9 to 5 (1980) – Directed by Colin Higgins – Starring Dolly Parton, Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda, Dabney Coleman, Elizabeth Wilson, and Marian Mercer.
I kinda love 9 TO 5.
Over the years I’ve become a bit cold on comedies; it takes a lot for a movie to make me laugh out loud and so I end up determining my overall thoughts on a comedy by how much I enjoyed the characters and the story more than how often a film makes me laugh. 9 TO 5 doesn’t make me burst out laughing very many times but it is a consistently funny story that, yes, very much tells a story about how three women working in an office building grow together to become something more than they were when the film begins.
Judy Bernly (Jane Fonda) is our entry into the world of Consolidated Companies. It’s her first day in her first job and Violet Newstead (Lily Tomlin) has been assigned to show her the ropes. Violet doesn’t want to do it but she really doesn’t have any choice in the matter and so she gives Judy a curt tour throughout the day, telling her what she needs to know to survive at the company.
They work on the floor of Franklin Hart, Jr. (Dabney Coleman), a man repeatedly described as a “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot.” To which he replies, “So I have a few faults – who doesn’t?” As good as Parton, Tomlin, and Fonda are, the film needs a good villain to make it work and Coleman is blisteringly good here as a thoroughly reprehensible boss. To the film’s credit, Coleman’s Hart isn’t one of these one-note villains, either, because even though he spreads lies about his relationship with Doralee Rhodes (Dolly Parton), we see how pathetically desperate for her he is when they’re alone in the office together.
The film wrings plenty of humor from Violet’s dry wit contrasted with the stuffy seriousness of female higher-up Roz Keith (Elizabeth Wilson), but Roz’s other role in the film is to keep the gender dynamic more balanced. 9 TO 5 isn’t a movie where all the women are good and all the men are evil; it’s about how difficult it is for women in the workplace but it’s also a film about how women undermine themselves. Judy is as obsessed with Doralee’s large breasts as Hart is, the difference is that Judy sees them as threatening while Hart sees them as inviting. Violet is repeatedly upset about the silly rules the floor is forced to adhere to, and continually annoyed by Roz’s strict adherence to rules that Violet thinks are bits of silly minutia that have little to do with how the office actually operates.
Judy is not a fan of Doralee in the film’s early stages because her own husband has recently left her after having an affair, but then, no one on the floor is a fan of Doralee since everyone thinks she’s having an affair with Hart. Doralee is unaware of this, confiding in her husband that it hurts her feelings that none of the girls at work like her. Much like Roz is the symbol that not all women are good, Doralee’s husband is the symbol that not all men are bad.
Doralee’s “affair” is finally brought into the open when Violet rips Hart over bypassing her for a promotion that went to a man with less experience than she has, and when Doralee steps in, Violet rips into her, as well, telling her that everyone knows that she’s sleeping with Hart. This leads to Violet storming out of the office to get a drink, and Doralee storming out of the office to get a drink, and Judy storms out of the office to get a drink after a co-worker is fired for discussing salaries in the rest room.
At the bar, the three women get a bit sloshed and commiserate about how unfair things are and what a dick Hart is; when Violet reveals she’s got a joint rolled by her son, the women move the festivities to Doralee’s place, as her husband is out of town, giving them a wholly safe and feminine space to get high, get drunk, and get fat on ribs and junk food. Drunk, high, and sated, the three women fantasize about taking Hart down: Judy wants to hunt him down and mount his head on the wall, Doralee wants to sexually harass him, and Violet wants to be an evil version of Snow White, poisoning Hart’s coffee, as it’s Hart’s insistence on using Violet as a second secretary that drives her quickest to anger.
The ladies’ night is a harmless bit of blowing off steam until the next morning when Violet accidentally dumps rat poison into Hart’s coffee. Hart’s ill-working chair gives out before he can sip the drink and he gets knocked unconscious and taken to the hospital. The women freak out because they think Violet poisoned him, and then the film’s broader comedy begins. There’s a bit of slapstick silliness as Violet steals what she thinks is Hart’s dead body from the hospital, and the women bicker as they try to figure out what to do, the previous night’s fantasies now made horrifyingly real.
Hart, of course, is fine and the women realize this the following day when he comes strolling into the office. They nervously chatter about the previous day in the bathroom, unaware that Roz is hiding in a stall and taking notes. Roz tells on them and Hart goes ballistic, threatening to call the cops, which escalates the violence quotient as the women end up taking Hart hostage.
It’s completely ridiculous, of course, but a perfectly acceptable escalation of the power struggle between Hart and the women. They keep him tied up at his place as they try to figure out a way to blackmail him and find a peaceful solution to their problem. An opportunity arises as they realize Hart has been cooking the books, but because of stuff going on at corporate HQ, they can’t get the data for a few weeks. During this time, the film focuses on the back-and-forth between the ladies and the tied-up Hart, but there’s also a lot going on at the office. The women begin installing new operating procedures, allowing the women to have flexible hours and opening a day care center. To cover themselves, they give Hart credit for all of these changes, which ends up providing the solution that keeps them out of jail.
Hart works himself free but still plays the prisoner in order to neutralize the women’s blackmail plan, but when he returns to the office to have them arrested, he’s confronted by the company’s chairman, who wants to congratulate him on all the positive changes in the office. Hart is flabbergasted but can’t out the women if he wants to get the glory, and Coleman plays Hart brilliantly in this sequence as a man caught between getting what he wants personally (to see the women jailed) and what he wants professionally (the chairman’s adoration). For a moment, it appears that this whole episode will end with Hart and the women joining forces; for the first time Hart allows Violet to get a bit of the glory as she explains the newly implemented procedures to the boss, but Hart is simply too toxic a character for him to, as he would put it, come down to the ladies’ level.
Instead, the chairman promotes him to the company’s Brazil offices. Hart doesn’t want to take it, but he’s got no choice as the chairman strong-arms him as he’s been strong-arming the women on his floor.
If this movie was released today instead of thirty-two years ago, it’d probably end with some uplifting Beyonce song but it’s an ’80s film, which means it ends with one of those “update montages” that tells us the fate of the characters: Violet gets promoted, Judy marries the Xerox rep, Doralee quits to become a country and western singer, and Harts gets kidnapped in the Amazon and never seen again. That last bit is a cheap shot the film doesn’t need, as sending Hart to Brazil is victory enough, but it’s a small misstep in an otherwise highly enjoyable film about female bonding and the perils of the workplace.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the Dolly Parton-written and performed theme song, a powerful ode to the working class. It’s a pretty darn great song, and here it is, with Ms. Parton performing the song with, um, Disney characters.