Skip to main content

It’s like paradise with little golden palm trees.

Working Girl

(SPOILERS) There’s something insidious and repellent at the heart of Mike Nichol’s big business Cinderella story, a How to Succeed at Business by Reading the Rags. Wall Street, for all that Gordon Gekko became a bad boys’ hero, had the good grace to say outright that greed was bad. Working Girl tells you it’s only bad when there isn’t a level gender playing field. And that, if there are only two women in the room, one of them has to go. But because it’s accompanied by that so-damn-aspirant, surging, uplifting Oscar-winning Carly Simon tune (Let the River Run), Working Girl encourages any objections to relapse into sharp relief.

Pauline Kael had it right when she observed “We’re supposed to be cheered by watching Tess become part of the establishment…” We’re supposed to be pulled along in the uplift of female empowerment, as long as it’s the right kind. But is there a right kind? Hollywood does its bit to support the cause, but what it’s really telling you is no good can come of such presumptions. Women in business break up families, not dutiful housewives (Fatal Attraction). But any significant level of power is itself dangerous (Aliens). There, and here, it takes the “good” woman to destroy the bad, or the bitch. So Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley must destroy the Alien Queen, and Melanie Griffith’s Tess McGill must destroy Sigourney Weaver’s Katherine Parker. Or be destroyed/devastated themselves.

Suiting this boom or bust are Working Girl’s opening stages. Tess starts off in a crummy office environment surrounded by scumbag co-workers (including Oliver Platt’s David Lutz, “a sleazoid pimp with a tiny dick” and Kevin Spacey’s Bob in arbitrage, a coke-snorting porn hound, so setting the scene for Spacey’s subsequent career, offscreen and on, attraction to Griffith notwithstanding). She gets splashed in the rain by passing cars. She – and all her female friends and co-workers – is also suffering from a BIG hair nightmare of the sort that was at least intentionally cartoonish in the same year’s Married to the Mob. If everyone resembles coke addicts, it sounds like most on set were (Griffith was called out by Nichols on the first day and made to pay the expenses for wasted time, since he stuck his neck out securing her the role). But don’t worry, we’ve got Carly Simon instructing you to hang on in there, along with sumptuous helicopter shots of the Statue of Liberty announcing your dreams can come true. Euphoric stuff.

Plus, Tess is miraculously – read annoyingly – ingenuous. Her entire repertoire of insights comes from a gluttonous diet of newspapers and magazines (“You read W?”), running the gamut of suggesting luncheon items to spotting potential business deals. It’s in the latter department that Katharine naturally tries to do her over. Griffith seemed ubiquitous in the late ’80s, but the truth was, a smattering of roles attracted a disproportionate amount of attention: Body Double, Something Wild and this. She received an Oscar nod for Working Girl, but I don’t really think it was warranted (only Joan Cusack and the earworm Simon song were, really. And the latter strictly relatively so).

I’m also doubtful the public were interested in her as a star attraction. For all the attention it received, and the star support from Weaver and Harrison Ford, the movie was only a modest hit. You’ll be hard pressed to find Griffith in a big success subsequently. Kael, with both the Brian De Palma and Jonathan Demme movies in mind, suggested Nichols was “trying to let a bit of tackiness into a big budget movie”. She may have been right; nothing speaks tacky like vacuuming topless, and Nichols, for all his and writer Kevin Wade’s virtue signalling (while ritually humiliating the other main female character), they’re very keen to put their leading lady in leery lingerie and suspenders.

But Kael’s also right that Nichols’ intention is something else. He makes Griffith an anodyne “cuddlebug”, divorcing her from the essential free-range sex of those previous roles, and shoehorning in the famous “I have a head for business and a bod for sin”, a trailer line rather than anything we actually believe of the character.

Griffith, with her sleepy coquettish squeak of a delivery, comes on like a quaaluded Monroe in a Horlicks factory. That kind of thing has a limited shelf life, and if it was perfectly utilised by Demme, here it’s rather a mismatch of packaging. She’s good at being out of it (tequila), but her delivery makes you assume everyone involved is humouring her. Which is surely exactly the point Nichols didn’t want to make. Tess’s success only serves to emphasise this is a fantasy, one with its Prince Charming (Ford) and wicked witch (Weaver). Come the end, Tess gets her crown and throne room (executive job and office). So maybe it was Griffith, or maybe the writing was already on the wall post-Crash for this kind of business fare. Two years later she’d be in stinker The Bonfire of the Vanities. Being a stinker didn’t help, but no longer being a hot topic was equally an issue.

