KERRIE MITCHELL: When is it possible to describe a movie that earned rave reviews, six Oscar nominations, and more than $100 million at the box office as “underrated”? When that movie is Working Girl, Mike Nichols’s 1988 romantic-comedy starring Melanie Griffith, Sigourney Weaver, and Harrison Ford. It’s a film that’s been on our minds a lot lately here at Yahoo Movies, in part because of Nichols’s sad passing in November at the age of 83, but also because Working Girl — which was finally issued on Blu-ray last week — is a near-perfect movie that no one seems to think about anymore. Last year saw a flood of When Harry Met Sally… nostalgia, and while we certainly appreciate Rob Reiner’s modern-romance classic, it seems to have obliterated all other late-’80s grown-up comedies from our collective cultural memory.
Which is a shame, because Working Girl is wonderful — a sparkling cocktail of go-go Reagan-era urbanity. For those who haven’t seen it in a few years (or at all), here’s the set-up: An ambitious Staten Island secretary with a “head for business and a bod for sin” (played by Griffith) schemes her way into the board room by duping her boss (Weaver), all the while falling for a fellow corporate raider (Ford).
Working Girl is a delight on multiple levels: As a fizzy romance, a New York-minute-paced caper, and an exuberant depiction of the white-collar office shenanigans. Tell me, friends: Why aren’t more comedy creators (and movie fans) paying Working Girl the constant homage it deserves?
BRIAN RAFTERY: It’s true: With the exception of a recent shout-out by Christopher Nolan — and a musical homage on Bob’s Burgers — Working Girl doesn’t bubble up in the pop-cultural conversation with the regularity of fervency as one might expect, given its pedigree. Part of me wonders if that’s because younger viewers simply lump it in with all the other late-’80s big-business comedies they saw on video-store racks when they were growing up — movies like Baby Boom or The Secret of My Success — and dismiss it without ever seeing it. Or perhaps it’s because the relative star-power of the film’s leads have dimmed slightly: As strange as it may seem, in 2014, one of the most high-profile members of the Working Girl cast is … Alec Baldwin? How can that be possible?
Clearly, I’m grasping for a reason to understand this movie’s absence in the zeitgeist. But I have to, because I genuinely don’t understand why Working Girl isn’t name-checked, memed, and GIFed online on an hourly basis. I re-watched the movie earlier last year, and found it to be even more delightful and incisive than I’d remembered: The romance between Griffith and Ford is at once fizzy and deep; the office-politics back-and-forths are just as timely today as they were a quarter-century ago; and the third-act business-deal denouement is surprisingly compelling. It’s a rom-com, to be sure, but with a little bit of Social Network-like backroom wheeling-and-dealing thrown in. I can’t think of another movie that works quite like Working Girl: It’s a little bit Howard Hawks, a little bit Bloomberg Businessweek, and its strangeness is part of what makes it so special. Plus, it has Sigourney Weaver doing physical comedy, which we never get to see anymore!
So, yes, I’m flummoxed by the fact that this modern classic isn’t constantly being discovered and talked up by adoring new fans. Which makes me wonder: Could it have anything to do with the film’s gender politics? To me, the story of a young woman trying to find space (and parity) in a male-dominated corporate world feels just as timely as ever. But I am a dude, and I may be missing something here. So I shall now turn it over to my female colleagues here: Does Working Girl feel retrograde, or relevant?
GWYNNE WATKINS: Well, Joan Cusack’s hair and makeup are certainly retrograde, in the most awe-inspiring way imaginable:
Still, I wouldn’t say that Working Girl is necessarily progressive: The women in the most powerful positions, played by Weaver and Nora Dunn, are painted as pretty irredeemable bitches. But Tess McGill, Griffith’s character, is so great. I love that her defining quality is ambition. She’s a working-class secretary from Staten Island who takes night classes and reads voraciously in hopes of getting a leg up at her brokerage firm. In a lot of ways, the movie is more about class than gender. Tess comes to the realization that everything she has known her whole life is working against her — even though she’s smart, she doesn’t talk right, doesn’t dress right, doesn’t know the right people. She has to learn how to fake it, which is this movie’s equivalent of the ugly-duckling makeover scene we usually associate with romantic comedies. And “heroine learns how to pitch a business strategy” is such a better plot devise than “heroine discovers that she looks nice with her glasses off.”
Speaking of romantic comedies, this movie is usually defined as one. But romance is really not the endgame in Working Girl. Tess isn’t looking for a man; she’s looking to put together a business deal. When Jack (a devastatingly handsome Ford) comes along, she initially sees him as a distraction. She falls in love with him because he’s the first person to ever see her as she wants to be seen: This tough, savvy businesswoman. In fact, the woman who spends the entire film scheming to get married is the antagonist, Katharine (played by Weaver). I love that adorable scene of Jack and Tess getting ready to go to work, but it’s significant that the final shot of the film is Griffith in her new office, alone.
