Historical Circuit: 30-Year-Old ‘Working Girl’ from Mike Nichols Still Resonates

Melanie Griffith in 1988's 'Working Girl'

TITLE OF FILM: “Working Girl”
FILM YEAR: 1988
DIRECTOR: Mike Nichols
WRITER: Kevin Wade
STARRING: Melanie Griffith, Sigourney Weaver, Harrison Ford, Joan Cusack, Alec Baldwin, Phillip Bosco

SYNOPSIS:

‘Working Girl’ opens with a glorious close up of Lady Liberty, beaming brightly as a beacon of hope for all who wish to come to her shores. In this case, it is not the immigrant that longs for a new life, but a hungry, thirty-year-old girl living on Staten Island. Blue collared through and through, with her nose pressed against the glass, she longs to be accepted into the male-dominated Wall Street world. She is trying like hell to make a name for herself based on her own merits. She is Tess McGill, and it is Melanie Griffith who brings her to life.

20th Century Fox’s ‘Working Girl’

The film tells the story of Tess McGill. After she is taken advantage of and harassed by her male colleagues, Tess goes to work as a secretary for a high powered female exec, Katherine Parker (the deliciously two-faced Sigourney Weaver). What she initially sees as her big break becomes a life-changing wake-up call. Feeling betrayed by everyone in her life, including her boyfriend, Mick (Alec Baldwin), and her best friend, Cyn (Joan Cusack), Tess decides to take matters into her own hands in order to change her life and prove her own self-worth.

OBSERVATIONS:

Casting for the film is spot on. Griffith delivers one of the simplest screen performances of all time. Throughout the film, she is soft in her movements and never raises her voice above a whisper, and yet we subtly see her confidence build and her true self emerge. It’s not showy, it’s just true. In stark contrast to Griffith, Weaver gives her Katherine Parker a pretentiously overconfident demeanor and voice. They are a delight to watch when they are on screen together. And then there is Joan Cusack, who is just plain wacky as a realist with vaulted hair looking to play it safe and wanting her friend to do the same.

Although a female-driven story, it would be remiss not to give credit where credit is due. Besides Baldwin, who plays a fantastic sleazeball, Oliver Platt, and even Kevin Spacey have small roles as male misogynists. The great Phillip Bosco (a Tony-winner, from films such as ‘Children of a Lesser God’ and ‘My Best Friend’s Wedding’ passed away just this past December at the age of 88) plays a businessman with a heart of gold. Harrison Ford, one of Hollywood’s most famous leading men, plays Jack Trainer. This is a solid part, but it is thirty-five minutes before he makes his entrance. While often center stage, here Ford delivers one of his best screen performances as a supporting player in a story of female empowerment.

The film has an energetic score and theme written by Carly Simon. The music feels like a call to arms and is the beating heart pulsating throughout the film. The hair, makeup, and costumes provide real texture to the characters. They are also a somewhat amusing, juxtaposition between the insiders and the outsiders. And the “old” New York skyline is background, with the Twin Towers front and center, reminding us of a time gone past.

CULTURAL AND THEMATIC ANALYSIS:

After celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of its release, it seems only right to pay homage to a film that was able to masterfully address serious gender issues in the workplace, while also remaining an engaging romantic comedy. Director Mike Nichols (who also directed ‘The Graduate’ and ‘The Birdcage’) was interested in telling a truly relevant story.

‘Working Girl’ is a story of self-discovery and personal fulfillment. Tess finds herself wanting more from her life, and she sets out to make that happen. Although the crimes of others set her story in motion, she is ultimately responsible for all of the good that comes from the bad. Tess is not helpless and not once does she ever toy with the idea of quitting or backing down. Women often find themselves asking for forgiveness for one thing or another.  Tess soldiers through the picture with a realistic amount of nerves, but she never apologizes for wanting what she wants out of her life.

Director Mike Nichols with Melanie Griffith and Harrison Ford.

RECEPTION AT THE TIME:

The film was a hit upon its release. According to BoxOffice Mojo, the film grossed over $103 million in the worldwide box office. Critics were glowing in their reviews. The legendary Chicago Sun-Times Critic, Roger Ebert, gave it four out of four stars. Rita Kempley of The Washington Post wrote that it “is a delectable reworking of the ultimate girl’s myth, a corporate Cinderella story with shades of a self-made Pygmalion”.

These grand overtures translated to a slew of award nominations and wins. Carly Simon won a Golden Globe, an Oscar and a Grammy for her song composition. Griffith and Weaver took home Golden Globes for Best Actress- Musical or Comedy and Best Supporting Actress. At the Oscars that year, Mike Nichols’ directing, and all three females were recognized with nominations (Griffith in lead, Weaver, and Cusack in supporting). And ‘Working Girl’ was also nominated for Best Picture of the Year. This is an achievement in and of itself for a self-proclaimed romantic-comedy.

COMPARISONS TO ANY MOVIES OF TODAY:

“Working Girl” is not a new story. It was told before 1988, and it has been told since. Recent films such as ‘Picture Perfect’, ‘Maid in Manhattan’ or this year’s ‘Second Act’ (the latter two with Jennifer Lopez), also have female leads that rely on a lie to get them through the front door. ‘Working Girl’ remains a stand out among the masses because it feels real. Yes, it’s a little ‘Cinderella’. Yes, it’s a little ‘Pygmalion’. But the story is more grounded in reality than in fairy tale. Nothing feels over the top or sensationalized. We see Tess pulling her weight and working hard. It is ultimately her smarts that lead to her professional and personal successes.

WHY IT STILL RESONATES TODAY:

A story of female ascension, ‘Working Girl’ also spends a fair amount of time addressing the realities women must face in a male-dominated world. Sadly, the relevancy of this topic has not attenuated since the film’s initial release. In fact, on viewing in 2019, it may strike more of a cord now than ever before.

These past few years have been filled with courageous revelations that have led to a reckoning for some who use their power to abuse the less powerful. Through various movements, such as #MeToo and Time’s Up, a well-known “secret” has been drug into the light- women (and some men, as well), to put it mildly, have been putting up with a lot of despicable and untoward behavior. In 1988, ‘Working Girl’ had the strength of character to call it like it was. One would have hoped for more change. And yet, thirty years later, these issues are as pertinent as ever before. What a shame.

“Working Girl” is available for streaming on Max Go and for rent/purchase on Amazon, YouTube, Google Play and Fandango.

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