Movies about America's prosperity were particularly fashionable throughout the 1980s, a decade that saw the resurgence of Hollywood – among other time-honored institutions – and a restoration of the popularity for American made movies. Today, this turnaround has been largely forgotten. But it behooves us all to remember that by the mid-1970s film making in Hollywood was hardly what it had been even a decade earlier with many in the industry not simply pondering the future but ostensibly already begun to pen its obituary. In 1978, David Niven boldly suggested that without the proper intervention very soon people would be fondly waxing about a bygone era when we all ‘used to go’ to movies for our mass entertainment. A dower claim but one readily supported by the times. All the signs were in evidence.
The old guard in Hollywood was gone; the star system it had fostered and autonomy of the studios themselves dead and buried, and a new regime contented to simply sell off or buy up and then break apart studios for their property value. The once proud movie palaces had already either been sloppily partitioned and/or converted into smaller venues for concerts and plays, transformed into retail space or simply gutted and boarded up to wait their turn with the wrecking ball. While many of the majors did, in fact, slip into receivership (United Artists and MGM – two of the most vital standard bearers in the industry were completely wiped off the map), for whatever reason audiences came around at the start of the 1980s; creating an influx for new product that Hollywood was only too happy – and more than a little desperate – to produce.
Arguably, the decade benefited from having an actor in the White House. Not only did Ronald Reagan’s presidency reverse the government consent decrees that had done irreprehensible damage to the industry back in the late 1950s, but under Reagan’s guidance a certain amount of nostalgic appreciation and dignity for the golden age of Hollywood was restored. The White House became a cultural center for entertaining old alumni like James Cagney and Bette Davis, invigorating a sudden – and unexpected – public fascination for ‘the good ol’ days’; a trend that continues to this day. Undeniably Reagan’s infectious optimism as commander and chief continued to fuel and inform Hollywood’s cockeyed claptrap for making escapism a palpable part of the American landscape throughout the decade. Viewed in this light the 1980s in Hollywood were very much akin to the 1950s in all their gaudy excess. At the height of this country-wide inebriation with movie magic, Twentieth Century Fox debuted the ultimate Cinderella story for its generation; a tale of an innocent trapped within that male-dominated chasm justly edified as unrepentantly greedy and arrogant corporate America.
Viewed today, Mike Nichol’s Working Girl (1988) is a sublime nice girl makes good fairy tale, so obvious in its trappings, so utterly cartoony in its archetypal characters, and so joyously fanciful in its execution that it continues to work its ‘feel good’ magic on an audience, despite its riotous implausibility. We are introduced to this corporate-daydreaming Cinderella, Tess McGill (Melanie Griffith) aboard the Staten Island ferry bound for the chaotic clamor of New York City. Tess is presented with a cupcake by her friend, Cynthia (Joan Cusack), a prelude to her ‘surprise’ birthday celebration planned for later that evening. But Tess is a minion – a working class stock broker’s secretary with a heavy Brooklyn accent who has invested everything in night classes to better her social standing. Even so, she is repeatedly overlooked for promotions by the power structure and infrequently viewed as a mere object to be ogled and placated, but never appreciated for her innate value or brilliant mind.
That’s a pity, because Tess has a lot to offer any guy smart enough to take advantage of her smarts. Too bad boyfriend, Mick Dugan (Alec Baldwin) isn’t one of them. After being pimped out by her boss, Lutz (Oliver Platt) to a cocaine snorting exec, Bob Speck (Kevin Spacey), and flat out refusing to play ball on his terms (she actually sprays a bottle of champagne in his face), Tess finds herself once again unemployed and seemingly unemployable. Her placement counselor, (Olympia Dukakis) forewarns that after today she will wipe her hands clean of any responsibility in finding Tess another job. Only things have begun to look up when Tess finds herself appointed as the newest secretary to corporate barracuda, Katherine Parker (Sigourney Weaver). Kate can be ruthless in the boardroom. But she also appears to harbor a soft spot for hard working women such as Tess, encouraging an open dialogue and ‘two way street’ approach to brainstorming ideas. Like so much of the superficiality that was the 1980s, it all looks good on the surface.
