Today’s post comes from my good friend Briana Fasone. She revisits the 1988 classic Working Girl and delves into what the film has to say about the struggles of the professional world.
Twenty-five years after the release of Working Girl (1988), the Internet buzzed with the nostalgic reflections you’d expect from anniversary-obsessed websites:
“Lessons from ‘Working Girl,’ 25 Years Later” (Forbes)
“Everything I Know About Feminism I Learned From Working Girl” (Jezebel)
“Working Girl Hair + Our 9 Favorite Wild Movie Hairstyles” (Parade)
“Here’s What The Cast of ‘Working Girl’ Look Like Today” (BuzzFeed…Spoiler: twenty-five years older.)
Mike Nichols’ film, which charmed critics and audiences, has endured. It was nominated for six Academy Awards—including Best Picture—and eventually raked in over $100 million worldwide.
I first watched Working Girl a decade ago in a dreary prep school dorm room with a handful of other hormonal teenage girls. We cheered for the film’s heroine, Tess McGill, played by Melanie Griffith in her best role to date—perhaps not counting mothering Hollywood’s new It Girl, Fifty Shades of Grey’s Dakota Johnson. We lusted after Tess’ two love interests, her jerk boyfriend Mick (Alec Baldwin at his physical finest, complete with chest fur) and the curmudgeonly but compassionate investment broker, Jack Trainer (Harrison Ford). We delighted in everything eighties—the power suits, the extravagantly coiffed hair, smoking inside the office, and so on.
“I am not steak. You can’t just order me.” -Tess
On the surface, Working Girl is a simple story: it’s the story of Tess McGill, a young secretary from Staten Island, who believes in the promise of the American dream. She strives for upward mobility, to overcome sexism and classism, to break the barriers of her blue-collar outer borough world. Working Girl, like Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987) and the frivolous but gratifying Tom Cruise flick Cocktail (1988), examines the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps belief at the heart of Reaganism. (Stone revealed the dark side of laissez-faire capitalism, but many viewers still misinterpret the film’s cautionary tale—reciting “greed is good” as if it were a Bible verse and not a warning.)
Working Girl begins with a bang: a stunning 360-degree pan around the Statue of Liberty while a gospel choir belts out Carly Simon’s “Let the River Run.” (Simon’s hit single won the Academy Award for Best Original Song—the only Oscar the film took home.) After Nichols spotlights Lady Liberty in all her glory—a scene that still sends chills up the spine of this jaded New Yorker—the camera focuses on a Staten Island Ferry headed for lower Manhattan and zooms in on the now extinct World Trade Center soaring over the city skyline.
We first meet Tess on her thirtieth birthday as she commutes by ferry to a job where she’s underappreciated, exploited, and harassed. In an early scene, Tess pokes her head into the men’s restroom to alert her boss of something urgent. Before she can leave, another employee occupying a stall barks at her to get him more toilet paper. Here, Nichols brilliantly blends humor and horror. Tess gets him a roll and scurries out. Later, when a cocaine-snorting shmuck called “Bob from Arbitrage” (a fresh-faced Kevin Spacey) tries to turn a job interview into a horizontal mambo, Tess finally snaps. She douses Bob in champagne before returning to work and calling out her misogynistic superiors who set up the “meeting.” Tess is subsequently fired.
“Never burn bridges. Today’s junior prick, tomorrow’s senior partner.” – Katharine
Ten minutes into the film, we’re confronted with the story’s central issue: what does it mean to be a “working girl”? The film’s title describes the driven career women of the eighties, like J.C. Wiatt (Diane Keaton) at the start of Baby Boom (1987) or Murphy Brown (Candice Bergen) in the beginning of the eponymous series (1988-1998). But let’s not forget: “working girl” is also a euphemism for prostitute. Though there’s not much sex in the film, the issue of sex (and female sexuality) becomes important. At the start, the screenwriter, Kevin Wade, draws a line: Tess won’t sleep her way to success. She’s our heroine, after all.
