Let the Sunshine In
The film’s confidence comes in part from the acceptance of the things that can’t be known.
“I’ve got a head for business and a bod for sin.” Add to that a massive dose of valium in your system along with a couple shots of tequila, and you got a gal who means business. It has been 30 years since Melanie Griffith’s Tess McGill, a striving Staten Island secretary in the Financial District of Manhattan, managed to pull off a con job in order to prove herself to be worthy of a promotion in the ultra-‘80s screwball comedy “Working Girl.”
One can debate Tess’s ethical grounds as she hatches a plot to take revenge on a female boss (Sigourney Weaver, deliciously deceptive) who steals her idea. She manages to persuade a merger expert from an outside firm, Jack Trainer, to help her pull off her deal while passing herself off as an equal. But there is something so smart about how this script turns a character played by Harrison Ford—cocky Han Solo himself—into the “girl” in this relationship that you can’t help but root for them as a romantic couple and a winning team.
Somehow, director Mike Nichols and screenwriter Kevin Wade—two men, no less—struck a nerve with “Working Girl,” an R-rated comedy that would pull in $103 million worldwide (akin to $300 million when adjusted for inflation) and collect six Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Director, Actress (Griffith), Supporting Actress (Weaver and Joan Cusack as Tess’s BFF) and Best Song. Only Carly Simon’s glorious hymn to female fortitude, “Let the River Run,” would claim a trophy, but that anthem earns it keep by setting the right “you go girl” mood.
“Working Girl” continues to have staying power. It briefly became a TV series in 1990, starring no less than Sandra Bullock as Tess. Now, it is in the process of becoming a Broadway musical with songs written by Cyndi Lauper. But does the film hold up today?
RogerEbert.com’s trio of working girls—Sheila O’Malley, Christy Lemire and Susan Wloszczyna—look at “Working Girl” through the lens of 2018 and the burgeoning #MeToo movement in honor of Women Writers Week.
CHRISTY: So how long had it been since you two had seen “Working Girl”? It had been a while for me, but I was struck by a) how totally of its time it looks, and yet b) how sadly relevant it still remains.
SHEILA: My observation actually has to do with your "b" observation there. In the final sequence, when Tess hurries to the big meeting (before Sigourney Weaver busts in), she walks into the room and looks in at the sea of men. She has a moment at the door, looking at them. The only woman in the room. She takes a breath and moves forward. It reminded me of all of those scenes in “The Post” with Meryl Streep walking into male-only rooms. It's 30 years later. That kind of moment still vibrates with reality. Lin-Manuel Miranda put it perfectly in “Hamilton”: "I want to be in the Room Where It Happens."
CHRISTY: So true—that must still happen so often now, regardless of how accomplished a woman feels in her particular field.
SHEILA: And there's that gathering-together-of-her-strength breath she takes. Even though she's the one who put the whole deal together! She's the reason all those men are there!
CHRISTY: But throughout the film, that had been her process: take a breath, tell herself it’s going to be OK, steady her nerves, gather her confidence. Very methodical—and strongly female.
SUSAN: I saw it in its day on the big screen. And will watch it anytime when it shows up on TV. It is funny. For its 25th anniversary, the pieces written mocked the fashions and changing into sneakers to walk and the eye shadow. But by 1988, moviegoers were in on the joke. But what they related to was Tess' situation. And, yes, it still goes on today.
CHRISTY: I mean, her hair IS amazing. As is Joan Cusack’s. But no, it’s not about that at all, ultimately.
SHEILA: It seems like mocking the fashions is missing the point. How about the three-toned eye shadow! We were all very into that in high school.
CHRISTY: My bangs went up AND down in the ‘80s. It was a look. But her look softens as she strives to be taken seriously—while her strength increases.
SHEILA: It was 1988. The movie was reflecting what was going on. I love that observation, Christy! As she softened up, she got stronger. The other thing I really liked was that Tess starts OFF smart. She didn't "learn the ropes." She was already filled with smart ideas when the movie begins.
SUSAN: By that time, I had been working at newspapers for 10 years. Some might not like the fact that it ultimately pits working women against each other, but I had at least two female bosses who were worse than most of the men I worked for and less supportive. That is because you initially trust them but see they are trying to compete with you. Men don't see you as a rival necessarily.
CHRISTY: What I didn’t notice when I saw it back then (because I was in high school) was that the movie gets its serious points across by being wrapped up in a fairy tale. It seems like a playful screwball comedy—and Melanie Griffith is so good at making it look light and easy—but of course there’s more punch to it than that. Right, Susan, and she thinks Katharine will be her savior! “None of that chasing around the desk crap,” she says to Alec Baldwin.
