From Hustlers to Her Smell to Homecoming, 2019 was a great year for films about female ambition—not that you’d know it from the Oscar race. Little Women is the only woman-centric film to make a major impression at this year’s Academy Awards, in a round of nominations that favored masculine viewpoints. But it wasn’t always this way. In 1989, one year after rom-com favorites Moonstruck and Broadcast News duked it out across several major categories, Working Girl’s ode to female ambition earned six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. Decades after Working Girl’s sky-high hair and shoulder pads have fallen out of fashion, the film remains a timeless example of the sneakily subversive female-led stories that have long found a home in the romantic comedy genre.
The idea for Working Girl started with producer Doug Wick, who was fascinated by the image of commuting businesswomen dressed in chic suits and grubby sneakers. He passed the idea onto playwright Kevin Wade, who imagined Staten Island Ferry commuters as modern-day immigrants struggling to translate their smarts to a world where they didn’t speak the language, know the customs, or wear the right clothes. Director Mike Nichols opens the film with a sweeping shot of the Statue Of Liberty as Carly Simon’s Oscar-winning hymnal “Let The River Run” sets the tone for an American success story that’s small in scope, but epic in feel.
At the center of it all is Griffith’s Tess McGill, a just-turned-30 secretary who fills her free time with speech classes and business seminars, but who still can’t move up the ladder at her Wall Street investment bank. She’s got the wrong resume and the wrong demeanor to be taken seriously. It was an experience Griffith understood firsthand; by the mid-’80s, Griffith was best known for her substance abuse, her underage relationship with Don Johnson, and a series of provocative roles in films like Night Moves and Body Double—performances that associated her with eroticism and nudity. As a New York Magazine review of One On One noted, “Griffith is miscast in a PG picture, where she is obliged to hide her one talent (or two depending on how you count it… them).”
“My story is Tess’ story,” Griffith recalled in The Hollywood Reporter’s oral history of Working Girl. “I wasn’t very much of a name [at the time], but I loved this role, and I knew I could do it.” Griffith’s sweet, yet sharp-edged demeanor is just the right fit for Tess—a business outsider who has a knack for understanding people and a lack of judgment about where a good idea can come from. Mirroring her character’s success story, Working Girl brought Griffith mainstream fame and an Oscar nomination to boot.
Rewatching Working Girl today, what immediately stands out is how clear-eyed it is about the horrifying daily realities of workplace sexual harassment. As the phrase “#MeToo era” gets frustratingly flattened into “no one knew about sexual harassment until 2017,” it’s worth remembering that films like Working Girl—and 9 To 5, and Legally Blonde—have long explored the issue in accessible, mainstream ways. In the opening 10 minutes, Tess is condescended to by male higher-ups, accosted in the back of a limo by an executive who lured her there under the auspicious of an interview, and fired for daring to call out her boss for his behavior. In an eerily prescient bit of casting, the sleazy executive Tess fends off with a bottle of champagne is played by Kevin Spacey.
Working Girl is so confident that its audience already understands the basics of workplace sexual harassment that it quickly moves on to an even more nuanced look at how patriarchal structures operate in the business world. When Tess is given a new secretarial gig with glamorous mergers and acquisitions exec Katharine Parker (Sigourney Weaver), she’s initially thrilled to do away with the “chasing around the desk crap” and work for someone who promises to take her seriously. But it turns out Tess just exchanges one type of evil for another. Unlike the male bosses who ignored her mind and tried to take advantage of her body, Katharine steals Tess’ brilliant business idea and tries to pass it off as her own.
Wade’s script is incredibly smart about the way classism can intersect with feminism, limiting the bonds of sisterhood along particular social lines. The wealthy, well-bred Katharine represents the kind of woman who’s willing to operate within a sexist system so long as she can make it work to her advantage. Weaver has an absolute blast leaning into Katharine’s slinky villainy, and the film finds appreciable dark comedy in how she’s learned to weaponize her gender—like a scene where Katharine pretends to faint as a way to get a seat at a negotiating table. The deliciously fiendish performance earned Weaver a Supporting Actress nod, the same year she also got a Best Actress nomination for Gorillas In The Mist.
Katharine’s ruthlessness is key to getting us to root for Tess as she takes advantage of her boss’ ski accident to pose as a high-powered executive and put together her own acquisition deal for client Trask Industries. Of course, in using Katharine as its antagonist, Working Girl runs the risk of leaning into catty stereotypes or arguing there’s only space for one woman to succeed at a time. Thankfully, Wade avoids that pitfall by surrounding Tess with a supportive cohort of fellow secretaries, most importantly her Staten Island bestie Cynthia (Joan Cusack). It’s a small role, but one that made such a strong impression it earned Cusack a Best Supporting Actress nomination. And she deserved it just for the way she gasps over a cocktail dress: “$6,000? It’s not even leather!”
