There’s something insidious and repellent at the heart of Mike Nichol’s big business Cinderella story, a How to Succeed at Business by Reading the Rags. Wall Street, for all that Gordon Gekko became a bad boys’ hero, had the good grace to say outright that greed was bad. Working Girl tells you it’s only bad when there isn’t a level gender playing field. And that, if there are only two women in the room, one of them has to go. But because it’s accompanied by that so-damn-aspirant, surging, uplifting Oscar-winning Carly Simon tune (Let the River Run), Working Girl encourages any objections to lapse into sharp relief.
Pauline Kael had it right when she observed “We’re supposed to be cheered by watching Tess become part of the establishment…” We’re supposed to be pulled along in the uplift of female empowerment, as long as it’s the right kind. But is there a right kind? Hollywood does its bit to support the cause, but what it’s really telling you is no good can come of such presumptions. Women in business break up families, not dutiful housewives (Fatal Attraction). But any significant level of power is itself dangerous (Aliens). There, and here, it takes the “good” woman to destroy the bad, or the bitch. So Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley must destroy the Alien Queen, and Melanie Griffith’s Tess McGill must destroy Sigourney Weaver’s Katherine Parker. Or be destroyed/devastated themselves.
Suiting this boom or bust are Working Girl’s opening stages. Tess starts off in a crummy office environment surrounded by scumbag co-workers (including Oliver Platt’s David Lutz, “a sleazoid pimp with a tiny dick” and Kevin Spacey’s Bob in arbitrage, a coke-snorting porn hound, so setting the scene for Spacey’s subsequent career, offscreen and on, attraction to Griffith notwithstanding). She gets splashed in the rain by passing cars. She – and all her female friends and co-workers – is also suffering from a BIG hair nightmare of the sort that was at least intentionally cartoonish in the same year’s Married to the Mob. If everyone resembles coke addicts, it sounds like most on set were (Griffith was called out by Nichols on the first day and made to pay the expenses for wasted time, since he stuck his neck out securing her the role). But don’t worry; we’ve got Carly Simon instructing you to hang on in there, along with sumptuous helicopter shots of the Statue of Liberty announcing your dreams can come true. Euphoric stuff.
Plus, Tess is miraculously – read annoyingly – ingenuous. Her entire repertoire of insights comes from a gluttonous diet of newspapers and magazines (“You read W?”), running the gamut of suggesting luncheon items to spotting potential business deals. It’s in the latter department that Katharine naturally tries to do her over. Griffith seemed ubiquitous in the late-80s, but the truth was, a smattering of roles attracted a disproportionate amount of attention: Body Double, Something Wild and this. She received an Oscar nod for Working Girl, but I don’t really think it was warranted (only Joan Cusack and the earworm Simon song were, really. And the latter strictly relatively so).
I’m also doubtful the public were interested in her as a star attraction. For all the attention it received, and the star support from Weaver and Harrison Ford, the movie was only a modest hit. You’ll be hard pressed to find Griffith in a big success subsequently. Kael, with both the Brian De Palma and Jonathan Demme movies in mind, suggested Nichols was “trying to let a bit of tackiness into a big budget movie”. She may have been right; nothing speaks tacky like vacuuming topless, and Nichols, for all his and writer Kevin Wade’s virtue signalling (while ritually humiliating the other main female character), is very keen to put his leading lady in leery lingerie and suspenders.
But Kael’s also right that Nichols’ intention is something else. He makes Griffith an anodyne “cuddlebug”, divorcing her from the essential free-range sex of those previous roles, and shoehorning in the famous “I have a head for business and a bod for sin”, a trailer line rather than anything we actually believe of the character.
Griffith, with her sleepy coquettish squeak of a delivery, comes on like a quaaluded Monroe in a Horlicks factory. That kind of thing has a limited shelf life, and if it was perfectly utilised by Demme, here it’s rather a mismatch of packaging. She’s good at being out of it (tequila), but her delivery makes you assume everyone involved is humouring her. Which is surely exactly the point Nichols didn’t want to make.
Tess’s success only serves to emphasise this is a fantasy, one with its Prince Charming (Ford) and wicked witch (Weaver). Come the end, Tess gets her crown and throne room (executive job and office). So maybe it was Griffith, or maybe the writing was already on the wall post-Crash for this kind of business fare. Two years later she’d be in stinker The Bonfire of the Vanities. Being a stinker didn’t help, but no longer being a hot topic was equally an issue.
