Working Girl (1988) is the consummate career girl movie, and though there are no working mothers in the film, I’ve included it because it can’t be escaped. And I’m a fan. I cracked up when a character referenced it during a panic attack on Greek (but only just now realized it’s because she and Sigourney Weaver’s character have the same name—Katherine Parker), loved when it came out in Bertie’s impression of an American accent during the tripping episode of Love, and I’m looking forward to the Cyndi Lauper–scored musical. It might be my favorite Harrison Ford role (yep) and ditto for Melanie Griffith.
The film opens with the ferry to Manhattan, and it must be inspiring for the commuters who actually get to see the skyline every day on their way to work. Griffith plays Tess McGill (great name), a Staten Island girl in the secretary pool on Wall Street. She wears sneakers on her way into the office, with polka-dot tights and heels in her handbag. She bounces around a bit—turns out, Kevin Spacey is a sexual predator—who knew? (Also, I held a door for Oliver Platt at SXSW 2014.) She gets splashed by a rain puddle, a la Carrie Bradshaw. But she also attended night school for a business degree. “Look, I’m thirty years old. It took me five years of night school but I got my degree and I got it with honors. I know I could do a job,” she tells Olympia Dukaki.
Tess is thrilled to go to work for a woman transferring down from Boston (Sigourney Weaver, in one of my least favorite of her roles, though that’s more about the character than her performance). Classy, educated, and connected, Catherine is everything Tess is not…and two weeks younger. Her office window is visible from Tess’s commute. She quotes style advice from CoCo Chanel. “I consider us a team, and as such, we have a uniform: simple, elegant, impeccable. ‘Dress shabbily, they notice the dress. Dress impeccably, they notice the woman.‘ … You might wanna rethink the jewelry.”
Tess’s contribution to the team includes suggesting the little Chinese dumplings she read about in W (“You read W?”), which is great until Tess gets to push the steam tray around. She admires how smoothly Katherine brushes off a guy: “Never burn bridges. Today’s junior prick, tomorrow’s senior partner.” Tess pitches her acquisition idea on Katherine’s birthday, evidenced by the balloons and flowers covering her office. Katherine asks Tess if she overheard the idea somewhere, say, on the elevator. Katherine smokes in her office, probably the carton of Larks Tess brought in earlier. The entrée program Tess has been applying for appears to be something industry wide, or Tess has been moved to a different position within the same company… Are those the same elevator banks? Is Olympia Dukakis representing a temp agency or human resources?
Tess tells Mick (Alec Baldwin, hilarious) that Katherine wants to be her mentor and raises the possibility of a double date in the city. Katherine, who went to Wellesley and speaks fluent German, has indicated she’s “receptive to an offer” of marriage. “Watch me, Tess. Learn from me.” After Katherine breaks her leg on a ski trip, Tess becomes more like a personal assistant. (The passcode to Katherine’s parents’ town house is 7543200, BTW, and they may have a Warho.) As she’s using Katherine’s voice memos to practice elocution, she learns Katherine has stolen her idea. Tess drinks a Coors Light tallboy on the ferry home, then catches Mick in bed with someone else. (“No class.”)
The idea is a loophole that protects a media company from buyout, and to my mind, it’s a good one: smart business, knowledgeable about policy, not afraid to mix high and low culture, and it keeps everybody happy. A lot of my appreciation for this movie hinges on how perfect Tess’s idea is for her character. Catherine writing that “there’s a lightbulb over my head” is the perfect way to present her treachery…that’s just bad writing. If someone emailed you that today, you’d cringe too, and I think we see that in Jack Traynor’s resistance of Catherine’s advances (he sure as hell banged her, though).
Tess stares pensively at her old life out Katherine’s office windowbefore making the call to Jack Trainer. His Who’s Who in American Business profile reveals he has degrees from Dartmouth and Harvard, making him the exact type of person with whom Sleazoid told her she couldn’t compete. It also says, and I never realized this, that he was married from 1972 to 1978 to one Susanna Rockwell. He’s also forty.
