Tuesday, May 8, 2018

A “Working Girl” in the Era of #MeToo

The 1988 film Working Girl begins with a huge, dramatic helicopter shot that captures the Statue of Liberty in all her glory. Liberty’s face—solemn and serene as she looms above New York Harbor—gives way to the faces of two young women riding the Staten Island ferry to their Manhattan jobs. Cyn (Joan Cusack) and Tess (Melanie Griffith) sport Big Hair and Big Makeup. What we don’t see at first are the Big Dreams that will propel Tess, after some twists and turns, into the heady world of high finance.

I re-watched Working Girl because, as the author of a new book on the implications of The Graduate, I’m fascinated by the cinema career of director Mike Nichols. Nichols, who has been accused of being cold and even bitter in his approach to art, has certainly made some dark films, with Carnal Knowledge perhaps at the head of the list. But Working Girl – something of a Cinderella romance -- taps into the sunnier side of Nichols. This film is optimistic in seeing that a smart and savvy young woman, one who keeps her wits about her and is not above a bit of strategic deceit, can make it past her working-class roots and the condescending title of  “secretary” to succeed among big-business veterans. 

Working Girl has always been a popular film. In its day it earned six Academy Award nominations (including Best Picture), and brought in  an Oscar for Carly Simon’s powerful song, “Let the River Run.” And it was made with Mike Nichols’ usual careful attention to detail: locations, costumes, and casting are all impeccable. But in the wake of the #MeToo movement, it can be viewed in a slightly different light. 

The film opens with a dirty trick. Tess, whose professional aspirations have led her to take night classes and read every bit of newsprint that comes her way, badly wants to advance beyond secretarial duties at the investment bank where she works. The guys in the nearby cubicles set her up for a meet-and-greet with Bob Speck, who supposedly has an opening for a bright young newcomer. Truth is—he’s a coke-snorting slimeball who only wants to get in her pants. (The fact that he’s played by the young Kevin Spacey, who recently has had his own #MeToo problems, makes the scene seem all the more current.) 

But there’s more to come. Tess’s new boss, Katharine Parker (Sigourney Weaver) starts off sounding collegial and even sisterly. But she turns out to be even more of a snake than the egregious Bob. While she listens attentively to Tess’s bright business ideas, she’s secretly passing them off as her own. In the course of the film, canny  businessmen ultimately prove themselves to be on Tess’s side, while the #1 bad apple is the one female we see in an executive position. So the feminism the film seems to espouse is two-pronged. 

A further irony: handsome young Jack (Harrison Ford) comes to love Tess for her audacity and the sharpness of her mind. But he first flips over her at a social event when, clad in a fancy dress swiped from Katharine’s closet, she dazzles him with her looks. There’s a moment early on when she mildly gripes that a blue-collar Staten Island beau (Alec Baldwin!) insists on buying her Victoria’s Secret-style undies for all gift-giving occasions. But, as her hairstyle and clothing sense grow more sophisticated, she’s still got those sexy scanties on underneath, as the film makes amply clear. That’s Hollywood for you: however bright a woman may be, she’s still required to show sex appeal.


  1. It's kind of depressing how au courant that is! (It is indeed ironic that Kevin Spacey plays the slimeball boss.)

  2. Still, the movie is a lot of fun. Thanks for writing, Hilary.