1 Hr., 53 Mins.
Working Girl May 5, 2020
orking Girl (1988), directed by Mike Nichols and written by Kevin Wade, is supposed to be inspiring, I suppose, but in lieu of feeling inspired by it it made me a little queasy. The movie stars Melanie Griffith as Tess, a spirited 30-year-old Staten Islander. At this point in her life, Tess, on paper, should have reached at least an early peak in her career. She has a bachelor's degree in business
and a lot of experience working on Wall Street. But Tess is almost entirely made up of white-collar-world wrongs — all elbows. She was a night-classer, not an Ivy Leaguer. Vocationally she’s almost exclusively been a secretary. She has a thick accent and amply Aqua Net-misted hair; she has a penchant for chunky jewelry. These are all superficial qualities which, both to employers and to us audience members, are meant to signify that she is not to be taken seriously, and should not be until she at minimum rejiggers the way she presents herself.
Early in the movie, Tess gets herself a new beginning though doesn’t have much of a reason to think it’s especially promising. She’s hired as the secretary of Katharine (Sigourney Weaver), a sardonic and methodically ruthless executive a few months younger than her. Katharine quickly puts up an us-girls-should-stick-together front; she also espouses a lot of pick-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps rhetoric. Katharine gives Tess advice and welcomes the latter to offer ideas that might be able to be passed upward. It’s revealed in the middle of the movie, however, that this is all just cunning: Katharine is not above claiming another’s proposals as her own. She’s a power player, not a caring mentor, who seduces and then destroys. She’s the catty Joan Crawford
to Tess’s beaten-down-but-sunny Betty Grable.
An accident in Working Girl turns into a saving grace. While on a skiing trip, Katharine makes a bad call at the top of a slope and takes a tumble. (In a rare moment of unguardedness, she offers a shriek.) Hospitalized with a broken leg, Katharine tasks Tess with house-sitting while she heals for a couple of weeks. No problem. But then Tess finds a note that makes it clear that Katharine isn’t the confidant she’s been led to believe. She has an epiphany. With Katharine out of the office, what if Tess tried to finally make real her aspiration to make her way up to the top — i.e., using Katharine’s name to get her to important meetings, redefining her role at the workplace, making connections with higher-ups?
Almost unavoidably, Tess’s conceptually cohesive albeit murky on a step-by-step basis plan is accompanied by a makeover. The ceiling-high and crunchy corn-blonde hair is traded for a moisturized, trendy bob. The vulgar clothing turns elegant. (This is a film fixated on categorizing “wrong” and “right” “types” of women based on how they dress.) The transformation also comes with a love interest: the dashing, Cary Grant-ish executive Jack (a funny Harrison Ford), with whom Tess also forms a quick entrepreneurial alliance.
Tess’s becoming successful in Working Girl hangs on the condition that in order for her to see her professional dreams through, Katharine must be ousted from her position. Sure Katharine’s bendable ethics are problematic. But the film has a tacit Katharine-centric disdain for things for which there needn’t be disdain: her confidence, sexual conviction (we find out just as Tess and Jack have formed a romantic connection that the latter is actually in a relationship with Katharine), strategic professional moves, unapologeticness. Nichols and Wade might as well be pushing her off that skiing hill.
The film shows that the commanding, shoulder-padded type as embodied by Katharine is unappealing, and as a result should be discarded, whereas the less-assured, more eager to please, more girl next door-ish Tess is more acceptable. She doesn’t seem as though she would think about dominating a man in the workplace, which makes her more desirable — she’s good at what she does but not threateningly good. The feature seems less concerned ultimately with Katharine’s antagonism and more with a subliminal belief that two women can not hold executive positions in close proximity — certainly not if one of them is intimidating.
Working Girl takes a big issue with Katharine not properly sourcing an idea but presents Tess’s flagrant dishonesty — her parasiting of Katharine because she sees an opportunity — as the same thing as charming, underdog scrappiness. In the film, this boils down to the more conventionally likable woman being exempt from myriad moral considerations while the more orthodoxly unlikable woman is held to higher and more major-consequence-rife standards. There’s a ghastliness to the narrative: injured woman comes back to work to find out that her secretary has not just usurped her job but also her love life. Katharine is flawed, but she’s more sympathetic than she’s meant to be in a movie intent on myopically demonizing her.
I was ultimately happy that Tess was able to secure a spot in the upper echelons of the Wall Street sphere as she’s always wanted. Though I think this is almost entirely because of Griffith, who gives a kind of bulletproof, freakishly genial star turn. It’s bulletproof because we like Griffith so much. She plays the character with such certitude that we’d root for her probably no matter the movie's tone. But it’s bothersome that the movie makes it necessary for Tess to give someone the boot to excel; it almost undermines Griffith's delightful performance. If its inspirational veneer were peeled off, Working Girl might have been a potent tale of capitalist desperation and the shingled ethical leniencies that might accompany it. But with its sitcom-esque inflections, it becomes a cockeyed horror movie. C+