9 to 5 (1980)… has the workplace really changed?

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In the thirty-seven years since Colin Higgins’ Nine To Five (1980) was released, it’s easy to reflect upon this comedic view on feminism and the office workplace and note the changes. The typewriters and other technologies (or lack thereof), the clothes, hairstyles, cars… they all seem dated to the modern eye. But look deeper. The messages being pitched in this film, the struggles of the main characters, and even of the supporting characters, well, they rage on.

There are many films that have been set in the office workplace. But this film stood out for me. Perhaps based on timing, as I was the highly influential age of thirteen when it released. The second-wave feminism of the sixties and seventies challenged the status quo in the battle of the sexes: Billy Jean King, Title 9, NOW, Roe vs. Wade, the ERA and many more influencers shaped our emerging cultural awareness. Then 9 to 5 came along to challenge sexism and the battle for women’s equality in the American trenches… the workplace.

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Not presented as some radical documentary or anything serious whatsoever, 9 to 5 is a comedy. But the message remains clear as a bell, through the laughter. What strikes interesting is not only that it’s a comedy but I would go further to say it’s a slapstick comedy that fits a formula and styling not unlike a true classic comedy, common several decades prior.

Comedy serves a great purpose to drive the messages home thanks also to a talented cast. Our main characters are Lily Tomlin as the hardworking, single mom and career woman Violet Newstead, Jane Fonda as Judy Bernly, is the meek housewife entering the workforce for the first time, Dolly Parton as the curvy, country- gal and secretary, Doralee Rhodes. Then there’s the boss, Dabney Coleman as Frank Hart. Or as he is better known, “a sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot.”

The trio are an unlikely threesome, each with very different backgrounds so they don’t connect immediately. Their only true connection is not only the company they work for, but the insufferable pig in charge, Mr. Hart. Despite initial misperceptions of one another, they soon bond in being victims of Mr. Hart and his domineering, sexist ways. The pace picks up nicely when Violet mistakenly believes she has accidentally poisoned the boss. In a state of panic, they rally together in crime. No actual poisoning, their true crime turns to kidnapping- to buy time and prove he is embezzling company funds. In the end, the threesome survive and thrive, as do the rest of the staff and the company as a whole under these ladies’ leadership, and of course the villain gets his comeuppance.

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There are some very appealing reasons to enjoy this often overlooked film…

Girlfriend Friendship:

Unlike so many comedies regarding battle of the sexes, 9 to 5 takes its time to show female friendship, based on how three very different women start off in typical office dynamics. Initially, their differences keeps them apart and whets the water cooler chat. Violet judges Judy (she’s ‘just a no-job-experience housewife’ whom she’s burdened with training, and she mocks her outdated clothing). As Violet and other staff have already judged and assumed the worst of Doralee (she must be shtupping the boss because she’s well-endowed), Violet convinces Judy to believe the same. Because of their common enemy, the three realize just how wrong they were about each other.

So many light comedies prefer to keep women in the catty zone, always competing for the man. It’s often men who are highlighted as the adventurous buddies. This film flips that stereotype. When women move past the barriers of judging each other and trust/support each other instead, they make HUGE accomplishments.

 

 Fantasies Become Reality:

There is a delightful fantasy segment where each of the ladies describes how they’d like to seek revenge on Hart. Timid Judy, who is especially vulnerable now as her husband just left her for his secretary, expresses bold confidence in her fantasy as a wild game hunter. Hart is the target and Judy is well-armed on the hunt with an enormous gun. Classic slapstick is alive and well in this very funny, and rather cartoonish scene. We see Judy blossom in self-esteem throughout the film and the audience knows this is greatly due to their supportive friendships as they go through wild adventures.

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Doralee describes her fantasy where she turns the table on Hart, giving him a healthy dose of his own sexual harassment medicine. Being a country gal, she’s a rodeo star of a boss, lassoing and hogtying him when he politely and repeatedly refuses her inappropriate advances. I always wonder what men thought of this scene when it came out back in 1980. Surely, it would make for great- if not entertaining- training material for HR sexual harassment requirements.

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Violet waxes Snow White for a mock Disney spin on her twist of revenge. She may look the spitting image of Snow White, even down to the animated woodland creatures hovering nearby, but Violet’s fairy tale turns ‘Grimm’ as she poisons Hart in her fantasy. Classic slapstick shtick includes a metal spoon eaten away instantaneously by stirring poison and steam in the shape of skull and crossbones. Ultimately, all three land up fulfilling their fantasies to a certain degree. Judy fires (although misses) a gun at Hart. Doralee hogties Hart. And Violet pours poison (accidentally) into Hart’s coffee.

Words, Words, Words:

I think the writers had fun with this one.

+The main characters’ names were somewhat similar to their respective actors, i.e. Violet= Lily (Tomlin).

+Dabney Coleman’s Frank Hart has no heart.

+In 9 to 5, the company’s name is “Consolidated Industries” which I immediately drew a parallel to the dysfunctional office relations in Billy Wilder’s THE APARTMENT (1960), with the company name of, “Consolidated Life of NY.” Likely a mere coincidence of a common word with no connection whatsoever, but that’s how a movie fanatic’s brain works.

+As words go, the 9 to 5 theme song, written and performed by Dolly Parton, became a number 1 hit (Billboard Country Chart), earning Parton an Academy Award nomination, four Grammy Award nominations with two Grammy wins.

+I think my favorite line came from Dolly Parton’s Doralee. At one point when she’s pushed to her limit with Hart’s wolfish behavior, she threatens him. She says she has a loaded gun in her purse and tells him, “turn you from rooster to a hen, with one shot!” as she points directly to his crotch.

Cast:

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The casting is superb. The lead actresses clearly worked well together because that’s apparent on the screen. This was Dolly Parton’s first theatrical feature debut and I think it was the perfect vehicle for her. Tomlin and Fonda were much more experienced on-screen and their comedic chemistry still clicks to this day. The two co-star in the highly amusing and popular show “Grace and Frankie,” currently enjoying its 3rd season release on Netflix.

Coleman was the perfect choice for Frank Hart. Coleman was at the top of his fame with a string of successful features in the early eighties. He excelled at playing scoundrels with a flair for comedy. Many claim this was one of his most memorable roles. There are solid character actors here, as well, including Elizabeth Wilson, Marian Mercer, Peggy Pope, Henry Jones, Richard Stahl, plus a nice cameo from Sterling Hayden as the big boss, Tinsworthy.

If you haven’t seen this film in a long time, I recommend you take another look with fresh eyes. The comedy structure plays like so many of the classics. Look past the outdated styles and technologies, but ponder the bigger question on equality in the workplace. Has it changed so much in these nearly four decades? Isn’t there still a glass ceiling for most and continued unequal pay for equal work? But don’t let that get you down. It simply means we have more progress to accomplish. In the meantime, cherish those friendships- they can be empowering.


This was my contribution to the Workplace in Film & TV Blogathon, hosted by Moon In Gemini, August 18-20, 2017. Follow her site for daily updates with all the participating writers.

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