Tess McGill (Melanie Griffith) is a woman with a “head for business, and a bod for sin”. Unfortunately, it seems as though her “bod” is holding her back from finding a position that is worthy of her intellect. Feeling frustrated with her lot in life, Tess finds a position as the secretary of a successful, high-powered executive named Katharine Parker (Sigourney Weaver). Katharine is, on the surface, a kind mentor who is eager to help Tess reach her potential. In reality, she’s a snake beneath the smiling veneer, egotistical and cunning as she steals Tess’s good ideas to pass off as her own.
When Katharine breaks her leg and is stuck out of town for several weeks, she asks Tess to fill in for her. Tess learns of Katharine’s duplicity and decides to take full control of her career while Katharine is incapacitated. In the process, she gets rid of the big, feathered hair, gaudy jewelry, and tight clothes and channels her inner Katharine with a new hairstyle while borrowing Katharine’s wardrobe and apartment. With help from Jack Trainer (Harrison Ford), a colleague of Katharine’s, Tess begins to facilitate a huge corporate deal with Trask Industries.
I enjoyed Working Girl quite a bit. A fairy-tale transformation set in the corporate world. I loved that Tess maintained her good heart while being able to showcase her shrewdness for business. While some try to dismiss her ideas because of her gender and sinful “bod”, Tess continually puts them in their place with her intelligence. Katharine is the perfect foil, deceptively supportive and supremely confident as a female executive. But she’s also inherently sexist, viewing Tess as nothing more than a “secretary” meant to stay on the sidelines and serve the clients as Katherine works the room. “We can’t busy the quarterback with passing out the Gatorade.”
Initially, Tess is in awe of Katharine, and she is what Tess could be if she’s just given a chance. But can a woman truly climb the corporate ladder without a bit of deception and betrayal? Unfortunately, it seems as though the answer is no… sure, Tess’s duplicity is eventually found out, but she makes a good point when she tells Jack that he would have ever listened to her pitch knowing she was “just a secretary”. He denies this, but we’re all pretty sure Tess is right here.
While Ford is perfectly charming and handsome, but he is very subtle in his role, which allows Griffith to take center stage on screen. She’s breathy and sweetly naive, at least at first. But Griffith plays Tess’s transformation with increasing confidence and a touch of vulnerability that makes her a heroine you truly want to see come out on top. Tess and Jack are incredible together, if you ignore their initial “meet cute” where Jack wants to get Tess drunk enough to sleep with her. It doesn’t happen, but the intent was there and it’s a bit creepy. Still, Ford and Griffith have great chemistry, even before the romance kicks in. Weaver is marvelously funny as Katharine, and she seems to really be enjoying the devilish role. Perhaps because she had just finished playing Dian Fossey in Gorillas in the Mist, and you could not get farther away from a character like Fossey than Katharine Parker.
I would be remiss not to mention Alec Baldwin as Tess’s cad boyfriend, Mick. He only buys her clothes she can wear in the bedroom, and even after sleeping with one of Tess’s friends, can’t figure out why Tess doesn’t accept his poorly timed marriage proposal. He is the “throw-away fiance” of this romantic comedy, but Baldwin plays Mick with surprising depth, rather than coming across as a one-dimensional jerk that we know will eventually push the heroine towards her true love. As Cynthia, Tess’s best friend, Joan Cusack steals every scene she is in with her huge hair, incredible 80’s eye makeup, and thick Staten Island accent. Cusack was nominated by the Academy for Best Supporting Actress for this role, and despite her limited on-screen time, it was well deserved.
There are some very notable plot holes in Working Girl. I couldn’t help but wonder how no one in the company noticed Tess using Katharine’s office or wearing her clothes, not to mention how often Tess is away from the office commandeering this deal with Trask. Also, Jack and Katharine know one another quite well, and Tess uses Katharine’s name to set up a meeting with Jack… yet when they become an item and Jack admits there is another woman in his life, he describes Katharine like Tess wouldn’t know who she is. Did Jack not know where Katharine worked? Did they not speak for the entirety of the three weeks Katharine was in the hospital with a broken leg? Unless I missed something, these issues are never really explained.
Given this was filmed in the ’80s, Working Girl was considered a revolutionary film for how it portrayed women in the corporate world. In a way, it might have even paved the way for movies like The Devil Wears Prada. It’s not as fully feminist as it could have been, but I can see how it helped move film-making in the right direction, placing women front and center rather than keeping them behind the secretary desk.