SHEILA: Interesting, Susan. That feeling of competition and codependence women can have with one another was very clear in the film. (Which was why all the secretaries cheering at Tess getting her own office at the end was so cathartic. Tess winning means they all win.) Christy, there is definitely a screwball element. When they crash that crazy Caribbean-style wedding! And Harrison Ford is in the stereotypical "female" role. All befuddled and freaked out, following her around.
SUSAN: This was directed by a man—a man who was responsible for some of the greatest female characters ever put on screen. And written by a man, who would go on to do “Mr. Baseball” and “Junior.” But somehow they got so much right about workplace politics for women.
CHRISTY: The comedy is so effortless. That makes the film feel old-fashioned and timeless. A lot of movies don’t aim for that anymore—a workplace comedy with a point, like “The Devil Wears Prada” or “Morning Glory.” Right, Harrison Ford just has to show up and look pretty.
SHEILA: Very true. I loved its free and goofy aspect.
CHRISTY: (This is peak Harrison Ford, by the way.)
SUSAN: One of my favorite scenes is when Ford has to change his shirt in the office and the blinds are up and all the women clap. Love that he is the "girl" in this supporting Tess.
SHEILA: AND he even has a scene where he undresses and everyone ogles him! Jinx, Susan!
SUSAN: Owe me a coke!
CHRISTY: Ha! Yes, that scene plays out so slyly.
SUSAN: He was rarely so appealing with the opposite sex again.
SHEILA: Here's a subtle moment I'd like to discuss: The two of them have an argument on the sidewalk. He suddenly realizes that Tess is out on a limb by herself, that maybe she doesn't have the support she presented at first. He calls her on it. Her first response is, "Don't shout at me" (the same thing she said to her horrible boyfriend in an earlier scene). Harrison Ford ignores that childish comment and says, "Answer me." I felt like that was a growth-spurt moment for Tess, in terms of being in a business setting. He wasn't "shouting at her" in an infantilizing way. He was demanding fair play. Thoughts?
CHRISTY: He was taking her seriously in a way no one ever had.
SHEILA: That's exactly right!
CHRISTY: But then she still has to point out to him later that he never would have done that in the first place if he thought she was a secretary.
SHEILA: And for a flash second, he became her horrible boyfriend. This happens a lot. Her response was kneejerk.
SUSAN: He also has mayo or something on his mouth, very endearing but he doesn't underestimate her. In fact, Trask the mogul actually is the one who supports her. Weaver's character sees her as an obstacle.
SHEILA: Well, yes, that's very true! It's complex. But in that moment, he demanded her power, and she gave it back to him. It was a very grown-up moment.
CHRISTY: Right, they’re eating gyros or something, and I kept expecting her to reach up and wipe it off, but that’s not her role in this instance.
SHEILA: That was terrific.
SUSAN: Yep, a guy would do that for a woman though.
SHEILA: There's a very funny moment when they first meet, and she tries to keep it platonic by saying SHE will buy the drinks, and he says, perfect timing, "OK, but it's an open bar."
CHRISTY: Sigourney Weaver is so great in this, too—she walks that fine line between being swaggering and condescending. She’s a needier little girl than Tess, with her stuffed animals and her cutesy nicknames. Everything has been easy for her—she clearly comes from old money—so she doesn’t have to fight the way Tess has.
SHEILA: She is comfortable with the relationship with Tess as long as the hierarchy is in place.
SUSAN: She has also mastered the art of reading people. She was born with confidence and privilege. But Tess quickly picks that up—she basically becomes a better version of her boss.
SHEILA: One of the ways the film is "dated" is that now we can be hooked up to our jobs 24/7, even if we have a broken leg by skiing off a cliff.
CHRISTY: “Who makes it happen?” “I do, I make it happen.” She’s horrible but she thinks she’s a good person, doing Tess a favor. The timing of that skiing scene is so great. She’s all proud of herself and then the cliff just comes out of nowhere. That part is pure screwball.
SHEILA: Yes, I put that in my notes, Christy. Hilarious editing. How she puts on her ski goggles with this "I am a fabulous adventurer" smile and then skis off the cliff.
CHRISTY: And that scream!
SUSAN: Can I just say the opening credits sequence always makes my eyes moisten. Carly Simon's anthem has me rooting for Tess from the get-go. Lady Liberty is practically a co-star. And that now-heartbreaking sight of the Twin Towers.
SHEILA: The Twin Towers brought a pang. It also made me miss helicopter shots. Now we've got drone shots, for the most part.
CHRISTY: Yes! The long, fluid, sweeping camerawork. It almost looks like all one take, around the statue, along the river, into the ferry. We are in the hands of a filmmaker who knows how to elegantly set a scene and draw us in. Again, the craftsmanship makes it feel timeless.
