It is impossible to praise 1988’s classy/sassy effervescent romantic comedy, Working Girl, without first acknowledging the epic void left by the passing of its director this past year. Mike Nichols, with his erudite sense of humor, his keen filmmaker’s eye wed to an impeccable mastery of the varying arts and sciences necessary, not merely to will any movie into existence, but launch it into the stratosphere as instantly memorable movie-land iconography; his always razor-sharp and appetizing wit and seemingly flawless precision: the results, in Working Girl are frank, charming and adult; qualities too few romantic comedies made these days possess. Nichols lends an air of peerless aristocracy to this otherwise simple (though hardly simplistic) ‘feel good’, exploiting the tried and true formula of ‘underdog makes good’ to bubbly effect.
Working Girl comes at the tail end of Hollywood’s love affair with telling stories that celebrate America’s economic flourish. Philosophically, at least, the movie is imbued with a sort of ‘immigrant’s experience’ redux. The opening credits are focused on solemn, stone-faced Lady Liberty, circled in a breathtaking 3-60 aerial swoop by helicopter and pulling back to reveal the majestic Manhattan skyline with the Twin Towers prominently sparkling at attention. If only for this, Working Girl is already a beloved time capsule from a sadly bygone period in America’s 20th century glory day reign. And it’s a spectacular introduction pertinent to our story as well; Nichols’ camera narrowing its focus from this majestic opener to a Staten Island ferry, as Carly Simon’s evocative ‘Let The River Run’ hails New York City its ‘new Jerusalem’.
This was, or rather – had been – Ronald Reagan’s America for a time – as metaphorically referenced in Reagan’s farewell address to the nation in 1989 as a ‘shining city on a hill’. Reagan may have left Hollywood far behind by 1988, but his actor’s acumen made the White House a veritable stage for two terms;1600 Pennsylvania Ave. frequently playing host to a glittering assemblage of celluloid idols - past and present. What any of this has to do with Working Girl directly is, perhaps, minimal. Indirectly, the film bears a fresh top coat of Reagan’s own Teflon-coated spirit of optimism. Our heroine, Tess McGill (Melanie Griffith, in the defining role of her otherwise undistinguished film career), is a hard-working Irish lass, exercising just the sort of admirable get up and go that helped keep the nation’s sanguinity at a heady flow throughout the decade.
Tess is the proverbial American dreamer, despite the insurmountable odds against her succeeding in this stone and concrete jungle. Alas, she’s surrounded herself with a less than stellar support system. Her boyfriend, Mick Dugan (Alec Baldwin) is little more than a randy underachiever with minor ambitions and even less faith in Tess. He doesn’t share her dream. He merely placates it. Tess’ best friend, Cynthia (Joan Cusack) is just another big-haired, crass comic relief, contented to remain happily buried in the steno pool.
Interestingly, it’s Tess’ ambitions for moving up the proverbial corporate ladder, one humiliating rung at a time, that Mick and Cynthia find threatening; or perhaps – and painfully – a reminder of their own failures in life. They would much prefer Tess share in that slice of mediocrity already split between them. “Who the fuck died and made you Grace Kelly?” Mick rather crudely chastises Tess, after she refuses to back down from her new course in life. Only moments before, Mick rather sheepishly proposed to Tess inside a crowded bar populated with mutual friends. Alas, what would have seemed the best possible alternative for this ‘working girl’ only a few short weeks before, now seems a grotesque, perhaps even hateful prospect; particularly in light of Mick’s recent flagrante delicto with the trollop, Doreen DiMucci (Elizabeth Whitcraft). Tess’ playful rejection of ‘maybe’ superficially bruises Mick’s ego. But then, she willfully opens the wound deeper with the slyest of pleasures as she casually informs Mick, “You want a different answer…ask a different girl.”
Working Girl’s screenplay is by Kevin Wade; probably his best piece of ‘boy meets girl’ fluff. Thematically, Wade is juggling some very hefty plot devices; the Tess/Mick tragi-romance, the best friends’ kooky comedy (Tess and Cynthia), the pseudo-feminist woman against woman, claws out cat-fight (Tess vs. Katherine Parker, supremely digested and venomously expelled by Sigourney Weaver) and finally, the malevolent ménage à trois (Tess, Katherine and the amiable – and aptly named, Jack Trainer, played by Harrison Ford). It’s Trainer who mistakenly sees Tess’ genuine value despite her camouflage, and, ostensibly, even before she can see it in herself; Trainer, who inadvertently gets Tess to shed her sexual inhibitions and dive into their passionate affair without first realizing she is bagging her boss’ ‘sort-of’ ex-flame.
