie still seem progressive, even in this day and age?

I also admire the way the film gets very specific about the work the secretaries do, from dictating letters to ordering invoices to setting up appointments, etc, etc. Too many contemporary flicks about office jobs tend to present a very abstract setting, with no articulation about what, exactly, they’re all doing there. Though Nine to Five never says what the company actually does, its employees individual duties are finely detailed; that, after all, is part of what the film is really all about.

And just one more observation- Jane Fonda. This was during her phenomenal late-70s roll, after returning from her unofficial Hollywood blacklist. And, in keeping with that roll, she chose a film of thematic import, and even better, she’s great in it. Playing an insecure but resolute wallflower, with fashions left over from a previous generation, she shines in all her scenes. It’s one of her finest, yet most underrated, performances.

A vastly entertaining film, and historically significant to boot. Glad I chose it. J

Rating:  ****

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