So is it fair to call Working Girl a romantic comedy? Or is there a better way to define it?
KERRIE: Working Girl is a romance all right, but I’d say Tess and Jack are just as enamored by the art of the deal as they are with each other. Remember, their first briefcase-dropping kiss comes at the end of a successful mergers and acquisitions meeting. It’s not the usual setting for cinematic foreplay, but Working Girl is absolutely infectious in its conviction that big business done well can have the effortless grace and sly sex appeal of a Fred-and-Ginger routine. Part of this is due to Ford as the movie’s charismatic straight man, a goodhearted guy with an understated libido who’s equally turned on by Tess’s swashbuckling tactics and her bodacious bod. “I had fun!” he practically squeals after they crash a society wedding. (Seriously, when was the last time you heard Ford giggle on screen?) And he’s more than matched by the luscious Griffith, an actress we’re primed to underestimate just as the white-collar world underestimates Tess.
And can I defend Sigourney Weaver’s Katharine for a second? As the saying goes, there are no small parts, just small actors, and Weaver’s about 10 feet tall here. As the great Roger Ebert noted, it’s an “interesting assignment for an actor with Weaver’s imagination. From her first frame on the screen, she has to say all the right things while subtly suggesting that she may not mean any of them.” In addition to providing the movie’s silky-smooth, designer-ski-booted villainy (she speaks German, for god’s sake!), Weaver’s Katharine also provides an excellent contrast for Tess at the end, who will almost certainly be a more worthy boss/mentor to her own secretary (excuse me, assistant).
Has there ever been another onscreen trio who were all so fully at the peak of their movie star powers?
BRIAN: That apex-charisma trifecta is one of the most remarkable things about Working Girl, especially when it comes to its leading man. If a complex alien civilization were to watch it 200 years from now, they’d think Harrison Ford was simply a rugged, innately goofball comic actor and romantic icon, not an increasingly glower-powered action-thriller star. But when Working Girl came out in 1988, Ford was in the middle of a varied and victorious career stretch in which he experimented with dark dramas (Frantic, The Mosquito Coast) as well as charm-powered blockbusters (The Fugitive, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade). He could seemingly do anything, and one of the joys of Working Girl is watching Ford — whom I revere, but who rarely looks like he’s having a good time making movies anymore — as he giggles and schemes and falls in love with Griffith. (Also: I should point out that, as a guy, I find Ford’s infamous shirt-changing scene incredibly emasculating; we should all look so good in our mid-forties).
Speaking of love: I do think of Working Girl as a rom-com, even if it doesn’t conform to a lot of our ideas of what a rom-com should be like. The spark between Ford and Griffith may not anchor the movie — and may be largely borne of mutual convenience — but this is a movie in which everyone’s in love with something: For Ford, Griffith, and Weaver, their affection does indeed largely lie with the art of the deal. But Griffith is also in love with Manhattan, which Nichols depicts here in gorgeous, reverential skyline shots that make downtown New York City look like a steel-encrusted Eden. And the supporting characters — including Baldwin and Cusack — are all romantics at heart, as well. Working Girl’s Manhattan is oozing with ambition and affection and an aura of good-times horndoggery; it’s as if all the negative, collective-id slime that ran through the city in Ghostbusters II had somehow been purified and reversed.
But I fear I’ve let my digressive river run a bit too long. So one final thought: Are there any modern movies that come to close to gleaming Working Girl's vibe? Or is this the kind of movie a product of its time?
GWYNNE: It’s true that everyone in this film is a romantic in one way or another. And maybe that, rather than gender politics, is what makes Working Girl a product of its time: It makes us believe that the American dream of hard-earned success (which nowadays seems more and more like a fairy tale) can be achieved through the ranks of a corporation. Despite the significant discrimination Tess faces, big business is ultimately seen as a meritocracy where hard workers rise to the top. At what other time besides the late ’80s would audiences have believed that a brokerage firm is the place where happy endings are made? But Nichols, himself an immigrant who had worked his way up the ladder to Hollywood success, very much believed in this story. For him, Working Girl was about the idea of the huddled masses pouring into Manhattan from the Staten Island Ferry, which he described as a “combination of immigrant and slave ship,” in hopes of one day earning their place in the New York skyline.
I’m struggling to think of a modern movie that is as brisk and witty, yet as unflinchingly romantic in its worldview, as Working Girl. Once upon a time, this was the domain of screwball comedies like His Girl Friday, Born Yesterday, and The Philadelphia Story (which incidentally rivals Working Girl for that perfect movie-star trifecta, as it starred Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and Jimmy Stewart at their height of all their careers). These days, a smart comedy for grown-ups is more likely to find a home on television than in theaters, which is Hollywood’s loss. But how great would it be to see a film like this starring Emily Blunt or Jessica Chastain? Maybe one day soon a producer will look back to Working Girl for inspiration. After all, to quote Tess McGill, “you never know where the big ideas could come from.”