For our latest Weekend Watch, we returned to “Nine to Five,” a comedy about three secretaries — Jane Fonda’s Judy, Lily Tomlin’s Violet and Dolly Parton’s Doralee — who work for a chauvinistic, handsy supervisor (Dabney Coleman). The boss is revolting and soon the women are revolting in an entirely different way: after some sniping, they join forces to overthrow him and establish a more equitable workplace complete with flex time and day care center. It’s a feminist lark with laughs, crude comedy, wafts of pot smoke and a catchy anthem written by Parton.
Released in 1980, the movie followed a wave of feminist activism and shares its name with 9to5, National Association of Working Women. That organization was formed in 1973 and the history on its website could double as an IMDb synopsis: “a group of female office workers started talking about how they were treated at work.” One founder, Karen Nussbaum, was a friend of Fonda’s, and their conversations about sexual harassment in the workplace were a direct inspiration. The idea about doing away with the boss came from secretaries who shared their office stories with Fonda and the director, Colin Higgins. (Julia Reichert and Steve Bognar, Oscar winners for “American Factory,” recently completed a documentary about the movement.)
“Nine to Five” was also part of a boomlet of female-driven films that suggested change had come to the movies.
MANOHLA DARGIS When we started the Weekend Watch in March, theaters had shut down and we were searching for a way to foster a virtual community while in lockdown. But finding a movie to laugh along with can be tough. Old Hollywood is a representational land mine, with casual racism and sexism. Even newer movies don’t necessarily offer better, pleasurably egalitarian choices.
We chose “Nine to Five” as our latest Weekend Watch while The Times was in the middle of turmoil that led to a great deal of internal soul searching. I’d seen the film not long ago, and, despite its flat-footed direction, it seemed like an apt choice. But watching it again amid a national reckoning on race, all I could see — and think about — was how white (and straight) it is. It’s at once empowering and dispiriting, and less a call to revolution than another of the industry’s well-meaning liberal calls for playing nice with power. I love the leads, but still.
“This wasn’t funny in 1980 and it isn’t funny now. If the three protagonists had been black, no one would be laughing. — Barbara A. Lee, NY (via email)
A.O. SCOTT Those leads — and their characters — are more radical than the movie itself. “Nine to Five” might look even more like a fluffy, well-intentioned product of its time if not for the charisma, political savvy and pop-cultural power that Parton, Fonda and Tomlin impart.
In past weeks, we’ve looked at a few stellar examples of comic filmmaking craft, and it’s safe to say this is not one of those. There aren’t a lot of memorable jokes, and the set pieces (the pot-fueled fantasies of killing the boss, Franklin Hart Jr., the shenanigans with the cadaver the women think is his) hardly count as screwball classics. But like a lot of our readers, I would watch these three do anything. I can’t get enough of Tomlin and Fonda in “Grace and Frankie,” even if it’s not always that great a show. And Parton, in addition to being one of the great American songwriters of our time (“Jolene,” “Coat of Many Colors,” “I Will Always Love You”) is … I mean, she’s Dolly Parton.
Part of the fun of the movie is the way their characters refract their well-established public personas. Fonda plays the prim, sheltered Judy absolutely straight and with a fragile dignity that falls away to reveal her wit and toughness. Wit and toughness are the qualities that Tomlin leads with, but we also see how Violet’s confidence has been eroded by the steady poison of humiliation. Doralee starts out as the punchline to a joke — the joke that Parton would often disarm by telling on herself and then turning around.
This is a fable of empowerment that is aware of real obstacles and limitations. Its credibility comes from the knowledge that the three stars, for all the power they may have achieved in Hollywood and Nashville, had been exploited, belittled and taken for granted, too.
I do see its presentation of “workplace sisterhood” as still relevant in the age of social media because, while it can seem dated in the current context of almost everything related to women in the workplace, it also offers what I think remains a clear-eyed view of what women still endure regularly in the office on any number of fronts, from the clueless and tone deaf boss, to demeaning work, to working long hours for generally less pay, to comments on dress and appearance — myriad issues that while perhaps not intractable remain bugaboos in the office. David Guyer, Chicago, IL
DARGIS It’s complicated! The movie is one of those perfect imperfect specimens that ties critics and readers into frayed knots, as our commenters’ discussion underscored. It’s both aesthetically and politically frustrating, and the three female stars, by turns, transcend their material and are dragged down by it. A lot of viewers seemed to have experienced similar whiplash while watching it: laughing and then wincing, repeat. That makes it really interesting to me, partly because its contradictions are emblematic of the paradoxes that drive us nuts about many movies.
One reader, Nicholas Hirst, wrote that the important scene happens after the women’s revolt and “we see a redecorated and enhanced workplace with more diversity and a clear shot of a man moving from his wheelchair to his desk.” I noticed that, too, but was also bummed that the overall efforts are so half-baked. As Elizabeth B wrote “There is no intersectionality in this film which today does not fly.” But then she added that she still prances “around my room to ‘9 to 5’ like no one’s business.” Same, same, even if Parton has caused heartache, as with her (since shuttered) Confederacy dinner theaters, which our colleague Aisha Harris wrote about a few years back.
Part of what I enjoy about going back to certain movies — both those I loved and those I loathed or shrugged at — is exploring how they change but only because we do.
SCOTT At the end, when the chairman of the board shows up (in the person of Sterling Hayden doing Colonel Sanders cosplay), he’s full of praise for the innovations Violet and her team have put in place over Hart’s signature. “Except for the equal pay thing,” he mutters, a sign that change can only go so far. And some of those innovations — couches, open-plan offices, flexible hours — have since become common features of office life. (Others, like job-sharing and child care, should have.) But workers aren’t necessarily happier. As David Kotz and Karen Pfeifer of Northampton, MA noted, “Nine to Five” is both “in sync with the current critique of capitalism” and “realistic about the limits of reform of capitalism.”
Now, as many of us wonder if we’ll ever see the inside of an office again, we can recognize what has and hasn’t changed.
As one of the original organizers of 9to5, Organization for Women Office Workers in Boston (1973) and a former office worker myself, I cannot imagine labeling the hit movie “9to5” as being dated! Jane Fonda spent many hours talking with our members around the country about life in the office. The movie may have exaggerated their stories, but only slightly! I’d say “9to5” the movie was ahead of its time in calling out the boss and showing what can happen when women workers organize. It continues to be relevant today in the gig economy, among restaurant workers, at Amazon, among those engaged in the fight for a $15 minimum wage, etc. Low pay? Check. Poor benefits for working families? Check. Sexual harassment? Check and check! The list goes on. — Janet Selcer, Boston
What annoyed me this time (and never before) was that Franklin Hart got away with his embezzlement. I am sick of white collar criminals and grifters and he is just one more! Brazil doesn’t seem like much punishment. Maybe if they sent him to the branch office in Siberia? Or how about if he just got caught and went to jail? — Leslie H. Nicoll (via email)