Since “fringe times are crucial,” Tess raids Katherine’s closet (the dress still has a $6,000 price tag on it, but “It’s simple, elegant. It makes a statement. It says to people: ‘confident, a risk taker. Not afraid to be noticed.’ Then, you hit ’em with your smarts.” She and best friend Joan Cusack also raid the medicine cabinet (“Valium. In the convenient economy size.”) Tess goes out and meets Trainer, though she doesn’t know he’s him, and he compliments her on actually being dressed like a woman. We get the “bod for sin” line, but she also greets his toast, “Power to the people,” with her own, “the little people,” under her breath. Her creepy boss sees her across the room, someone else hems her in at the coat check, and she makes this irresistible play for Trainer’s affections:
By the way, I used this exact move on my boyfriend at a party a few weeks ago, and it worked! He took me home. (Granted, we live together.)
Cyn gets to be Tess’s secretary for a bit, and Joan Cusack has a lot of fun: “Let’s give her a shout, shall we? You decent? A Mr. Jack Trainer to see you, Ms. McGill. Hold all calls, Ms. McGill? Can I get you anything, Mr. Trainer? Coffee, tea, me?” He’s enjoying it. Tess confronts him for lying about his identity (“All mergers and acquisitions. No lust and tequila.”) I also forgot, he buys her a briefcase!
For me, this is peak Harrison Ford because you get the Indie capableness without the Han Solo swagger. He takes a spit bath in his office with the blinds open and gets a round of applause from the secretarial pool. He looks stunned with tzatziki on his lip and opens the door to the Chinese food delivery guy wrapped in a blanket. Yes, he stumbles as a hero when blindsided by Catherine’s outburst in the meeting, but even he joins Tess in exacerbation at Catherine’s damsel in distress act.
Catherine, who has to be picked up at the helipad. Catherine, who took a muscle relaxer for the flight (“Oh, let’s all have one, shall we?”). Catherine, who’s had weeks to come up with an explanation for the memo. Catherine, who says Jack loves Shalimar. Catherine, who actually mimics the ticking of her biological clock, panting, “Let’s merge.” Catherine, who behaves likes every disingenuous spoiled bitch I’ve ever known, to whom I only wish it had occurred to me to say: “Do not ever speak to me again like we don’t know what really happened, you got me?”
When Jack finally comes through for Tess in the end, he gives her the floor. Yes, he has to contend with his johnson, as Trask jokes at ground level, just to help her get her foot in the door, but as Tess tells Trask a few minutes later when they reach the top level, there is no way for someone like her to play the game without bending the rules a little. While Mick proposed at someone else’s engagement party, while the girl he cheated with looked on, and screamed, “Who the fuck died and made you Grace Kelly, huh?” when he didn’t get the answer he wanted, Jack tells Trask: “Hear the lady out, sir. Here’s another elevator.”
It took me many viewings of this movie and going through a point in my life when I was reading a lot of business self-help before I finally noticed that it all leads up to an actual elevator pitch. Tess is so honest and committed, knowing she’s only got Trask for a moment while everyone else is stuck in a different elevator car, so you just can’t help but root for her. Even though she acted like a certifiable maniac to get in that position.
Seriously, isolate her behavior and it looks positively criminal: identity theft, fraud, trespassing, substance abuse, illegal occupation, and wedding crashing (while wearing white, WTF?). Jack was party to that last one, though she only told him on the way there; he wound up enjoying the game. (“You wanna do it? Do it.“), and that’s kind of how we know he’s going to (eventually) be understanding about the rest.
I think that’s what gets me the most about this movie. Having a Harrison Ford, a partner in crime, who comes through for you instead of being a coward and allowing the Catherine types to revel in your heartfelt mistakes. (“But you’re lying!”) I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, how we don’t get rewarded for being genuine in a system that’s stacked against us, even though the movies told us we would. Only certain people are allowed to be genuine.