No Hollywood film sings a song for 1980s careerism quite like Working Girl. But this isn’t a film about decadence or greed. It’s about a working class girl with gumption and get-go trying to make it in the Big Apple, directed by The Graduate’s Mike Nichols.
Melanie Griffith stars as 30-year-old Tess, a Staten Island dreamer whose evening course in finance has landed her a big job in the city – answering phones for her (male) stockbroker superiors. Tess battles against the daily grind of her commute and casual misogyny in the office. On her birthday, her boss sets up a meeting with a colleague, Bob Speck, to discuss a promotion – but Bob (Kevin Spacey) turns out to be a coke-guzzling womaniser who suggests they begin the discussion by heading to his hotel suite.
Tess is fired for calling out her sexist co-workers, and takes up a new position: a secretarial role working under female exec Katharine (Sigourney Weaver), a glass ceiling-smashing glamazon calling the shots in corporate finance. When Katharine breaks her leg skiing in Europe, Tess is given access to Katharine's high-spec Manhattan apartment – complete with Warhol-esque silkscreens, sumptuous walk-in wardrobe and 1980s exercise bike. Her ambitions are suddenly crystallised.
Tess changes tack when she discovers Katharine is stealing her ideas. She decides to undergo a transformation and dupe Wall Street’s bigwigs into thinking she’s a power player. Cue a drastic haircut, careful reigning in of her Staten Island accent and much raiding of Katharine's luxury wardrobe. She carefully selects a $6,000 dress that says she's 'confident, a risk-taker, not afraid to be noticed' and swipes Katharine's elite party invites to slam tequila shots and woo potential business partners, posing as a top exec.
The film’s ‘fake it till you make it’ plotline confirms what we already suspect: that Tess is more than capable, but her working class background has held her back. Katharine, meanwhile, for all her charm, privilege and Ivy League education, doesn't appear to have the business nous to truly drive ahead.
I’m probably not the first to point out the parallels to classic ‘transformation’ stories like My Fair Lady or Pretty Woman, with all the implied doctrines on taste and class. A Staten Island girl who gets the ferry to Manhattan every morning, we watch as Tess’s 1980s coif becomes shorter and sleeker; her make-up subtler and clothing more elegant as she forwards her corporate career. ‘Dress shabbily and they notice the dress. Dress impeccably and they notice the woman’, Katharine notes to Tess on her first day in the office. The ambitious young upstart learns quickly from her boss’s mantra – and her more curt suggestions to 'rethink' her jewellery.
Fake it 'til you make it: Tess commandeers Katharine's office to feign success …
… and even dons her pink tinted glasses for a dash of Harvard Business School chic
That said, for all Katharine’s refined corporate elegance (and she does beguile, even when laid up in a Swiss hospital), some of the most memorable sartorial moments in the film come from Tess’s more ‘gauche’ hometown friends. The ridiculous 80’s perms, plastic earrings and froufrou sleeve shapes are a joy to look back on. Joan Cusack stars as BFF Cyn, sporting leopard-print blazers, lashings of colourful eyeshadow and heroically teased bangs. We’re also treated to a young Alec Baldwin, playing Tess's Staten Island boyfriend, Mick, a lothario with slicked-back hair and dubious morals. Tess walks in on him in bed with bubble-permed Doreen DiMucci from their hometown.
But running in parallel to Tess’s gains up the career ladder is, of course, a plot involving a more refined and charming love interest: top exec Jack Trainer, played by a suave Harrison Ford. Tess and Jack quickly become a power couple: crashing weddings, snagging meetings and thrashing out business proposals as they fall head over heels in love. The sweeping, Hollywood romance is complicated somewhat when it emerges that Jack actually has a girlfriend – who else but Tess’s backstabbing boss, Katharine. The film’s climax thus includes the culmination of a high-stakes business deal, a romantic ménage à trois and a dramatic case of mistaken identity. All the makings of a great cinematic masterpiece, you might say.
Working Girl was hailed as a triumphant girl power flick in its day, but does it stand-up to contemporary feminist thought? Despite following the path of a smart, ambitious businesswoman, in many ways it doesn’t. Working Girl still pits women against one another, and despite her talent, Tess only really succeeds with her male colleague/love interest/saviour by her side. So far, so dated. But Working Girl’s wry take on workplace sexism and its memorable celebration of female chutzpah holds up well. There’s also some touching scenes of solidarity between lower-level female office staff – portrayals of disempowered women rooting for one another and helping each other get a step up on the ladder. Not everyone is a cutthroat corporate ice queen.
Add to all this what has to be one of the most killer lines in 1980s cinema (‘I have a head for business and a bod for sin’), a choir-backed soundtrack by Carly Simon and a spot of naked hoovering and we think this one more than cuts the grade. Knock 'em out, Tess.
Rosa Abbott / @VertovVertov