Tess, who is hungry for advancement, decides to share her idea about a recent client, Trask Industries, interested in acquiring a toehold in media communications. Tess suggests to Katherine that Trask invest in a radio franchise, illustrating her game plan and the many corporate loopholes that would result from the acquisition. Katherine agrees to pitch the idea to her clients but later tells Tess that it was ill-received. Trask wants to move into network television – not radio. At about the same time, Katherine decides to go on a European ski vacation; a simple little getaway that turns into a lengthy stay over after she breaks her leg on the slopes. Relying on Tess to hold down the fort and attend to her household chores while she is away, Katherine hints at the promise of rewarding Tess for her loyalty upon her return.
In the meantime, Tess arrives home early from work to find Mick in bed with a mutual acquaintance, Doreen DiMucci (Elizabeth Whitcraft). Her faith in love shattered, Tess is dealt yet another blow when she discovers Katherine’s secret files on the Trask radio merger. It seems Kate has decided to steal Tess’s idea and run with it herself. It’s the last straw. Tess has had enough. Gleaning the necessary information from Katherine’s computer, Tess decides to pilfer Katherine’s invitation to a fashionable corporate cocktail party – intent on making her own contacts instead. She employs Cynthia to help cut and style her hair and pick out a dress from Katherine’s closet to make the transformation from common secretary to corporate exec’ complete. But to take the edge off Tess also downs a couple of Valiums – a move that leaves her inebriated and ripe for a seduction by party guest Jack Trainer (Harrison Ford).
After collapsing in Jack’s arms, Tess is taken to his apartment to sleep it off. Jack, who also happens to be Katherine’s fiancée, becomes fascinated when Tess’ takes the bold and gutsy move to get to the untouchable Oren Trask (Philip Bosco) by crashing the wedding he is giving for his daughter, Barbara (Madolin B. Archer). While Jack distracts the maid of honor, Bitsy (Marceleine Hugot) with a dance, Tess cuts in on Oren, pitching the Penny/Marsh idea as her own and finagling a meeting the following Monday to continue their discussion. Trask is interested, and after perusing Tess’ figures on the merger decides to get his own corporate attorneys on board. Having expertly played her hand, Tess becomes involved with Jack. The two plot their defensive strategy for the Trask meeting, each unaware that Katherine is being sent home ahead of schedule to continue her recuperation.
Back in Manhattan Katherine attempts to seduce Jack. But he lets it slip that he is late for an importantly meeting downtown. Putting two and two together, Katherine bursts into the boardroom just as the Trask merger is about to take place. She accuses Tess of thievery and exposes her to be nothing more than her secretary. Unable to deny this latter allegation Tess storms out of the boardroom in tears leaving Jack and Katherine to finalize the merger. Unfortunately for Katherine, Jack is unable to bring himself to accept he has been deceived by Tess. Thus, when he, Oren and Katherine arrive at Penny/Marsh to sign the necessary papers, Katherine’s firing of Tess leads Tess to encourage Oren to make his own inquiries as to the impetus that supposedly inspired Katherine’s plan for Trask Industries foray into radio. Unable to come up with the proper answer – for it was never her idea to begin with – Katherine is admonished by Oren for her deceptions. The deal will go through, but Katherine is finished as an exec at Penny/Marsh – or anywhere else for that matter.
In the elevator on the way down to ground level Oren asks Tess if she’s willing to stick her neck out for him on a daily basis. She tells him yes and is immediately hired. But upon arriving for her first day of work Tess mistakenly assumes that the secretary (Amy Aquino) assigned to her office is actually her boss, after seeing her using the phone inside her office. Patiently waiting in the outer office for the woman to come and greet her, the secretary informs Tess that she is, in fact, her boss – not the other way around. Inquiring about the ground rules for their future association Tess declares, “I expect you to call me Tess. I don’t expect you to get me coffee unless you’re getting one for yourself. And the rest we’ll just take as it comes” – thus illustrating that in her ascendance to a position of power she has not forgotten from whence she came. Telephoning Cynthia with the good news, Cynthia jubilation at Tess’s promotion is shared by the entire office. The film ends with a panoramic pull back from the high rise window and a spectacular view of Manhattan’s steel and concrete skyline.