Unlike Stone, Nichols and Wade have no interest in who gets crushed or left jobless by the acquisition that is key to Tess’s rise; big business and greed are good as long as you have scruples, but for how long? Tess is very nice to her secretary at the end, but perhaps we should see how she’s faring three months down the line. Weaver is aces, earning two nominations at that year’s Oscars (the other for Gorillas in the Mist), but while there’s a lot of canniness in Katherine’s ability to work the system (buttering up colleagues, pilfering proposals), there’s very little to suggest any actual acumen.

Which may make her an equal opportunities villain, but it means it’s easy to make the entire character a simple mockery, and therefore of women in the workplace, unless they’re bad Marilyn impersonators. Katherine’s ski trip accident is played for laughs, and then there are the strangely lecherous orderlies buzzing around her in hospital, who appear to have strayed in from a John Landis movie. The ultimate scouring comes from Griffith herself, resorting to shallow, petty body shaming as a victory lap (“Now get your bony ass out of my sight”), an insult then repeated by the menfolk, eager to get in on the act. It’s a more effective summary of the movie’s actual content than any Carly Simon warbling.

If Weaver is nevertheless a juggernaut as the conniving bitch, the question relating to the third party in this love triangle must be: Is this where Ford became boring? He was in his mid-forties when he made Working Girl, having just done some of his career-best work in back-to-back Peter Weir pictures, but the movie signals the beginning of his everyman phase, sinking into underplaying, sporting suits and straight haircuts (or occasionally “provocative” ones in Presumed Innocent). He’d be a normy in Frantic the same year, and even his subsequent action roles (Jack Ryan, Richard Kimble, the President) would be signalled by constipated quavering that would eventually devolve into sleep-inducing torpor.

I can believe Jack Trainer as a slightly dull businessman, but not as an effective romcom sparring partner. I mean, Ford’s fine, but that’s exactly the refrain that greeted much of his subsequent work. Middling. Okay. Not stretching himself. Complacent. Jack/Harrison is so decent, of course, his taking Tess’s clothes off – à la Vertigo – and sleeping in the same bed (!) are perfectly innocent (clearly more designed to create a tension than anything, and crudely so; I mean, what if he’d turned over so blissfully in his sleep while she was still there?). It would be that way for Ford until he got himself an earring and tried to drown Michelle (amusingly, an anecdote here has him tell of his chin scar resulting from a teen belief it would be “cool to have a pierced ear”; some things will never change).

This is really a movie to look for the rewards around the edges, though. I’ve mentioned Spacey and Platt, who would carve out a niche as the disreputable support or puffy sidekick, or both simultaneously. He’s in the same year’s Married to the Mob, along with Alec Baldwin, who is Tess’s trash-monkey, lingerie -buying boyfriend here. Yes, Tess swaps one Jack Ryan for another. And in stark contrast to Ford, Baldwin is hungry. You only need look at his selection of supporting parts during this period (Talk Radio, Married to the Mob, She’s Having a Baby, Beetlejuice, Great Balls of Fire!) and they stand as far more impressive than most of his subsequent star-player work.

Olympia Dukakis (recently departed) has a cameo as Tess’s personnel director, while Joan Cusack steals the entire movie with her unrestrained and hilarious come-ons: “Coffee, tea, me?” she asks Jack. Even Ford thinks she’s funny. It’s the only moment in the movie where he looks like he has a pulse. You can also spot David Duchovny at Tess’s birthday.

Working Girl received a mystifying Best Picture nomination (everything else in the line-up is way better). I’m all for elevating the status of romcoms, but this one isn’t nearly sharp enough to deserve the recognition. It’s curious too that the noms were so loaded in favour of names: the three actresses, Simon and Nichols. Nothing writing or technical (I mean, this was the year Big, that popular paean to paedophilia, received a Best Original Screenplay nomination). The Working Girl model wouldn’t go away, of course; such undiluted slavishness to corporate greed might be a no-no later, but couch it in a rite of passage and you could still have fun with the model (The Devil Wears Prada). Ah, the ’80s. Such simpler times.

