If you were to look up the word “throwback” in the Funk & Wagnall’s, you probably find Working Girl, a throwback to the classic era of Hollywood filmmaking, where clever, well-crafted scripts were buoyed by a healthy dose of star power. No grandiose messages or in-you-face polemics, either; just a fine old time at the movies – bring the whole family!
It must’ve taken some moxie, too, for Fox to release it for the 1988 holiday season, putting it up against films that dealt with, among other things, autism, 1960s racism in the South, a shock-jock’s murder, and an estranged marriage after the death of a son. But Fox had the last laugh when the ostensibly lightweight Girl scored several Oscar noms, including Best Picture and Actress, and went on the gross 80 million dollars.
But when you think about it, perhaps it ain’t so lightweight. Sure it’s essentially How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, except now our upwardly mobile protagonist is class-challenged but ambitious secretary from Staten Island, Tess (Melanie Griffith). But in transplanting a familiar archetype from the 50s to the 80s, it also addresses some of the changes that characterize the 80s. Tess is not just right time/right place go-getter, she’s also a metaphor for contemporary women the workplace. By impersonating her boss, Katherine (Sigourney Weaver), and handling a corporate acquisition under a false identity, she essentially states that just because a few women now old power positions, things are still just as hard for women who start at the bottom.
And there are a few twists along the way. Tess’s boss is also a woman, allowing the former to learn a few tricks of the trade, like how to balance femininity with power, and even how to use feminine wiles to achieve that power. Laid up from a skiing accident, Katherine sets the whole thing in motion, by stealing Tess’s idea for orchestrating a corporation’s purchase of a radio network, when it really wants to get into television. She partners with a executive named Jack Trainer (Harrison Ford), and together they pitch their idea to Trask Enterprises. All the while, Tess’s business acumen impresses Jack to the point that not only is he thoroughly convinced that she’s a seasoned businesswoman, but he falls in love with her. All this as Tess is in the process of leaving her loser boyfriend. Their only obstacle: Katherine, who turns out to be Jack’s flame (or ex-flame, according to him), and now threatens to blow the lid on Tess’s true identity. But all’s well that ends well – true love conquers all as Jack stands by his woman, even if she is a recepionist. Or, ex-receptionist; Trask likes her so much they hire her in an executive position. Kiss those Staten Island Ferry-riding days goodbye, Tess!
This was the first screenplay by Kevin Wade, and it’s a marvelous first outing by any writer. The jokes aren’t too broad, the business dialogue not too dry, and it keeps things moving lively along by cutting back and forth through all aspects of Tess’s life: her business dealings, her romance, her blue-collar life on SI. And director Mike Nichol’s maintains a sensible direction that’s all about character. He stays on his actors’ faces during those emotional moments just long enough. He’s got a nice touch that balances both the grit and the gloss. Of course, we’re talking about one of the great lensers of the 6s and 70s, so the man knows what he’s doing.
And most importantly, he knows what to do with Melanie Griffith, something so many others have been clueless about. Griffith is pitch perfect here – the role she was born to play. She achieves great balance too – channeling the vulnerable, childlike qualities of Marilyn Monroe while also somehow conveying the sense that she’s a very smart woman. I mean, some of those business lines, thick with info and numbers, are a pretty hard sell for anyone, let alone a bubbly blonde. But Griffith makes it work, and even if she doesn’t, the movie’s tone – a “wink-wink” fairy tale – pushes it smoothly along. Like I said, it’s all about tone.
Since Girl came out, nearly 30 years ago, it’s become the 80s film about women in the corporate business world, complete with Big Hair and IBM computers. It was a wake-up cal to America about the realities of the glass ceiling and, sadly, I fear little has changed. They could probably remake this with smart phones and twitter and it would still seem fresh and relevant. But it would also seem fresh because it’s a damn fine story, with a credible romance even if its core storyline fees a bit less than credible. Some things never go out of style.
Oh, and extra props for Carly Simon’s marvelous theme song, “Let the River Run,” which also provides the film’s score. Just jazzes the whole thing up nicely.
Go see it.