If Office Space was a rallying wake-up cry to Gen Xers who going to have to be forced to sit in cubicles at meaningless jobs for meager wages, then 9 To 5 was the Great Mother that birthed office comedies.
Released in 1980 at a time in which many women had entered the workforce for the first time ever, it was a full showcase of all the sexism, misogyny, harassment and even racism women and non-white employees were dealing with. The status quo to achieve success was, had been, and still is to a degree, For White Men Only.
Jane Fonda, whose production company got the movie off the ground, plays Judy Bernly, a recently divorced woman who’s starting her first job ever. Even though her age is never mentioned, Judy is presumably a 30-something housewife whose Stepford Wives approach didn’t go over with her husband, who had an affair with a co-worker, who was younger, leading to the divorce. She seems to be the typical Middle American housewife of the 1950s-1960s where the Equal Rights Movement wasn’t even on the horizon.
She’s put under the supervision of Violet Newstead (Lily Tomlin) a widowed mother of three, who is older, wiser and more angry at the Boys Club that is corporate America as she works at Consolidated Companies. She’s constantly looked over for promotions and supervisory positions because she doesn’t have a college degree and more importantly, she’s not a man. She’s often referred to as a “girl” by her boss, Frank Hart (Dabney Coleman), who is quick to expect her to do worthless tasks like shopping for gifts and getting her coffee.
There’s also Doralee Rhodes (Dolly Parton), Frank’s secretary who he’s constantly harassing sexually. Doralee’s body size, despite her jovial demeanor, has led others in the office to think she and Frank are having an affair. Thus, Doralee is shunned and treated like a leper by her co-workers.
That is until they all strike back when Frank goes too far. Upset that Frank passed Violet again for a promotion and fired a female worker for a trivial reason as well as Doralee finding out of the sex affair rumors, they kidnap Frank when he tries to extort sex out of Doralee. But it all begins by accident when Violet in anger pours rat poison in Frank’s coffee. But when he leans back in his chair, it breaks and he falls back hitting his head, not even drinking one drop.
Thinking she accidentally poisoned him, Violet and Judy go to the hospital where they meet up with Doralee who rode with Frank to the hospital. Unfortunately, they mistake a patient brought in on a criminal case who dies for Frank. Violet kidnaps the body thinking if she can get rid of it, she can get away clear. Of course, this leads to a screwball sequence of all three actors doing some of their best work.
But when they discover Frank is just fine the next day at work, they talk about it in the restroom not knowing Frank’s sycophantic assistant (and spy) Roz (Elizabeth Wilson) was listening and told Frank. This leads him to extort sex from Doralee but she gets the upper-hand and hog ties him with the telephone cord while she goes to get Violet. Judy comes in and lets him out but when he threatens to go to the police, Judy finds Doralee’s revolver and shoots at him.
They take Frank to his house where his wife is away on a cruise and leave him tied up. Violet discovers Frank has been stealing inventory Consolidated had in a warehouse to pocket the money. Awaiting invoices from New York City, they decide build a way for Frank to remain limited in mobility. Since she can easily forge his signature, Doralee decides to make some changes to the office space for the better.
This results into a more colorful atmosphere in the office space with changing furniture. Workers are now allowed to place personal items on their desks. And they do away with the set hours and allow workers to set their own schedule, even working part-time if needed. The employee who Frank fired is rehired so she can work in the mornings and spend the afternoon with her kids. This increases productivity and morale around the office. At the same time, they send Roz away to Paris to learn French through a company program.
Ironically, not too many people notice that Frank is mostly absent from the office. Nor do they miss him. I’ve found this part to be very amusing. Ever worked at a job where the boss took a vacation and you feel this relief every day? It shows that people don’t quit jobs because of the work but more on the account of their supervisors/managers.
All these changes in the weeks as they await the invoices lead to Frank getting praise from the Chairman of the Board Russell Tinsworthy (Sterling Hayden in a nice role) that results in Frank being pressured into relocating to Brazil to work on a new project, much to the excitement of Judy, Violet and Doralee knowing that he’s gone for good.
Even though this movie was Fonda’s idea, she lets Parton and Tomlin have the most fun in their roles. Even though she had been performing for years as a singer, this was Parton’s first film role and it’s obvious that she’s a natural born movie star. She’s funny and has great chemistry with the other cast. Tomlin also knocks it out of the park. She had been performing for years on TV and the movies and she’s the right choice for a woman who doesn’t take any guff from anyone. Fonda may be known for her more radical life as “Hanoi Jane.” But she’s perfect for Judy’s “gee-golly-gee” persona.
They say good casting is most of what directing a movie is. Colin Higgins who had made Harold and Maude and Foul Play also does a good role of casting Coleman as the “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot” that Frank is. As a matter of fact, Coleman played the role so well, he was allowed to do it again as the soap opera director in Tootsie. I’m sure the actor might be a good guy in real life but he just oozes this sleazy mine-is-bigger-than-yours slimeball attitude.
Fonda said the concept of 9 To 5 was originally written as a drama but it was too preachy. It works best as a comedy the way Office Space showed the pains of that work environment and This is Spinal Tap showed the hard-life of touring as a rock group. For Internationals Women’s Day, which is today, this movie seems more relevant now more than ever.
For the first time in America’s history, a woman is one heartbeat away from the Presidency. European and other nationals have women in power. Yet, it seems we’re still stuck dealing with archaic views on the world. You need only look at Congress to see many other Frank Harts present.
And in the workplace as we are now into the third year of the Covid-19 pandemic and companies pressuring people to return to the office environment, it’s obvious why. Maybe people like Frank Hart are in those office and they’ve realized without people to boss around with strict rules, they are unnecessary and irrelevant. They always have been really. There’s still talk of flexible hours and better pay at work while companies feel that “Hawaiian Shirt Day” and Little Caesars pizza is what we really want.
At the end, Judy, Violet and Doralee toast to the beginning, but it seems we’ve not gotten so far in the last 40 years. Do we really have to resort to hog-tying and kidnapping the corporate bosses to get changes?
What do you think? Please comment.