Popular posts from this blog

I’m smarter than a beaver.

Prey (2022) (SPOILERS) If nothing else, I have to respect Dan Trachtenberg’s cynical pragmatism. How do I not only get a project off the ground, but fast-tracked as well? I know, a woke Predator movie! Woke Disney won’t be able to resist! And so, it comes to pass. Luckily for Prey , it gets to bypass cinemas and so the same sorry fate of Lightyear . Less fortunately, it’s a patience-testing snook cocking at historicity (or at least, assumed historicity), in which a young, pint-sized Comanche girl who wishes to hunt and fish – and doubtless shoot to boot – with the big boys gets to take on a Predator and make mincemeat of him. Well, of course , she does. She’s a girl, innit?

Everyone creates the thing they dread.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) (SPOILERS) Avengers: Age of Ultron ’s problem isn’t one of lack. It benefits from a solid central plot. It features a host of standout scenes and set pieces. It hands (most of) its characters strong defining moments. It doesn’t even suffer now the “wow” factor of seeing the team together for the first time has subsided. Its problem is that it’s too encumbered. Maybe its asking to much of a director to effectively martial the many different elements required by an ensemble superhero movie such as this, yet Joss Whedon’s predecessor feels positively lean in comparison. Part of this is simply down to the demands of the vaster Marvel franchise machine. Seeds are laid for Captain America: Civil War , Infinity Wars I & II , Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok . It feels like several spinning plates too many. Such activity occasionally became over-intrusive on previous occasions ( Iron Man II ), but there are points in Age of Ultron whe

I’m the famous comedian, Arnold Braunschweiger.

Last Action Hero (1993) (SPOILERS) Make no mistake, Last Action Hero is a mess. But even as a mess, it might be more interesting than any other movie Arnie made during that decade, perhaps even in his entire career. Hellzapoppin’ (after the 1941 picture, itself based on a Broadway revue) has virtually become an adjective to describe films that comment upon their own artifice, break the fourth wall, and generally disrespect the convention of suspending disbelief in the fictions we see parading across the screen. It was fairly audacious, some would say foolish, of Arnie to attempt something of that nature at this point in his career, which was at its peak, rather than playing it safe. That he stumbled profoundly, emphatically so since he went up against the behemoth that is Jurassic Park (slotted in after the fact to open first), should not blind one to the considerable merits of his ultimate, and final, really, attempt to experiment with the limits of his screen persona.

If you ride like lightning, you're going to crash like thunder.

The Place Beyond the Pines (2012) (SPOILERS) There’s something daringly perverse about the attempt to weave a serious-minded, generation-spanning saga from the hare-brained premise of The Place Beyond the Pines . When he learns he is a daddy, a fairground stunt biker turns bank robber in order to provide for his family. It’s the kind of “only-in-Hollywood” fantasy premise you might expect from a system that unleashed Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man and Point Break on the world. But this is an indie-minded movie from the director of the acclaimed Blue Valentine ; it demands respect and earnest appraisal. Unfortunately it never recovers from the abject silliness of the set-up. The picture is littered with piecemeal characters and scenarios. There’s a hope that maybe the big themes will even out the rocky terrain but in the end it’s because of this overreaching ambition that the film ends up so undernourished. The inspiration for the movie

Death to Bill and Ted!

Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991) (SPOILERS) The game of how few sequels are actually better than the original is so well worn, it was old when Scream 2 made a major meta thing out of it (and it wasn’t). Bill & Ted Go to Hell , as Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey was originally called, is one such, not that Excellent Adventure is anything to be sneezed at, but this one’s more confident, even more playful, more assured and more smartly stupid. And in Peter Hewitt it has a director with a much more overt and fittingly cartoonish style than the amiably pedestrian Stephen Herrick. Evil Bill : First, we totally kill Bill and Ted. Evil Ted : Then we take over their lives. My recollection of the picture’s general consensus was that it surpassed the sleeper hit original, but Rotten Tomatoes’ review aggregator suggests a less universal response. And, while it didn’t rock any oceans at the box office, Bogus Journey and Point Break did quite nicely for Keanu Reev

I think it’s pretty clear whose side the Lord’s on, Barrington.