Working Girl is undeniably ‘feel good’ – a fanciful, occasionally farcical, fantasy that sparkles with heart and exuberance. Melanie Griffith was Oscar nominated, the year Jodie Foster took home the Best Actress statuette for The Accused. Viewed today one can clearly see the parallels between Griffith’s wide-eyed, and somewhat simplistic ingénue/heroine and Judy Holliday’s immortal bubble-head in Born Yesterday (1950); a role that Griffith would reprise in a pitiful remake of that classic in 1993. At the time Griffith’s performance must have appeared as a clever act. But actually time has proven that Griffith wasn’t acting nearly so much as she was merely playing a derivation of herself. She’s pert and plucky; her tears of betrayal well placed, trembling her lips or goofily playing at being intoxicated.
And make no mistake, without Griffith’s central performance Working Girl would be nothing at all. But she is given more than ample support from Harrison Ford’s devilish charm and Sigourney Weaver’s robust villainy. This triage of performers is well placed and better still at their comedic timing, an essential that helps sell Kevin Wade’s breezy screenplay as high art; a variation on the atypical ménage a trois overflowing from the bedroom into the boardroom. Harrison Ford’s performance often gets overlooked, sandwiched as it is between the enterprising secretary and her boss from hell. But Ford really does an exceptional job in remaining wholly believable as both Katharine’s former flame and new love interest for Tess McGill. He’s also quite funny, as in the moment when, caught unawares on the telephone as he is changing into a fresh shirt inside his office, he suddenly realizes his bare torso is being adoringly ogled by the entire steno pool through a window he’s forgotten to draw the Venetian blinds over. Accepting the folly of the moment with mild embarrassment, Ford strikes a pose for effect, as if to suggest he knows he is either a very sexy man or merely the unwitting brunt of a good joke.
Fueled by its pop tune soundtrack that included Carly Simon’s memorable ‘Let The River Run’ and a poignant orchestral love theme (also written by Simon), Working Girl is the ideal movie about finding love and money (although not necessarily in that order) on the isle of Manhattan. While other movies from the 1980s frequently intermingled money, power and sex into ribald comedy or gritty drama, Working Girl walks a tightrope between legitimate screwball and a lyrical romantic comedy. Mike Nichols’ direction is stylish. From its aerial opener - a dizzying helicopter shot swirling around Lady Liberty - to the equally impressive pullback from a close up on the window of a Manhattan skyscraper that closes out the show, Working Girl is slickly packaged entertainment that continues to endure and make us smile – even as the corporate zeitgeist of a bustling/thriving Wall Street has become almost as quaintly reminiscent of that other time as the film itself. As Fox’s publicity adequate accessed back then “For anyone who’s ever won. For anyone who’s ever lost…and for anyone who’s still in there trying” Working Girl is undeniably the ideal choice for a good night’s escapism at the movies. It remains just that.
It would be gratifying to see Working Girl get a new 1080p image harvest, because Fox Home Video’s DVD is fairly average. Anamorphic, though not advertised as such on the back packaging, the image exhibits a dated characteristic with typically garish 80s colors that are, at times eye popping. Sigourney Weaver’s red ski outfit, as example, is intense. Flesh tones can appear natural but infrequently lean toward that all too familiar and rather unflattering ‘piggy pink’. Contrast looks fairly solid and film grain is relatively well represented without any obvious artifacting. Age related damage is present throughout (small nicks, chips and scratches) but these do not distract. Fine details are nicely realized for the most part, though the image tends to fluctuates between good solid sharpness and moments of relatively softness. The audio is 2.0 stereo; quite adequate for this presentation. Still, it would be prudent to see a new 5.1 DTS remix if and when this catalogue titles ever goes to hi-def. There are NO extras and that’s a genuine shame. Perhaps Fox can do something about this too for a Blu-ray release. Hint! Hint! Bottom line: recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)