With Jack at her side, Tess is invincible. It seems her daring knows no boundaries; crashing a chichi society wedding just to finagle a chance rendezvous with the bride’s proud papa; titan/investor, Oren Trask (Philip Bosco). It’s all done tongue in cheek, as written by Wade and staged by Nichols for maximum amusement; Tess using a rumba as springboard to pitch her proposal to a surprisingly receptive Trask; impersonating an indisposed Katherine who, it seems, would have otherwise stolen Tess’ idea and run with it to flatter her own ego while she fattened her reputation as an industry insider.
The backstabbing/comeuppance scenario is, if not the dominant one in the movie, then certainly, its’ most vibrant. Cynthia warns against Tess’ involvement in this impossible caper, explaining, “Sometime I dance around the house in my underwear. Doesn’t make me Madonna. Never will!” Tess, alas, doesn’t yield to such bargain-basement providence. Perhaps, she’s simply had too much of it; callously exploited by her former boss, Lutz (Oliver Platt) as a potential ‘date’ for a cocaine-snorting colleague (Kevin Spacey); then, deliberately led by the nose down Katherine’s ‘two-way street’ only to have her hard work stolen; or even, by Mick’s infidelity with Doreen. At its crux, Working Girl is a story of faith, hope and wish fulfillment for what, at least in the 1980’s, passed as the proverbial ‘good life’. The film’s poster tag line, “For anyone who’s ever won – or lost, and for everyone who’s still in there trying” summarizes not only Working Girl’s succinct premise, it also taps into our collective need to connect for the umpteenth time to this retelling of Charles Perrault’s classic Cinderella fable. Working Girl has all the trappings of this time-honored fairy tale as well as a few neat tricks and revisions up its sleeve.
In hindsight, Working Girl is perfectly cast. Melanie Griffith is an inscrutable foil for Sigourney Weaver’s venomous spider; screenwriter, Kevin Wade taking the ole ‘lamb bites wolf’ page from the classic Hollywood screwball comedy playbook and running with it from boardroom to bedroom, then back again, as Tess conquers both fronts by – of all things – playing fair…well…mostly. Let’s face it, in the go-go eighties it was rather impossible to steal little/steal big unless one bent the rules just a little.
Wade’s screenplay, of course, tempers Tess’ deviousness two-fold, completely drawing the audience to her side; first, by making her manipulation of these variables complimentary to the terrible hand she has been dealt by others in life (a sort of quid pro quo, feeding into our collective human nature to give as good as we get) and second, by illustrating for the audience how innocence and hard work alone cannot triumph, especially when the rules of engagement have been designed to keep the likes of a Tess McGill out in the cold. Hence, our sympathy is with the girl from Staten Island who doesn’t want to step on anyone’s toes, but decidedly has made up her mind she won’t tolerate any more of her own bruised digits as she makes her climb up the corporate ladder.
Arguably, the one unforgiveable sin Tess commits is not letting Jack in on her dirty little secret; the one man ready to believe her without question. Jack is already aggrieved in the game. His reputation as a rainmaker has since suffered. Another exposé could ruin him. This one nearly does. Arguably, both Wade and Nichols have painted themselves into an impossible corner here. Within the context of the 80’s milieu, greedy little hearts testing one another for their bite at the same worm-infested apple, it is fanciful – to damn near impossible - to think Jack would forgive Tess for making a fool of him in front of a power broker like Oren Trask. Jack goes to bat for Tess in the eleventh hour, after Katherine has seemingly beaten Tess at her own game; Trask jokingly suggesting Trainer should not let his Johnson make executive decisions.
It’s a particularly low blow – literally – for a man of Trask’s stature. Or is Oren Trask’s reputation, like practically everything else in this movie, just an illusion? And Trask, for all his presumed gentlemanly refinement, isn’t above making another humiliating example of Katherine after he has discovered the truth for himself; telling Kate to take a long look around her office before he has her thrown out on – as Tess puts it – her ‘boney ass’.
Wade and Nichols cheat us with the film’s too perfect finale; Tess reunited, and moving in with Jack; arriving at Trask Industries to begin her first day of work, but mistaking her post as that of the new secretary for yet another woman boss, Alice Baxter (Amy Aquino), whom she casually glimpses on the phone inside her new office. The most sobering aspect of this implausibly perfect moment is Tess’ penultimate exchange with Alice who is, in fact, her new secretary, not the other way around. Asked by Alice to set a few ‘ground rules,’ Tess forgoes virtually all of the rhetoric and formality that always made her feel like a subordinate in the workforce, explaining to Alice, “I expect you to call me Tess. I don’t expect you to fetch me coffee unless you’re getting one for yourself…and the rest we’ll just make up as we go along. Okay?”