SHEILA: I also loved that Tess is in charge of her sexuality in a way Katharine is not. Tess already knows something is off in the way her boyfriend treats her (a gloriously gorgeous Alec Baldwin). The sexy lingerie, etc. But she also knows that if she walks into a room in a pretty dress, she can charm her way into the Room Where it Happens. She has that speech about how she NEEDS to do that, because she doesn't have the leg-up other people have. Like Katharine. She needs to be wily and cunning. Somehow it doesn't come off as retro (especially since Tess is in ownership of it).
CHRISTY: A $6,000 dress 30 years ago! What would it cost today? It is really cute (and, again, a timeless cocktail dress).
SHEILA: She looks adorable. She was revelation in the role.
CHRISTY: Well, Melanie Griffith’s understated nature makes those big speeches work. She doesn’t oversell it, which might seem cheesy.
SHEILA: It's almost like she, the actress, knows what it means to be under-estimated in her molecular structure. It's the air she breathes. She doesn't have to "act" it.
CHRISTY: Let’s go back to the Statue of Liberty for a second, if we may. We see it again later, when she’s taking the ferry ride home, when she’s been exposed and everything is falling apart. The Statue of Liberty is in the background behind her—this symbol of opportunity, possibility, advancement. But she’s stuck and feeling hopeless. It’s subtle but it’s there—the symbolism of it.
SHEILA: I noticed that too. Plus, unlike other commuters in New York, she sails by that statue every day. It's part of her everyday landscape. Staten Island might as well be another world.
SUSAN: We know she eventually will get back on her Reeboks and succeed because Lady Liberty has got her back.
SHEILA: We should live in a meritocracy. We don't. But that's the ideal.
SUSAN: Can we talk about Kevin Spacey as a coked-up creep who just wants to get in her pants. Talk about prescient.
CHRISTY: I really hope people watch this movie again today like we did. It’s so resonant—the way women are treated in the workplace, the indignities and abuses they endure. I’d forgotten that Kevin Spacey is in this movie, and that scene where he’s doing coke in the limo and trying to lure her up to a hotel room for a “meeting”—and showing her porn to turn her on—made me cringe. It’s Harvey Weinstein all over again. People are just talking about it more now, thankfully.
SHEILA: I had forgotten about that scene. And her goofball colleagues who thought it would be funny to throw her to that particular wolf.
CHRISTY: So awful. Tess gets out of the limo but so many women don’t get out of those situations out of fear.
SHEILA: I loved that scene of her standing on the traffic island in the rain. Great location shooting.
CHRISTY: Adding insult to injury. She keeps getting splashed.
SUSAN: Actually, when she says that with a female boss, there is no chasing around the desk, it is as if female workers expect that from men they work with. And, you know what, I saw that happen in the '70s and '80s all the time.
CHRISTY: Right—“9 to 5” addresses that so powerfully, too.
SHEILA: But Tess expects that from men. (Sad as that is.) What blindsides her and hurts her is Katharine's treachery. I have experienced that.
SUSAN: Yes, but they go after a male boss together as a sisterhood in “9 to 5.” Here, a fellow female is the villain.
CHRISTY: Because Katharine treats her like a younger sister (even though she passive-aggressively points out that she’s younger than Tess).
SHEILA: It's understandable in a way: If there are so few women in positions of power, then it seems like there are limited spots—that the system is built in to only let a couple of women through.
SUSAN: But when the secretary pool all cheers when they learn Tess has finally become a boss with her own office—do they think they will have a chance, too?
CHRISTY: I think they view Tess’ success as a sign of hope. Also! When Tess brings Katharine her radio idea, Katharine immediately questions whether she really came up with it, or whether she overheard someone discussing it on the elevator. Even she underestimates Tess.
SUSAN: That is her ULTIMATE downfall.
SHEILA: That's another subtle thing about the script: Tess is not embarrassed to read Page Six. Or People magazine. Business is about what people are doing. Sea changes can occur because someone gets married, someone is on a down streak. The gossip pages are a wealth of information. If you only read the Wall Street Journal, you might miss those subtleties.
CHRISTY: Right, she’s street-smart that way. At the end, when Tess is talking to her secretary (whom she mistakes for her boss), it’s so heartbreaking. She still can’t believe this level of success is possible for her at first.
SHEILA: Christy, that's one of the best scenes in the film. The power dynamic! How mortified the secretary is for having been hanging out in her new boss' office. And Tess' treatment of that moment—her egalitarian spirit—there's the hope for the future. We are in it together. Let's work together.
CHRISTY: And that secretary probably had never been treated with such dignity by any of her male bosses.
SHEILA: You can see it on her face. Very good performance. This is what Mike Nichols was so good at. Storytelling through character, well-cast actors who can deliver, his stuff is so clear.
SUSAN: That is her super power. That is why she succeeds. But she actually follows something that Weaver says: "You don't get anywhere in the world by waiting for what you want to come to you. YOU make it happen."
