[For this year’s April Fool’s series, I decided to AmericanStudy a handful of classic 1980s comic films. Leading up to a special weekend post on one of the best comedies, and films, from 2019!]
On one inspiring and two more frustrating characters in a socially thoughtful dramedy.
First things first: I’m a big fan of Mike Nichols’ Working Girl (1988), to the point where I’ve shown it in a couple Writing II classes as our shared multimedia text for a unit/paper where students analyze one of their choice. There are a lot of things that make the film funny and compelling (including a truly great opening and closing credits 80s ballad from Carly Simon), but without question the heart and soul is Melanie Griffith’s career-best performance as protagonist Tess McGill. Griffith delivers the film’s slapstick moments and comic lines pitch-perfectly, and has truly next-level chemistry with her romantic lead Harrison Ford (perhaps not a difficult thing at the height of Ford’s 1980s hotness, but still a vital element of the film’s success); but she also imbues the character with so much charisma, heart, vulnerability, and intelligence that we root for her every step of the way, despite the fact that (and more on this in a moment) she lies and cheats her way through a great deal of the film. I love Tess, love Griffith in this film, and would unequivocally highlight this as one of the decade’s truly great comic and film performances.
We have to be able to critique the things we love, though, and I would say that the film’s other two most significant female characters are both in their own ways more problematic than Tess. That’s more obviously the case for Sigourney Weaver’s Katharine Parker, Tess’s duplicitous boss and the film’s villain. Weaver’s villainy hinges entirely on the fact that she steals a great idea of Tess’s and tries to pass it off as her own (despite her claims to be Tess’s biggest champion), and that is indeed a really awful thing to do. But it’s also pretty parallel to much of what Tess does for the remainder of the film once she learns of that action—with Katharine out of commission after a European skiing accident, Tess quite literally steals her identity, from her home and office and wardrobe to her significant other (Ford’s Jack Trainer), lying constantly in order to maintain these appearances. Because we see where Tess starts and what she’s up against, and again because of Griffith’s wonderful performance, we root for her throughout these moments; yet we’re never given any backstory for or really any contextual information at all about Weaver’s character, which makes it impossible to know if she has had to fight a similar fight and deserves similar sympathies. At the very least, that’s not the best contrast to create or villain to rely on in a film about women’s empowerment.
The film’s third significant female role, Joan Cusack’s delightful best friend character Cyn, is a lot less complicated: mostly a combination of supportive buddy and comic relief, with an occasional moment of conscience about Tess’s manipulations. Cusack is one of our great comic actors, and she unsurprisingly knocks that role out of the park and is another key element of the film’s success. But in terms of the film’s themes, I’d say Cyn presents a bit of a problem: as the film’s ending [SPOILERS, if not unexpected ones I imagine] illustrates, she is presented as purely and entirely happy that Tess has succeeded and gotten the job and life she always wanted; but Cyn and the rest of their friends remain in the office pool from which Tess emerged, and while I suppose one could argue that all of them could be inspired by Tess to follow a similar path, I think it’s more accurate to say that Tess is presented as unique and that neither Cyn nor any of the others are likely to even try for the same next steps. Of course there’s no one path to success or happiness, but this contrast reinforces some overarching class dynamics that are the heart of conversations about work in America but that this funny and fun film isn’t quite willing to get into.
Special post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other 80s comedies (or other comic films) you’d highlight?
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