Starting a Movement
Producer and star Jane Fonda nails it: 9 to 5 endures because of its “historical synchronicity.” A wish fulfillment fantasy about secretaries who get back at their abusive boss, the film warrants this 25th anniversary deluxe DVD treatment. Obviously a “woman’s power” message film like many others, what makes it distinctive is its historical context: the film hit a nerve with audiences in 1980 and helped spark workplace reforms. In a raucous commentary track including Lily Tomlin, Dolly Parton, and producer Bruce Gilbert, Fonda argues, “It’s a comedy, but it exposed issues that office workers had been trying to get on the map for a long time. The movie showed that they were real, you know, so it was the beginning of them starting to do something about it. I mean, it really started a movement.”
This “movement” finds inspiration when three secretaries kidnap their boss and hold him hostage, running the office in his absence. They institute equal pay for equal job levels, a daycare center, part-time schedules, job-sharing and flexible hours, and a company alcoholism rehab program (the job was driving the secretaries to drink). As for the link to real world social reforms, Fonda tells us that director and co-writer Colin Higgins (who also directed Harold and Maude) did extensive research with an organization of clerical workers. After the film’s release, that group became a union and called themselves “District 925.”
How does the film speak to us now? While the glass ceiling suggests we still have work to do, co-writer Patricia Resnick notes, today’s labor conditions might make us nostalgic for a 9 to 5 work day. But it may be that the film’s most sustained effect is Dolly Parton. She did and continues to expose the artificiality of gender through her charismatic excessiveness. She’s not only performer to turn herself into a parody of a sex object in a way that both banks on gender stereotypes and critiques them. But her folksy country “town tramp” persona is all hers, constructed with a knowing wink. It’s camp in the sense that we’re all in on the joke with her.
The film combines Parton-as-embodied-critique with a more conventional feminism. Her character, secretary Doralee Rhodes, is initially ostracized by her coworkers. Boss Franklin Hart, Jr. (Dabney Coleman) harasses her and spreads rumors that she’s his mistress. Because of her appearance, everyone believes him. She not only corrects the rumors and displays a singular competence, but also gains respect from her peers by asserting herself and then some.
Parton’s famous theme song expands on this “empowering” theme. (You can sing along to on a “‘Nine to Five’ Karaoke” extra on the DVD). Parton reveals that she had all the women acting in the film sing together on the record, and that she composed the song by listening to the characterizations on the set and the ideas in the film. Best part: she then used her famously outlandish fake fingernails as her rhythm section. Parton says they sounded like a typewriter to her and inspired the song; she “plays her fingernails” to get this typewriter sound, which signifies secretaries toiling away. She jokes, “You’ve gotta have falsies to do this, and the nails have to be artificial as well.”
The song and the film have served as an anthem for frustrated workers everywhere. In the DVD extra, “Nine @ 25,” Parton tartly observes, “Whether you’re a man or a woman, if the boss is a prick, you wish you could do something to him.” Resnick says they were surprised by the huge male and teenaged audience for the film, which she attributes to broad-based frustrations with “any power figure.”
Opposed to this authority are Hart’s assistant Violet Newsted’s (Tomlin), whose great ideas he steals, and idealistic newbie Judy Bernly (Fonda), whom he ridicules. Among the film’s most entertaining scenes are the fantasies during the women’s pot pajama party, as each imagines how she’d get back at Hart. Judy visualizes hunting him down, shooting him, and mounting his head on a wall. Doralee turns cowgirl boss (Fonda says Parton looks like “Barbara Stanwyck with boobs”) and makes Hart play “secretary”: she ropes, hogties, and roasts him on a spit. Violet’s fantasy involves some kickier satire, turning her into a demented Snow White. The woodland animals (animated moppets) look on approvingly as she poisons Hart’s coffee and then catapults him out of the office window with an ejector chair.
The women’s dreams of revenge become a reality when they think Violet has accidentally poisoned him. Though she didn’t, Hart finds out from office snitch Roz (Elizabeth Wilson) that they tried to, and he threatens to send them to jail. They tie him up, promise to blackmail him (they’ve caught him embezzling), and no one even notices he’s absent. When the big boss arrives to reward the jump in productivity, Hart—who has escaped his captivity—is forced to smile and take credit for the women’s reforms. If a paternalistic status quo office has everyone playing her part, 9 to 5 gleefully exposes the power and fury of women let loose.