As previously mentioned, Working Girl opens large. Tess and Cynthia arrive for another day of work by the Staten Island ferry, a pair of big-haired, non-descript minions lost in this congested sea of humanity. Tess tries to get her boss, Lutz to see her potential for a new position opening up within the firm. She’s put in her time. She’s paid her dues. Moreover, she’s put herself through a correspondence night school program. Alas, all Lutz can see is the strawberry blonde whose biggest asset is she can intercept important phone calls in a timely manner while he’s in the bathroom and hand him a roll of toilet paper under the stall after he’s run out. A glaring example of how little Lutz thinks of Tess, except as a dependable door mat, is his decision to set her up on a ‘date’ under the pretext it is an interview with Bob Speck (Kevin Spacey), a real horn-dog. Tess, however, is not so easily fooled, and not nearly as forgiving. She explodes a frothy bottle of champagne in Bob’s face before returning to the office to send a brutal inner office memo exposing Lutz to all of his colleagues. Her stunt fortifies personal satisfaction. It also gets her fired. Still, Tess wouldn’t have it any other way.
Her work counsellor (Olympia Dukakis) encourages prudence, sending Tess to another company to be a secretary for new executive V.P.: Katherine Parker. The first meeting seems encouraging. Katherine lays some ground rules. But she also hints Tess can come to her with any problems, ideas, etc. she has. Tess is elated, thinking of Kate as an equal she can confide in and emulate. However, when Katherine accidentally breaks her leg during a ski trip she telephones the office to ask Tess to hold down the fort for a few days. Alas, in doing so, Katherine gives Tess access to her personal computer. Tess discovers Katherine has stolen an idea she shared with her in confidence; a corporate merger involving Oren Trask’s media empire. As the saying goes; when it rains, it pours. Tess returns home deflated, only to find her live-in, Mick in bed with Doreen DiMucci. With nothing left to lose, either on the home front or at her job, Tess decides to take charge on both fronts. She dumps Mick and reclaims her files from Kate’s computer, passing herself off as Katherine’s replacement in the Trask merger.
To make this latter venture a success, Tess looks up Katherine’s contact, Jack Trainer. Alas, their chance meeting at a business cocktail party is so worrisome to Tess she takes too many Valium, mixing the powerful tranquilizer with a few nervous glasses of champagne. Hardly at her best, Tess collapses in Jack’s arms. Unable to get even an address out of her, Jack instead takes Tess to his apartment, politely undressing and depositing her in his bed. The next morning, Tess is mortified to think she might have behaved inappropriately with Jack. He playfully toys with her suspicions, makes her feel guilty, but then sheepishly confides nothing happened between them. Tess is grateful. But soon Tess becomes smitten, involving Jack in her devious plan to get to Oren Trask. It won’t be easy. Jack has a stain on his reputation as a corporate trader. Even so, Oren Trask is an untouchable. He sees virtually no one. But Tess has a brilliant idea; catch the old man while his defenses are down, at his daughter’s wedding. Tess and Jack crash the posh affair, claiming to be friends of the groom. Tess then shares a brief dance with Oren, explaining her idea flirtatiously. It’s a Coles’ Notes cold reading at best, but it sincerely whets Oren’s appetite to learn more.
Things reach a fevered pitch when Katherine arrives home ahead of schedule, her leg still in a plaster cast. She sends Tess to the pharmacy for her prescription painkillers, then attempts to rekindle her romance with Jack. He, however, has fallen hopelessly in love with Tess and spurns her advances without actually confessing their love affair. Piecing things together for herself, Katherine storms into Trask’s boardroom just as Tess and Jack are about to finalize the merger. Trask is incensed, but Katherine exposes Tess as her secretary, further suggesting it was Tess who stole Katherine’s original idea for her own. Unable to wrap his head around this base betrayal, Jack is unprepared to defend Tess’ honor. Instead, Tess exits the boardroom in disgrace and Katherine assumes control of the meeting.
A short while later, Tess, Katherine, Jack and Oren meet in the lobby of Katherine’s office building. Tess is on her way out. She confronts Katherine but then tosses a clue to Oren, suggesting Kate might be lying to save her own face. He is intrigued and upon further investigation quickly learns the impetus of Tess’ plan for the merger. Confronting Katherine to see if she has knowledge of this information too, Katherine is chagrined and unable to offer Oren any clue as to how ‘she’ supposedly came up with the concept. Realizing Katherine has been the deceiver Oren fires her on the spot; ensconcing Tess in his own corporation as a lower-end executive, one presumably destined to do great things.