After getting sacked, Tess seems to catch a break. She’s hired to assist Katharine Parker (Sigourney Weaver), a well-educated WASP working her way up the corporate ladder at a brokerage firm. Katharine promises to mentor Tess—“it’s a two-way street,” she repeats—but instead steals one of Tess’ ideas for a business merger. When Katharine breaks her leg in a skiing accident and is out of town for a few weeks, Tess discovers this betrayal and comes to terms with the fact that the game is rigged: she’ll never make it to the top unless she takes matters into her own hand. While Katharine is away recovering, Tess adopts the persona of a “working girl.” She cuts her hair, pretends to be Katharine’s partner in mergers and acquisitions, and with the help of Jack Trainer (and Katharine’s wardrobe), pursues the business deal that was her idea. Along the way, she ditches her dim boyfriend and falls for Trainer (who happens to sort-of be involved with, gasp, Katharine).
“Can I get you anything, Mr. Trainer? Coffee? Tea? Me?” – Cyn
The two-hour film flies by, partly due to Wade’s clever screenplay, filled with oft-quoted one-liners. Most of them are said by Tess’ best friend, Cynthia (“Cyn”), played by Joan Cusack at her sassiest. Cusack is part of an immensely talented ensemble cast, which includes Olympia Dukakis, making a cameo as a no-nonsense Personnel Director looking out for Tess, and Oliver Platt playing one of her douchey bosses. But the best part of the film—beyond the cameos, the quips, the hair, the love story subplot—is the interaction between Tess and Katharine.
Katharine Parker could have been a throwaway part, but Sigourney Weaver, who at once is monstrous, sexy, and hilarious, manages to steal scenes from the film’s star. You enjoy every second of Weaver’s screen time, from schmoozing with suits at a cocktail party (while Tess pushes a cart of steaming dim sum) to barging in on a business meeting on crutches. Weaver perfectly plays a power-hungry corporate vixen—Sheryl Sandberg’s evil eighties twin who’ll rip your heart out as she leans in—and the role earned her one of two Oscar nods at the 1989 Academy Awards. She was nominated for Working Girl in the Best Supporting Actress Category and for Gorillas in the Mist (1988) in the Best Actress Category, and became the first double nominee to lose twice.
“Sometimes I sing and dance around the house in my underwear. Doesn’t make me Madonna. Never will.” – Cyn
Though Melanie Griffith is often by trumped by her costar (the role of Tess does involve an element of subservience), her performance is consistently good—worthy of her Academy Award nomination. (She lost to Jodie Foster in The Accused). Griffith’s career did not have the durability of Weaver’s, and it’s a shame. Rewatching Working Girl, I’m still surprised by the poignancy of Griffith’s quiet performance. By how subtly, but quickly, she sheds naivety for chutzpah.
One particular scene comes to mind. When Tess returns to a Staten Island dive bar for Cyn’s engagement party, her transformation is striking. Wearing a smart black pantsuit and her strawberry blonde hair cropped, she stuns Mick, who asks if she had to go to traffic court that day. (A Staten Island compliment.) He has recently cheated on her, but they make peace for the sake of the party. However, Mick, downing Scotch, misreads the situation and drunkenly proposes marriage in front of all the guests. Tess demurs: “maybe.” “You call that an answer,” he replies, annoyed. “You want another answer, ask another girl,” she says in an uncharacteristically clipped tone (without losing a hint of her trademark breathy voice).
The scene at the bar is a complete turnaround from the first time we see Mick and Tess together. They’re in the bedroom, and she’s trying on her birthday present—yes, it’s lingerie. She’s completely objectified, and it’s uncomfortable to watch. Even Trainer is guilty. When he first meets the newly-transformed Tess at a cocktail party, he can’t stop ogling her. Their first encounter goes like this:
I’ve been looking for you.
Why? Do you know me?
No. No. No. But I promised myself that when I saw you, I would get to know you. You’re the first woman I’ve seen at one of these damn things that dresses like a woman, not like a woman thinks a man would dress if he was a woman.
It’s rather a revealing line. Here, Harrison Ford, playing the closest thing to a knight in shining armor, articulates the unfair expectations faced by professional women. On the one hand, they must be smart enough to get in the door. On the other hand, they must be sexy enough to command the room.
