STILL WORKING 9 TO 5 – Review by Jennifer Green
It’s been just over 40 years since the comedy 9 to 5 premiered to unexpected success in the US. Meanwhile, this year marks the 100th anniversary of the first introduction of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) bill to Congress. A new documentary ties these two milestones together in an engaging exploration of the making of that pioneering film and its connection to the women’s rights movement of the 1970s through today. Though there were 20 million women in the workforce in those days, the documentary notes, stories about female office workers were rare in popular culture. The time was ripe for the project, which cast its leads before it was even written.
Insights like this will captivate fans of the original movie, as will bloopers – including at least one filmed scene that got (fortuitously) edited out. It puts all of this in context to show, as the title alludes, that four decades have still not been enough to level the playing field for working women in real life. But, giving the documentary added relevance, new momentum under President Biden and Virginia’s ratification of the ERA in 2020 has galvanized attention. On Feb. 28, the Senate Judiciary Committee held its first full committee hearing on the ERA since 1984.
The documentary combines archive footage with a wide range of interviews. Stars Jane Fonda, Dolly Parton, Lily Tomlin and Dabney Coleman all offer their recollections, as do producers of the film and its theater adaptation as a musical, which began a UK tour in 2021. Other well-known actors from the spin-off versions, like Rita Moreno and Allison Janney, also chime in. Additional interviewees include founders of 9to5, a working women’s advocacy organization the film was named after, and other activists. The 2021 documentary, 9to5: The Story of a Movement, currently on Netflix, also previously covered this ground.
Fonda, depicted in the documentary as the driving force behind the film project, worked closely with 9to5. She and Gilbert, who had engaged in advocacy and politically inspired film projects together in the past, did significant research, including focus groups that directly informed aspects of the script. For example, a table of secretaries was asked if they’d ever imagined ways to ‘do in’ their bosses. If you’ve seen 9 to 5, you know how that turned out.
Most of the revelations involve the film’s origins. Producer Bruce Gilbert talks about finding inspiration in Preston Sturges political comedies like Sullivan’s Travels (1941). Writer Patricia Resnick interestingly describes her first draft of the script as a much darker comedy. Colin Higgins (Harold and Maude) was brought in for the rewrite and to direct. Gilbert and Coleman both detail how exceptional it was at the time for a film to be packaged and promoted based solely on female stars. Fonda was a controversial public figure coming out of the 70s as well (Parton mentions having to field questions ‘in the South’ about working with her).
The project marked Parton’s acting debut, and her over-preparation – like memorizing the entire script – is endearing. Tomlin admits she turned down the project after reading the final script, feeling some of the comedy was too silly. But when Gilda Radner was considered to replace her, Tomlin came back, urged on by her partner Jane Wagner. Meanwhile, Gilbert describes Coleman, hilarious in the comedic villain role of boss Franklin Hart, as a hard sell to the studio because he was known as a TV actor, and in those days the crossover from small to big screen was much less common.
Coleman recalls being cast alongside the three female titans and playing the “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot.” A deleted scene shows Hart engaging in ugly sexist banter with a male colleague. It’s a smart scene to include in the documentary because it reminds viewers of just how many social messages the film was able to incorporate without ever getting too heavy-handed or nasty. As Coleman notes, you never really hate the scoundrel Hart, and that’s saying a lot. Bloopers and reels include from the classic scenes of reverse discrimination from the ladies, and the star trio appearing to have a ball during filming, like during Parton’s famous line after discovering the wrong body in the car trunk: “Violet honey, would you come over here for a second?”
But this film is about much more than the making of a single movie. The latter section of the documentary, co-directed by Camille Hardman and Gary Lane, focuses on the politics since the film premiered. This may be where some fans of the original film, who might only be looking for reminiscences of that project, could tune out. It’s assumed people who enjoyed the film also believe in its messages of equality, but a sequence of interviews with a seemingly random selection of young women facing pay discrimination still today and commercial-like footage of diverse office settings feel like they belong to a different documentary.
It all comes together in the end. An engaging history covers the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings and the wave of female politicians elected the next year, the evolution of the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act (with interviews with Ledbetter herself), and more recent events like the election of the first female vice president and the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse revelations which helped fuel the #metoo movement. In a twist 9 to 5’s creators might have scripted themselves, Weinstein produced the Broadway version of the film.
Looking back, the film’s creators and stars reflect on just how timely their film was, and how relevant it remains. Moreno suggests it gave women, including herself, permission to stand up and say they wouldn’t put up with discrimination. Parton’s original song for 9 to 5 was nominated for an Oscar, and the documentary’s end credits are set to a recording of a new version of the song by Parton and Kelly Clarkson. As of this writing, that recording wasn’t available to watch anywhere but here. Still Working 9 to 5 is currently playing (and winning awards) at film festivals around the US.