Working Girl is basically Melanie Griffith’s show. But we would be remiss in not mentioning the superb contributions made by both Sigourney Weaver and Harrison Ford; the latter two halves of this triumvirate. Both stars are in departure mode from their well-established public personas; Weaver’s masculinized proto-feminist monster-hunter in the Alien film franchise (1979-97); Ford, effortlessly turned into a lovable Prince Charming after earlier stints as the intergalactic rake, Han Solo in the Star Wars trilogy (1977-83) and rogue fortune hunter, Indiana Jones (1981-08). Weaver’s ‘hell on heels’ boss deserves top marks. She is a veritable potpourri of everything one abhors. And yet, Weaver manages a curious empathy; Katherine Parker less a caricature and more the fundamentally flawed social-climbing/corporate-marauding viper, twice chagrined; deservedly out of a job, but also minus her lover. There’s a slyness to Weaver, a spark of sarcasm too, married to a delicious intuition for knowing how far to press her luck with an audience. We don’t hate Katherine Parker. She’s not likeable, to be sure. But there’s also something quite tragic about her.
Ford’s amiable gentleman is decidedly attractive. He’s more the laid back, gooney type than the smartly sexy and immaculately attired Wall Street stud. But he can laugh at himself. Case in point: a moment when Jack is unaware he’s being ogled by the ladies in the steno pool as he changes into a fresh shirt for a business meeting with the blinds to his office open. When the women begin to applaud, Jack strikes a pose for their effect as a male model might on the fashion runway, eyes rolling back with a flash of embarrassment. As written, Jack’s a good-natured fellow, both in and out of the bedroom. But it’s Ford’s playful delivery of even toss-away lines that really sells his character as the perfect partner for Griffith’s forthright/upright, and occasionally up tight gal with a modicum of class no money can buy. Kudos also to Joan Cusack’s sharp-shoot-from-the-hip, cynical gal pal: a great comedic foil and brassy counterpoint to our heroine as she moves beyond the physical commonalities that bind their friendship.
Despite changing times, tastes – and, yes – hairstyles, Working Girl remains in the top tier of adult-themed romantic comedies; arguably, the Citizen Kane of its ilk. Mike Nichols’ direction and Kevin Wade’s screenplay are astutely grounded in some very fine, seemingly effortless, performances by all concerned. It’s the comedy that deceives us, suggesting just another toss away tryst with a few gags thrown in. But look closer and you’ll realize there’s a meticulous, oft’ brilliant narrative construction at work; an evenly paced, expertly staged and cleverly camouflaged machinery; practically invisible, but steadily evolving both the characters and the plot in more meaningful and self-reflexive ways. Like all truly great directors, Mike Nichols is sharing a piece of himself in Working Girl; unobtrusively marking his work with an inimitable stamp in razorback wit and camaraderie via kinship…for anyone who’s ever won, for anyone who’s ever lost, and for everyone still out there – trying.
After far too long an absence, Working Girl arrives on Blu-ray via Fox Home Video. Not exactly the best the studio has to offer, but a salvageable 1080p transfer nonetheless. The big issue here is grain. It looks indigenous to the source, but, at times can reach marginally distracting levels. Overall, the grain just makes medium and long shots look ‘busy’ rather than smooth and solid. This isn’t as terrible as it sounds, but I honestly don’t recall the movie looking quite so grainy when I went to my local Bijou in 1989. Oh sure, I know. Memory fades. And home video presentations prior to this one have not exactly favored the movie; particularly the lackluster DVD. Age-related artifacts are not a problem. Colors favor a cool tone. The image has not been artificially sharped or enhanced in any way. Good stuff…in general.
Flesh tones are an issue. They tend to be pallid and ever so slightly favoring a yellowish cast. Okay, this is DeLuxe color circa the 1980’s. Not contemporary Technicolor. How close to source is it? Well, let’s just say everything looks marginally ‘dated’ – not necessarily pale, but unobtrusively non-vibrant. The best visual aspect of this disc: fine detail. Wow! What a quantum leap ahead! Check out Tess’ herringbone suit or Jack’s pinstripe pants. The other bonus: the new DTS 5.1 audio. Working Girl isn’t teeming with action and noise, but certain scenes really come to life as never before; the Trask wedding, the brokerage firm, the bar where Tess and Mick have their spat, etc. Certainly, Carly Simon’s songs have never sounded crisper, as does dialogue throughout. Bottom line: nice effort on Fox’s part – clearly a new scam done from original elements. Recommended, with minor caveats.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)