Tess completely plays into this idea. A few moments later, Griffith purrs, “I have a mind for business and a bod for sin. Is there anything wrong with that?” Mind for business, bod for sin—that’s the ideal. (Certainly not, as Kristen Wiig describes herself in a hilarious SNL skit, “a bitch in the boardroom and a bore in the bedroom.”)
Let me be clear: the objectifying goes both ways. One of my favorite scenes in Working Girl involves Harrison Ford’s bare, well-toned torso. After pulling an all-nighter, Trainer changes his shirt in his office in front of a gaggle of appreciative secretaries who applaud, perhaps like the audience, when his little performance is over. The scene gives meaning to the term “Female Gaze.”
I think Working Girl, which has been described as modern day Cinderella story, sidesteps some of the trappings of misogyny because of Katharine, who is more than a mere foil to Tess. Griffith and Weaver play two different types of professional women. Griffith is the fusion of sex and savviness. Her body, as we see at the start of the film, is voluptuous and inviting. (It’s completely unrealistic that she could share clothes with the slender six-foot tall Sigourney Weaver.) Her voice is whispery and soft. Weaver, on the other hand, is icy and chic. She certainly doesn’t dress the way a “woman thinks a man would dress if he was a woman,” but her look is more elegant than sexy. She stuns in a knife-pleated red dress at cocktail party. To Tess, she quotes Coco Chanel: “Dress shabbily and they remember the dress; dress impeccably and they remember the woman.” This biggest insult thrown at Katharine, which is said not once but twice, involves her “bony ass.”
“Six thousand dollars? It’s not even leather!” – Cyn
Katharine is her own woman. She wields power. She works hard, is fully committed to her duties, and gracefully maneuvers around sexism instead of taking it on. (If she did, she would probably lose.) Unlike Tess, who sees Jack Trainer as a kind of savior, she doesn’t subscribe to any kind of fairytale. Consider her love life. At the start of the film, Katharine tells Tess that she thinks the guy she’s been seeing will pop the question. (It’s Trainer, and as it turns out, he doesn’t want to.) “We’re in the same city now,” Katharine speculates. “I’ve indicated that I’m receptive to an offer. I’ve cleared the month of June. And I am, after all, me.”
This exchange reveals Katharine’s pragmatism (as well as her hysterical narcissism): she sees marriage as just another transaction. She may want a man, but she definitely doesn’t need one. Or, as my friend Nina more accurately said: “Say what you will about Katharine, she doesn’t seem to need Jack for anything but sex.” When Trainer dumps her for the more womanly Tess, Katharine is penalized for her emasculating power (among many other things). Katharine is no saint. In fact, she’s a straight-up bitch—and that’s why the film is so fun. Nichols gives us a villain, but never a caricature.
“Whaddya need speech class for, ya tawk fine!” – Cyn
That said, Tess has a more difficult journey. She doesn’t come from money, whereas Katharine comes from very much. Without jamming it down our throats, Nichols makes Working Girl a film about class. Tess can’t conform like Katharine: all kinds of advancement opportunities seem to be closed to her. The screenplay could have called for a Brooklyn girl, but Tess is from Staten Island—why? Besides being a picture-perfect ferry ride away from Manhattan, it’s the only borough not connected to New York by subway. The so-called “Forgotten Borough.” The most disconnected section of the city—arguably the most snubbed. Tess’s Staten Island roots make success that much harder, and that much sweeter.
It should be no surprise that Tess ends up with her own secretary. In the very last scene of the film, she calls Cyn from her new office.
Cyn…guess where I am?
(Barely audible, while “Let the River Run” begins)
You got out! Oh, my God! I can’t believe it! She’s out! She
made it out! She got out! She has her own office!
Cyn, standing in the secretary pool of her office, cheers wildly. The point of view shifts, and we see Tess from outside her office window. The camera slowly zooms out…Tess becomes smaller and smaller until we can’t distinguish her face…Her office becomes a tiny box in a gigantic grid…“Silver cities rise, the morning lights, the streets that meet them, and sirens call them on with a song”… She’s lost in the New York City skyline.