Unlike Stone, Nichols and Wade have no interest in who gets crushed or left jobless by the acquisition that is key to Tess’s rise; big business and greed are good as long as you have scruples, but for how long? Tess is very nice to her secretary at the end, but perhaps we should see how she’s faring three months down the line. Weaver is aces, earning two nominations at that year’s Oscars (the other for Gorillas in the Mist), but while there’s a lot of canniness in Katherine’s ability to work the system (buttering up colleagues, pilfering proposals), there’s very little to suggest any actual acumen.
Which may make her an equal opportunities villain, but it means it’s easy to make the entire character a simple mockery, and therefore of women in the workplace, unless they’re bad Marilyn impersonators. Katherine’s ski trip accident is played for laughs, and then there are the strangely lecherous orderlies buzzing around her in hospital, who appear to have strayed in from a John Landis movie. The ultimate scouring comes from Griffith herself, resorting to shallow, petty body shaming as a victory lap (“Now get your bony ass out of my sight”), an insult then repeated by the menfolk, eager to get in on the act. It’s a more effective summary of the movie’s actual content than any Carly Simon warbling.
If Weaver is nevertheless a juggernaut as the conniving bitch, the question relating to the third party in this love triangle must be: Is this where Ford became boring? He was in his mid-forties when he made Working Girl, having just done some of his career-best work in back-to-back Peter Weir pictures, but the movie signals the beginning of his everyman phase, sinking into underplaying, sporting suits and straight haircuts (or occasionally “provocative” ones in Presumed Innocent). He’d be a normy in Frantic the same year, and even his subsequent action roles (Jack Ryan, Richard Kimble, the President) would be signalled by constipated quavering that would eventually devolve into sleep-inducing torpor.
I can believe Jack Trainer as a slightly dull businessman, but not as an effective romcom sparring partner. I mean, Ford’s fine, but that’s exactly the refrain that greeted much of his subsequent work. Middling. Okay. Not stretching himself. Complacent. Jack/Harrison is so decent, of course, his taking Tess’s clothes off – à la Vertigo – and sleeping in the same bed (!) are perfectly innocent (clearly more designed to create a tension than anything, and crudely so; I mean, what if he’d turned over so blissfully in his sleep while she was still there?) It would be that way for Ford until he got himself an earring and tried to drown Michelle (amusingly, an anecdote here has him tell of his chin scar resulting from a teen belief it would be “cool to have a pierced ear”; some things will never change).
This is really a movie to look for the rewards around the edges, though. I’ve mentioned Spacey and Platt, who would carve out a niche as the disreputable support or puffy sidekick, or both simultaneously. He’s in the same year’s Married to the Mob, along with Alec Baldwin, who is Tess’s trash-monkey, lingerie -buying boyfriend here. Yes, Tess swaps one Jack Ryan for another. And in stark contrast to Ford, Baldwin is hungry. You only need look at his selection of supporting parts during this period (Talk Radio, Married to the Mob, She’s Having a Baby, Beetlejuice, Great Balls of Fire!) and they stand as far more impressive than most of his subsequent star-player work.
Olympia Dukakis (recently departed) has a cameo as Tess’s personnel director, while Joan Cusack steals the entire movie with her unrestrained and hilarious come-ons: “Coffee, tea, me?” she asks Jack. Even Ford thinks she’s funny. It’s the only moment in the movie where he looks like he has a pulse. You can also spot David Duchovny at Tess’s birthday.
Working Girl received a mystifying Best Picture nomination (everything else in the line-up is way better). I’m all for elevating the status of romcoms, but this one isn’t nearly sharp enough to deserve the recognition. It’s curious too that the noms were so loaded in favour of names: the three actresses, Simon and Nichols. Nothing writing or technical (I mean, this was the year Big, that popular paean to paedophilia, received a Best Original Screenplay nomination). The Working Girl model wouldn’t go away, of course; such undiluted slavishness to corporate greed might be a no-no later, but couch it in a rite of passage and you could still have fun with the model (The Devil Wears Prada). Ah, the ’80s. Such simpler times.