‘Working Girl’ or — Big City, Bigger Hair?
Tess McGill (Melanie Griffiths) is tired of being treated like crap by the appalling men at the stockbroker office where she works who seem to equate ‘secretary’ with ‘prostitute’. After one particularly sleazy encounter too many Tess quits and finds a new position under the seemingly benign Katharine Parker (Sigourney Weaver) who encourages Tess to come up with, and share with Katharine, any ideas Tess might have. Tess does have a business degree after all and it appears working for Katharine will finally allow Tess to flourish and advance up that ladder.
However, Tess’ world soon comes crashing down when she discovers Katharine has been secretly planning to pass one of Tess’ ideas off to her superiors as her own. Not only that but after work a distraught Tess returns to home find her boyfriend (Alec Baldwin) naked in their bed with another woman.
However, when Katharine is hospitalised after a skiing accident Tess spies a brief window of opportunity to seize the initiative before that window of opportunity closes like a door (rather than a window), and when Tess bumps into the dashing and successful Jack Trainer (Harrison Ford), who responds receptively to both Tess’ business idea as well as Tess herself, it seems that nothing can stop Tess now.
Until Katharine inevitably gets back that is and all hell breaks loose, especially considering Jack is her boyfriend.
Mike Nichols’ ‘Working Girl’ (1988) is, on the surface, somewhat similar to Garry Marshall’s ‘Pretty Woman’ (1990) in that both movies portray a woman struggling to make it in a male dominated world where she challenges class and privilege barriers and all presented as a love letter to classic, Golden Age Hollywood comedies. The big difference between the two films is that Nichols’ film, unlike Marshall’s, genuinely has something to say, has way fewer issues, is much smarter and makes an actual point.
This shouldn’t be too much of a surprise as Nichols has always been the more interesting, if flawed, director (don’t tell anyone this but I find ‘The Graduate’ a tad overrated) who really knew how to get the most from the actors. So Griffiths, Weaver and especially Joan Cusack are all on spectacular form here with Griffith perfectly balancing sad, sexy and determined whilst Weaver gets to activate full-on bitch mode leaving Cusack to periodically light up the screen with a casual zinger (“Can I get you anything? Tea, coffee, me?”) or purely by her presence alone.
Yet it’s Harrison Ford who, for me, steals the show which is completely surprising as his performance here is genuinely un-showy, selfish or scene-stealing with him being more than happy to let everyone else grab the limelight instead. It’s this unthreatening effortlessness and ease that makes him so appealing to observe so I can understand why a number of people cite this movie almost as a cinematic lament that Ford never took on more purely comedic roles. Yes, nearly all his most famous characters have some element of that breezy, light comedic vibe thrumming throughout but it nearly always takes second place to — rogue, cad, adventurer, etc. Here it’s explicit and to the fore and he’s a blast to watch. I certainly wish he’d done more of this vulnerable sensitivity than dedicating the rest of his career to simply pointing his finger at other people in gruff irritability.
Still, I was worried if ‘Working Girl’ might commit a few of the misdemeanors most of these types of 80s/90s work place comedies do, most notably being — “Is this an uncritical celebration of unbridled Capitalism?” After all, this is all about Tess “making it”, “getting it all” and ascending that ladder. But look again at that final shot and ask yourself whether or not Nichols might be ending the movie on an ambiguous and critical note? Has Tess achieved her dream or has she simply supplanted, replaced, Katharine to become a new form of the monster?
And that big hair? It’s not just for show but is making a visual statement (hair is to ‘Working Girl’ what flaming torches are to Anthony Mann’s ‘The Fall of the Roman Empire’)
Finally the camera pulls back showing Tess trapped in a box in a world that consists of nothing else but countless other little, claustrophobic boxes. It’s the world of the working girl.