Last Saturday, 9 to 5: The Musical opened in Los Angeles in preparation for its Broadway debut in April 2009. The show was initially slotted for 2007, and yet that theater season came and went with no 9 to 5 and no good explanation for the delay. Perhaps producers had trouble finding suitable stand-ins for original movie co-stars Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton. Finding actresses that can sing and sympathetically describe mounting a man’s severed head above the office credenza would be a challenge for any casting director.
Making the decision to retain the film’s 1980 setting must have been easier. While audiences can be grateful they won’t be asked to endure awkward jokes about BlackBerrys or Bangalore, this choice raises another question: Will a 30-year-old comedy about sexism in the workplace feel as period as Mad Men? Has consciousness raising turned into camp? The DVD of 9 to 5, released most recently in a “Sexist, Egotistical, Lying, Hypocritical Bigot Edition,” offers a chance to see how far we have—and haven’t—come.
Fonda and producer Bruce Gilbert designed 9 to 5 to be a statement film about a problem that everyone now knows as sexual harassment. “It was just normal,” Fonda explains in the DVD commentary. “Nobody talked about it.” Eager to break that silence, she and Gilbert interviewed working women about their everyday experiences on the job, and they discovered that “just normal” included more-than-indecent proposals and X-rated quid pro quos. Normal was a boss who passed off your ideas as his own; normal was losing a promotion to a man you’d trained; normal was a barely contained, ever-simmering anger.
The duo presented their findings to screenwriter Colin Higgins, told him who his leads would be—Fonda had already signed up Tomlin and Parton—and asked him to make something of it. Higgins set the script at the blandly ominous Consolidated Companies, an every-office where pantyhose-clad knees are forever one distracted moment away from slamming into the sharp corner of a file drawer. Dropped ceilings and brushed gray aluminum have rarely communicated so much back story.
Yet it’s the psychic strains of the job that dwarf all others. Longtime office manager Violet Newstead (Tomlin) is competence personified, but when she presses boss Franklin Hart Jr.—played by Dabney Coleman and his hips—for a long-overdue promotion, she’s told to shush. Doralee Rhodes is Hart’s secretary, played by first-time actress Parton. Unbeknownst to good-natured Doralee, the whole office believes she’s Hart’s mistress. The source of these rumors? Hart. Judy Bernly (Fonda) is less aggrieved for her own sake than for her co-workers’. When she witnesses a colleague get summarily fired for a small infraction, she immediately rustles over to protest. (The woman demures, “That’s OK, Judy. I wanted to spend more time with my kids anyway.”)
The three women discover common cause one night over drinks at a bar and, later, over a joint in Doralee’s chintz-choked living room. What, they ask themselves, would they like to do to the boss? Elaborate fantasy sequences ensue. Judy puts on a cowgirl outfit, chases Hart around the office with a shotgun, and blows him away as he cowers on the toilet. Doralee, also mysteriously in Western gear, assumes the boss’s job and subjects Hart—now her secretary—to a bitter taste of his own medicine. (“You’ve got a nice ass, Frank! But, you know, you oughta get your pants cut a little tighter; you need to bring ‘em up just a little in the crotch.”)
Vincent Canby panned the film in the New York Times for “waving the flag of feminism as earnestly as Russian farmers used to wave the hammer-and-sickle at the end of movies about collective farming.” But moviegoers seemed to love it. 9 to 5 was the No. 2 box office draw of 1980, second only to The Empire Strikes Back. The movie’s eponymous theme song—written and performed by Parton—topped the Billboard singles chart and quickly became, in Fonda’s words, “a movement anthem.” Even the daffy fantasy sequences were a hit, reportedly drawing approving whoops and hollers at special screenings for administrative assistants and other clerical workers.
Canby saw the movie as a “militant cry for freedom.” Yet it likely wouldn’t have enjoyed nearly as much popularity had the film’s message not come nestled—much like Coleman’s head in one memorable scene—in the zaftig cushion of Parton’s breasts. If American ticket buyers preferred their freedom fighters gussied up like Annie Oakley trolling for a date, well, so be it. And if they preferred farce to drama, that was fine, too. The dour Norma Rae, which was released the previous year, received critical acclaim but had a harder time finding an audience, doing roughly one-fifth of 9 to 5’s business. Comedy, Fonda suggests on the commentary track, was the spoonful of sugar that helped the political theater go down.
Just how do you enact equity and justice in the workplace? Well, if you were to follow 9 to 5’s script, you’d kick off your organizing efforts by (mistakenly) assuming you’d killed the boss in an accident involving a box of Skinny & Sweet artificial sweetener. You’d then steal his body from the hospital (to foil homicide investigators), realize that you’ve got the wrong body in the trunk of your car, discover the boss isn’t actually dead, that he plans on reporting your (alleged) plot to kill him to the police … and, well, you can see we’ve strayed far from EEOC procedure here.
Judy spends the rest of the film in a nightgown baby-sitting Hart—now being held prisoner in his own home, strung up from the ceiling in a harness made of S&M gear and a garage-door opener. Meanwhile, back at the Consolidated offices, Violet and Doralee use his extended absence to implement a slate of reforms: equal pay for equal work, on-site day care, job-sharing, and flextime.
That such progress is achieved only through highly implausible shenanigans is a disappointment: It’s precisely when the filmturns its attention to how the office might be made more responsive to women’s needs that it loses its nerve. Yet what’s bound to strike anybody watching the film now is how progressive those policy recommendations sound even by today’s standards. While women are no longer de facto coffee-fetchers, flextime and on-site day care remain exceptions enjoyed by a lucky few.
Given how much work remains to be done before 9 to 5’s fictional reforms become the new “just normal,” it’s surprising how comparatively toothless many of today’s workplace comedies are. Catch NBC’s The Office, the movie Office Space, or read Scott Adams, and you might imagine that the worst thing that can happen to you at work is boredom. A satire about fax machines being so darn slow is hardly taking political risks. The persistent theme of The Office is that only loser employees invest in their jobs. The smart ones pretend they’re not there.
It will be interesting to see whether 9 to 5’s activist side will survive its transition to Broadway or whether its producers will worry that even in 2008 such anarchic energy needs to be dolled up to fill seats. But much of the material is timeless. One line from the film seems ready-made for an underhand toss to a packed Saturday-night house. “Couldn’t we all just get together and complain?” Judy wails that first night at the bar. Of course not, as any 10-year-old sitting in the audience will understand. Dumb jerks in positions of power don’t tend to budge in the face of mere griping.
Indeed, producer Bruce Gilbert ventures on the commentary that Franklin Hart Jr. stands in for any unscrupulous authority figure, which might be why the film was such a success, and not just with put-upon admins. Everyone could appreciate the itch to resort to strong-arm tactics, and everyone could cheer an egotistical, lying hypocrite’s downfall. Gilbert’s analysis of why men embraced a film that sought to upend the status quo is chewed on for a second. Parton is unconvinced: “I think they just liked the women.”