Director: Colin Higgins
USA, 1980 110 mins
Playing at the BFI as part of their Comedy Genius season from November 16
Back in cinemas as a key film in the BFI’s jam-packed Comedy Genius season running to January 2019, the 1980 workplace satire 9 to 5 still speaks to today’s hot-button issues of discrimination against females in the workplace. You could argue its taken a staggering 40 years for the issues raised in this film - from sexual harassment to the lack of high-level jobs offered to women - to be taken as seriously as they should be. That being said, 9 to 5, with a plot that focuses a trio of mismatched New York female employees who refuse to put up with their sexist boss’s behaviour any longer, cloaks its empowerment message and pertinent observations about male-female relations in a huge amount of good-natured, briskly-paced fun, most of it generated by the chemistry between the all-star cast of Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda and Dolly Parton, and from the increasingly zany schemes they come up with to stay ahead of their boss. Audiences will get a chuckle out of seeing 80s-era office technology in all its clunky beige glory, from giant Xerox machines to rows of noisy typewriters. Then there is that great title song from Parton, which will get your foot tapping no matter how hard you resist. Appropriately, though directed by Colin Higgins, the film was in fact based on an idea by star Fonda and was written by Patricia Resnick.
Each of these three female stars packs enough charisma to hold such a movie on their own, but here they are perfectly complimentary to each other, and none of them end up fitting any stereotypes we might place on them from first sight. None require a romantic interest to succeed at the end. As the newest secretarial-level recruit at the sterile Consolidated Companies head office in Manhattan, Jane Fonda is nicely cast against type as the straight-laced and decidedly unglamorous Judy, who over time reveals a steelier side and throws herself into the sisterhood plotting with growing vigour. Lily Tomlin is pitch-perfect as the cynical office veteran Violet, whose world-weary demeanour interlaced with jabs of sarcasm and delicious detestation, signifies how she has internalised as routine the blatant workplace sexism that CEO Franklin Hart, Jr. (Dabney Coleman) emits on a regular basis. Violet is a depressing example, at least at first, of how even fierce women can get worn down by the relentless slights of misogynistic men who hold all the power, their resistance blunted by the sense that nothing can change by fighting. But watching Violet rekindle her sense of “I’m not taking this shit” and start throwing all the bullshit back in the other direction, is a delight to see. But it is Dolly Parton as Hart’s secretary Doralee who threatens to run off with the film, charm simply exploding out of her like fireworks. Interestingly, the surface-level ditzy Doralee is shown to be underestimated not just by Hart (who is pressuring her into having an affair with him, even callously giving her his wife’s birthday presents which Violet is tasked with buying), but by Judy and Violet too, who initially assume that she really is just the office ‘floozy’ that Hart has pegged her as, sleeping her way to the top. This adds interesting depth to the dynamics of the women, suggesting that patriarchy’s malign influence interrupts even women’s own views of each other, and that seeing past stereotypes is a job both sexes need to do if equality is to be reached.