Friday, February 14, 2014

Working Girl (1988)

Director: Mike Nichols                                  Writer: Kevin Wade
Film Score: Rob Mounsey                            Cinematography: Michael Ballhaus
Starring: Melanie Griffith, Harrison Ford, Sigourney Weaver and Joan Cusack

Once you get past the big hair, the shoulder pads, the outsized glasses and synthesized music, Working Girl is a great film. Sure it’s dated, but Mike Nichols has had a great track record directing comedic films from The Graduate up through Charlie Wilson’s War. This one really works because of the intelligent script by Kevin Wade writing his first solo screenplay. The film doesn’t get enough credit for jumpstarting the romantic comedy revival that began in the late eighties with hits like When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle. Because of its genre the film never had a chance at any victories, but nevertheless was nominated for a slew of Oscars, best picture and director and, fittingly, all of the women in the major roles, Griffith, Weaver and Cusack. Of course the one Oscar that the film was awarded was for best song, Carly Simon’s “Let the River Run,” fitting for an eighties movie.

Melanie Griffith plays a hard-working secretary who dreams of bigger things. She lives on Staten Island and works in Manhattan for a large financial firm. But she’s bounced around from job to job because she doesn’t want to be sexually harassed and taken for granted. Her last chance is with Sigourney Weaver, a high-powered executive who promises that she’ll help Griffith move up. But when Weaver’s away on a skiing trip Griffith finds out she’s stolen one of her ideas for a merger. So, with Weaver temporarily out of the way, she sets up a meeting with Harrison Ford and the two of them move forward on a deal that will help both of them be successful, not to mention romantically entangled. Along the way Griffith is assisted by another secretary and personal friend, Joan Cusack, but her move into the fast lane is resented by boyfriend Alec Baldwin. When Weaver comes back from the trip early, things really hit the fan.

Melanie Griffith, who began her film career in Robbie Benson’s One on One, carved out a weird niche for herself in films. The daughter of Tippi Hedren, she has the same kind of odd vocal delivery as her mother. The real glue that holds the film together, though, is Harrison Ford in one of his best roles. He’s a terrific force in the plot, eager to move forward on the deal, wanting to step outside of the corporate crud and have a genuine relationship, and at the same time terrific at his job. Sigourney Weaver is also tremendous as the ruthless executive, using her feminine wiles to rig the system in her favor. And there are a few small supporting roles with big names. Oliver Platt plays a broker in the firm who plays a few too many jokes on Griffith and gets his comeuppance from her, and Kevin Spacey plays a coked-out M&A executive that she has to abandon in his limo. The owner of the merger company is the great Philip Bosco, and Nora Dunn from SNL and Olympia Dukakis also have bit parts.

Ultimately this is a smart film, very much of it’s time, but not talking down to audiences the way that so many modern films treat viewers as if they’re idiots. But then that’s the type of script that Mike Nichols is drawn to. The idea was made into a television series in 1990 and starring Sandra Bullock but only lasted one season. There’s enough of an edge to the original, though, that it’s not surprising it didn’t last on the small screen. The thing that’s not typically discussed is the term “working girl” as prostitute, and how that idea translates in the film. As a secretary there is a sense that women are at the mercy of their superiors because of their position wherein they need their jobs and therefore feel helpless to stand up to abuse. Working Girl is a terrific romcom and one that I always enjoy watching for its intelligence and charm.

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