But although Working Girl pokes fun at the uncouth Staten Island secretarial pool, it has a lot of affection for that world as well. The film understands the sense of camaraderie that exists among the under-appreciated assistants, secretaries, and receptionists who keep an office running, the ones who remember the office birthdays and thoughtfully run errands for one another on their lunch breaks. (Though the feminism of Working Girl is disappointingly white, Wade would explore a lot of these same ideas with a cast of women of color in his 2002 romantic comedy Maid In Manhattan, a film that has a similar respect for the working class and the bonds of working class women.) Yet that support comes with a touch of internalized fear, too. Cynthia puts a damper on Tess’ big dreams—not out of jealousy, but because she’s spent her whole life being taught that nothing good comes from trying to rise above your station. What sets Tess apart isn’t that she’s smarter than her secretarial co-workers, it’s that she’s braver about breaking the prescribed rules.
The fact that we’ve gotten this far without mentioning Tess’ love life attests to the fact that Working Girl is a workplace dramedy first, and a romantic comedy second. As the third point of what’s eventually revealed to be a love triangle, business exec Jack Trainer (Harrison Ford) is very much written as the kind of simplistic ingénue role that usually goes to the female lead. A then-unknown Alec Baldwin had originally been cast in the part, but when the studio panicked that the film didn’t have enough stars, Baldwin was bumped down to the role of Tess’ cheating boyfriend instead. Ford, meanwhile, saw Working Girl as a chance to try out something different amid an ’80s hot streak that included Return Of The Jedi, Blade Runner, two Indiana Jones films, and Witness.
Unfortunately, the single worst thing about Working Girl is the way it jumpstarts Jack and Tess’ relationship. In an attempt to balance Tess’ own deception, the film has Jack lie about his identity when they first meet at a corporate party. He ignores the fact that he and Tess have a business meeting the next day and plies her with tequila, which doesn’t mix well with the Valium she took earlier. That’s when Tess purrs her infamous line, “I have a head for business and a bod for sin.” When Jack realizes she’s too zonked out to even remember her address, he brings her back to his apartment, takes off her dress, and puts her in bed next to him. It’s only after she’s been embarrassed at their meeting the next morning that he confirms they didn’t actually have sex.
Thus, Working Girl joins the curiously long list of rom-coms that prove their romantic lead is a good guy because he doesn’t rape an incapacitated woman when given the chance. It’s a device that can work okay in small doses (The Philadelphia Story and The Holiday deliver strong examples), but it can also get creepy very quickly, as both Working Girl and its fellow ’80s rom-com Overboard demonstrate. It’s a shame, too, because for the rest of the film the Tess/Jack dynamic is great. Having them work at different companies and team up as partners is a nice way to soften the potential weirdness of a workplace romance, and the sort of cheekiness their meet-cute is aiming for is expressed much better later in the film when they (consensually!) consummate their relationship. The camera pans to the floor, where their suit jackets and button-down shirts are a perfect matching set.
While that initial meet-creepy tries to play up Ford’s suave charisma, Working Girl works better once it puts Jack on the back foot. It turns out he’s in a slump at work, which means his future is riding on this deal as much as Tess’ is. Ford delivers some fantastic bits of physical comedy throughout the film, including downing an entire tropical drink in one sip and taking a begrudging bow after inadvertently changing his shirt in front of the whole office. And some of Working Girl’s best moments see the duo team up like a pair of screwball comedy stars, crashing a tacky Caribbean-themed wedding reception in order to finagle access to Trask Industries CEO Oren Trask (Philip Bosco).
Befitting his ingénue role, the film ends with Jack stepping out of the way and giving Tess the floor to sell Trask on her idea. Working Girl is perhaps the all-time best example of what Crazy Ex-Girlfriend showrunner Aline Brosh McKenna calls the “and-a-man” model of rom-com storytelling, where finding love is part of a woman’s journey, but not the sole focus. If there’s something a touch too neat (and maybe a touch too patriarchal) about Trask dismissing Katharine and hiring Tess, it’s an easy enough indulgence to forgive in the moment— especially given that Working Girl delivers one of the best romantic comedy endings of all time, if not one of the best film endings of all time.
With her relationship with Jack settled, the final scene is all about Tess and her career as she slowly comes to realize that her new entry-level gig is at the executive level, not the secretarial one. It’s a sequence that eschews men entirely to focus on workplace solidarity among women: Unlike Katharine and her patronizing faux-equality, Tess takes a humble, honest approach with her own secretary—proof that she genuinely intends to use her newfound position to pull up other women behind her. And Tess’ success becomes a win for the entire secretarial pool as Cynthia literally jumps for joy at the news. Roger Ebert noted in his review of the film that “The plot of Working Girl is put together like clockwork. It carries you along while you’re watching it, but reconstruct it later and you’ll see the craftsmanship.” The final scene is a masterclass in a script paying off every single idea it’s set up across the film.
Nichols tempers all that cathartic joy with a slightly bittersweet touch as the camera pans out from Tess’ office window to show she’s still just a small piece in a much bigger machine. Working Girl certainly isn’t a film about upending capitalism or tearing down the patriarchy. Instead, it celebrates the bravery and ambition it takes to maintain your values while fighting for a place in a system that isn’t designed to accommodate you. The real love story isn’t between Tess and Jack or even Tess and her job—it’s in the love and belief Tess has for herself. And that’s as worthy of celebration today as it was in the ’80s.
Next time: You’ve Got Mail this Valentine’s Day.