Monte Carlo or Bust aka  Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies (1969) (SPOILERS) Ken Annakin’s semi-sequel to Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines tends to be rather maligned, usually compared negatively to its more famous predecessor. Which makes me rather wonder if those expressing said opinion have ever taken the time to scrutinise them side by side. Or watch them back to back (which would be more sensible). Because Monte Carlo or Bust is by far the superior movie. Indeed, for all its imperfections and foibles (not least a performance from Tony Curtis requiring a taste for comic ham), I adore it. It’s probably the best wacky race movie there is, simply because each set of competitors, shamelessly exemplifying a different national stereotype (albeit there are two pairs of Brits, and a damsel in distress), are vibrant and cartoonish in the best sense. Albeit, it has to be admitted that, as far as said stereotypes go, Annakin’s home side win

This entire edifice you see around you, built on jute.

Jeeves and Wooster 3.3: Cyril and the Broadway Musical  (aka Introduction on Broadway) Well, that’s a relief. After a couple of middling episodes, the third season bounces right back, and that's despite Bertie continuing his transatlantic trip. Clive Exton once again plunders  Carry On, Jeeves  but this time blends it with a tale from  The Inimitable Jeeves  for the brightest spots, as Cyril Basington-Basington (a sublimely drippy Nicholas Hewetson) pursues his stage career against Aunt Agatha's wishes.

Poetry in translation is like taking a shower with a raincoat on.

Paterson (2016) (SPOILERS) Spoiling a movie where nothing much happens is difficult, but I tend to put the tag on in a cautionary sense much of the time. Paterson is Jim Jarmusch at his most inert and ambient but also his most rewardingly meditative. Paterson (Adam Driver), a bus driver and modest poet living in Paterson, New Jersey, is a stoic in a fundamental sense, and if he has a character arc of any description, which he doesn’t really, it’s the realisation that is what he is. Jarmusch’s picture is absent major conflict or drama; the most significant episodes feature Paterson’s bus breaking down, the English bull terrier Marvin – whom Paterson doesn’t care for but girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) dotes on – destroying his book of poetry, and an altercation at the local bar involving a gun that turns out to be a water pistol. And Paterson takes it all in his stride, genial to the last, even the ruination of his most earnest, devoted work (the only disappoint

Just because you are a character doesn't mean that you have character.

Pulp Fiction (1994) (SPOILERS) From a UK perspective, Pulp Fiction ’s success seemed like a fait accompli; Reservoir Dogs had gone beyond the mere cult item it was Stateside and impacted mainstream culture itself (hard to believe now that it was once banned on home video); it was a case of Tarantino filling a gap in the market no one knew was there until he drew attention to it (and which quickly became over-saturated with pale imitators subsequently). Where his debut was a grower, Pulp Fiction hit the ground running, an instant critical and commercial success (it won the Palme d’Or four months before its release), only made cooler by being robbed of the Best Picture Oscar by Forrest Gump . And unlike some famously-cited should-have-beens, Tarantino’s masterpiece really did deserve it.

Piece by piece, the camel enters the couscous.

The Forgiven (2021) (SPOILERS) By this point, the differences between filmmaker John Michael McDonagh and his younger brother, filmmaker and playwright Martin McDonagh, are fairly clearly established. Both wear badges of irreverence and provocation in their writing, and a willingness to tackle – or take pot-shots – at bigger issues, ones that may find them dangling their toes in hot water. But Martin receives the lion’s share of the critical attention, while John is generally recognised as the slightly lesser light. Sure, some might mistake Seven Psychopaths for a John movie, and Calvary for a Martin one, but there’s a more flagrant sense of attention seeking in John’s work, and concomitantly less substance. The Forgiven is clearly aiming more in the expressly substantial vein of John’s earlier Calvary, but it ultimately bears the same kind of issues in delivery.