80s Movie Challenge Week 33: Working Girl (1988)

Welcome back 80s fans! For this week’s #80sMC, now two-thirds of the way through our epic movie marathon, we clock on with Claire Skinner as she guides us through the world of late 80s office politics with 1988’s star-laden Working Girl.

From the opening moments of this classic film with its aerial views of New York in 1988, zooming down to Melanie Griffith and Joan Cusack on the Staten Island ferry, I was filled with nostalgia – nostalgia for a lost world of the Twin Towers, Carly Simon songs, shoulder pads so wide they need their own postcode and hair so big it contains enough hairspray to single-handedly destroy the ozone layer! I remember watching this film in 1988 when I was at University. It brings back fond memories of enjoying Harrison Ford’s shirtless moments on the big screen, and promising myself I would get a perm, which I went onto do the following year (sadly looking more like a frizzy poodle than Melanie Griffith!).

Watching it again, however, it is great to see that this film stands the test of time. The fashions and black and green computer screens may seem outdated but the fundamental issues at the heart of the film, of love, loyalty and relationships, are just as relevant today as they ever were.

It is quickly established that Melanie Griffith’s character, secretary Tess McGill, is an intelligent, ambitious young woman who keeps bumping against the glass ceiling in the financial industry. Her male co-workers call her ‘Tessie’ in a mildly patronising way, but, despite her cute voice and bouffant blonde hair, Tess means business. She is consistently underestimated by her boyfriend, Mick, played by Alec Baldwin (drenched in hair gel and no doubt reeking of High Karate aftershave…) He buys her lingerie which would not disgrace a different kind of working girl than the film’s title implies, but before long he’s betraying her with another woman while Tess is out at her evening classes, pursuing a better life for them both.

Tess’s boss, the ‘sleazoid’ Lutz, sets her up with a “job interview” which takes place in the back of a limousine with a charmer called Bob Speck, played with gusto by Kevin Spacey. Speck is the epitome of coke-sniffing, champagne-swilling, porn-fixated 80s excess. His creepy behaviour towards Tess makes Harvey Weinstein seem like Employer Of The Year…

All these bad experiences with men both at work and at home set up Tess to meet her potential saviour – a female boss, Katharine Parker, superbly played by Sigourney Weaver. However, Katharine is not what she first seems. The film shows that it’s actually quite easy to deal with someone like Speck – his creepy behaviour can be spotted a mile away and his ardour doused with a sprayed bottle of champagne. Far more difficult is the boss who pretends to be your friend and mentor, while stealing your ideas and passing them off as her own. Betrayal by someone who knows the battles Tess has faced – who pretends to offer sisterly solidarity and support while simultaneously stabbing her in the back – is somehow even worse than the betrayal by her partner. Katharine’s relentless egotism throughout the rest of the film, culminating in the shock of her accusing Tess of the betrayal she herself committed, makes me think she was really wasted in finance and should have gone into politics.

At this point, it could be tempting for Tess to write off the entire human race but Jack Trainer, played by Harrison Ford, enters the film just in the nick of time to restore our faith in human nature in general, and men in particular. Trainer becomes Tess’s partner in both business and in life, falling for her in a way which seems very natural and light-years away from the ‘sleazoids’ of her past.

For the rest of the film, we enjoy the schadenfreude of finding out that Tess has not only (accidentally) stolen Katharine’s man, but has shown herself to be every bit as worthy of success as her former mentor. Her turning the tables on her boss by telling the truth to Trask of how she worked out his deal for herself, leads to a well-deserved happy ending for Tess, showing her in her own office, with her own secretary. You are left feeling that despite the competitive financial environment she will tread a different path; one of loyalty, friendship and love, rather than the selfish one of her erstwhile mentor. Tess’s relationships with both Cyn, her best friend, (a great comic turn by Joan Cusack) and with Trainer, go to prove how different she is and how worthy of her success.

There is, of course, a bitter-sweet taste to this ending for the modern viewer – knowing that the World Trade Center shown in the film’s opening and closing moments would be destroyed just over a decade later, and knowing that the financial industry Tess was so keen to join would ultimately plunge our world into recession a few years after that.

This knowledge makes the final soaring hymn-like qualities of ‘Let the River Run’ seem particularly ironic – but then I think it was already intended as such. New York was no more a ‘New Jerusalem’ in 1988 than it is in 2020, and people’s lives have always been a mix of light and dark, pain and joy. The success of Working Girl is in making us care about Tess so much that her path to success becomes something we are deeply invested in, and the moments of comedy and humour throughout the film, combine to lift our spirits and it remains to this day a truly ‘feel-good’ film.

Join us again next week as Paul Childs stays in 1988, but crosses the pond and swaps the world of high-finance for heist-finance as he examines the farce-tastic A Fish Called Wanda.

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