CHRISTY: Katharine is all talk when she says that. The words are empty for her. Tess is sincere and takes it to heart.
SHEILA: Susan, exactly. She knows if she sits around, nobody will help. They won't even accept her into the leadership program (or development program). She doesn't come from the right background, she doesn't have an MBA.
CHRISTY: There’s definitely classism going on here as well as sexism.
SHEILA: Oh yes. A film all about class. And how at a certain point it takes men with power to reach out that hand to a talented woman.
CHRISTY: But Tess ultimately is the classiest one of all!
SUSAN: It kills me that Griffith is third billed. She is the reason this movie succeeds. One quirk of hers that always bothered me: Once she starts her ruse, she starts clearing her throat before she speaks. I learned by reading IMDb's trivia section that she was struggling with a coke problem and drinking. She went to Hazelton right after shooting. I think dry throat may have been a problem. That she was able to do such a fine job is even more impressive.
CHRISTY: She is the GIRL of the title. You’re right, that’s unfortunate.
SHEILA: Interesting, Susan. I actually liked the compulsive throat clearing. She was trying to get herself together. Get her voice OUT. It took preparation. A mindset where it was OK to be heard.
SUSAN: We are missing Joan Cusack! She is the BFF and moral compass for Tess. And is funny as heck. But she is very wrong about trying to be Madonna. Thank God Lady Gaga didn't take that line to heart.
SHEILA: I agree, though: She is why it works. Mike Nichols knew what he was doing. Joan Cusack makes everything better just by showing up!
CHRISTY: But she’s more than just the wacky BFF. She brings such heart to the role and feels like a real person.
SHEILA: And—weirdly—you can see her point about how Tess is treating the boyfriend. Tess has class: she needs to close out that relationship in a more generous way. Joan Cusack calls her on that. It's slightly more complex than expected. Even the boyfriend is given a hope of redemption at the end. They weren't a good match. No harm, no foul.
SUSAN: Very true, and she, Griffith and Weaver were all rightly Oscar-nominated. By the way, Weaver is referencing her other nominated role (that year, for “Gorillas in the Mist: The Story of Dian Fossey”) with that big, stuffed gorilla she gets in the hospital. Jodie Foster won for “The Accused” and Geena Davis for “The Accidental Tourist,” two films I have only seen once.
SHEILA: I didn't catch that!
CHRISTY: Ah, that’s cute. But it also makes her look like a pampered, little girl.
SHEILA: Melanie Griffith struggling with that giant gorilla is hysterical.
SUSAN: One last question. I still struggle with the line: "I have a head for business and a bod for sin." I did back in the day and I still sort of do now. Yes, it is the substances talking. And Han Solo is right there picking her up. And she doesn't know yet they will be doing business because he deceives her. But still ...
CHRISTY: Maybe she realizes she still needs to use her femininity to charm people …?
SHEILA: I don't mind it. She's still at the start of her journey there.
CHRISTY: That’s how she lures them in, then knocks ‘em dead with her business savvy.
SHEILA: She hasn't quite owned her confidence yet. She's reverting a little bit. Plus Valium.
SUSAN: OK, it is just me.
CHRISTY: No, I hear ya.
SHEILA: Also, Han Solo is staring at her with bedroom eyes. She's only human.
CHRISTY: They have crazy chemistry with each other.
SUSAN: I wish I could come up with a line as clever as: "I'm not a steak, you can't order me."
SHEILA: And at that point, she doesn't know who he is, if I recall correctly? He's just some random dude. She's not using that line as a business proposition—but a flirty drunken moment.
CHRISTY: She does not know who he is yet. Tequila makes you do crazy things.
SUSAN: That is why I only ever drank it once. Damn those Eagles and tequila sunrises.
SHEILA: I'm sure you're not alone, Susan! I liked it because she wasn't on sure footing yet. It was her first time crashing a party of big wigs. She had no idea what she was doing.
SUSAN: OK. I forgive her.
CHRISTY: Anything else, ladies? I don’t know about you, but I’m going to have that Carly Simon song in my head for the rest of the day.
SUSAN: I have had it ever since I re-watched it a couple weeks ago.
CHRISTY: It’ll give us the confidence to be our best selves all day!
SHEILA: It was fun to revisit the film. I caught my breath at the moment I started off with her in the conversation. Melanie Griffith, soft and blonde and clearing her throat, staring at a room full of men. Who stare back at her. A whole new world.
SUSAN: We are still fighting this fight. It remains inspirational and relevant no matter how big the shoulder pads. A true classic.
CHRISTY: Well said!
SHEILA: Tina Fey said once in an interview, in regards to women in male-dominated fields: "You can be self-deprecating in your life. But never be self-deprecating about your work." I think of that often. Good advice. Be strong. Move forward. Spritz your bangs. Own your good ideas. Don't mix tequila and Valium.
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