Film Notes #8: Working Girl (1988)

* SPOILER WARNING: Details about the film will be revealed *

Mike Nichols’ romantic comedy about a plucky secretary from Staten Island is Number 8 in my 30 day Film Notes series.

For newcomers, this month-long series of posts involves me watching a film every day for 30 days.

The following rules apply:

  • It must be a film I have already seen.
  • I must make notes whilst I’m watching it.
  • Pauses are allowed but the viewing must all be one session.
  • It can’t be a cinema release.

The point is to capture my instant thoughts about a movie and my overall film diet for 30 days, as well as post interesting links to the film in question.

Here are my notes on Working Girl (1988) which I watched on Film4 via PVR on Wednesday 29th March.

  • Mike Nichols directed two films released in 1988, the other was Biloxi Blues.
  • Love the snap of how we go straight from the Fox logo right into the opening chord of Carly Simon’s song.
  • Brilliant opening helicopter shot, as the camera swings around the Statue of Liberty to reveal the Twin Towers.
  • Nice fade on to the Staten Island ferry that maintains the smoothness of shot from the chopper – maybe a Steadicam on a built set?
  • When watching films of this period I find it very hard to accept that the World Trade Centre is not there any more.
  • Opening titles reveal the serious talent that worked on this movie: Mike Nichols, Michael Ballhaus (DP), Sam O’Steen (editor), Ann Roth (costumes) and Carly Simon (song).
  • Interestingly Harrison Ford and Sigourney Weaver get top billing over Melanie Griffith – maybe that proves the theme of the film?
  • It is almost a companion film to WALL STREET (1987) – although a comedy-drama, it is about yuppies and the struggle to get promoted in late 1980s New York, and two hungry outsiders (Tess McGill/Bud Fox) who ultimately betray a mentor figure (Katharine Parker/Gordon Gecko).
  • Good screenwriting in the opening scene  – dialogue reveals early on that Tess is thinking of evening classes on her birthday (shows her determination and desire early on)
  • It is a kaleidoscope of 80s fashions on the office floor.
  • Very good contemporary costume work by Ann Roth – sometimes it is easy to forget how hard it is to create a non-period film.
  • Oscars for Best Costume are so often awarded to the obvious period movies.
  • A pre-X Files David Duchovny can be seen behind Alec Baldwin in the surprise birthday scene
  • Alec Baldwin as the Staten Island boyfriend and Kevin Spacey as the coke snorting, champagne swilling arbitrageur shows the depth of talent in the cast.
  • Nichols and his casting director Juliet Taylor have a great eye for talent
  • Drug taking, porn watching and sexism on Wall Street – this is all too relevant to today’s banks. Only now the taxpayer is paying for it!
  • Tess’ revenge on the office floor is brilliant because it really hits Oliver Platt where it hurts (insulting his manhood)
  • Olympia Dukakis in a small but notable cameo as the personnel director (the year her cousin Michael lost out on the Presidency to Bush Snr.)
  • Tess is 30 years old  and it was clever touch to have Sigourney Weaver’s character a few days younger than Melanie Griffith – it gives their relationship an extra tension and Tess more motivation
  • Weaver’s dialogue is great: I wonder how many people were tempted to use that trick of saying “I’m in a meeting rather on another line”
  • Katharine: “Dress shabbily, they notice the dress. Dress impeccably, they notice the woman – Coco Chanel!”
  • Clothes actually important to the story – not only are they are sign of status but an indicator of Tess’ social mobility.
  • Nora Dunn – another fine casting choice. Look out for her as the Christiane Amanpour type in THREE KINGS (1999).
  • Tess reads a lot because “you never know where the big ideas might come from”. Good advice for anyone.
  • The lighting suggests Weaver’s corner office may be a set (if I was watching it in HD I could probably tell)
  • Sam O’Steen’s editing is impeccably smooth – no wonder he Nichols kept returning to him after his legendary work on THE GRADUATE (1967).
  • Weaver’s red dress in the dumplings scene is absolutely striking.
  • Katherine: “Never burn bridges. Today’s junior prick, tomorrow’s junior partner”
  • Tess has a radio idea! Does this tie in with the numerous mergers in the late 80s? Mel Karmazin, Infinity and all that? Or was that later?
  • The uncomfortable reactions from Baldwin towards the idea that Tess has a female boss are well played.
  • It is so perfect that Weaver’s character has a skiing accident – the yuppie boss brought low by the ultimate yuppie sport.
  • Great production design for Weaver’s apartment – the Warhol painting, exercise bike and personal dictaphone all nice touches.
  • Nice use of sound design to reveal key plot point e.g. Katharine has lied and stolen Tess’ idea
  • Early use of email in a film on a IBM PS/2 70 computer  (this was two years before the world wide web was invented!)
  • When Tess catches her boyfriend having sex notice the clever repeated line of dialogue. Baldwin: “No class?” Griffith: “No class”. The question and statement reveal a lot about their characters.
  • For Tess the Staten Island Ferry seems to be her equivalent of the beach at the end of THE 400 BLOWS (1959) – a place where she finds solace in solitude
  • We get Katherine’s full CV in one shot – a typically status obsessed Who’s Who entry.
  • The whole film is basically a morality play about the power a secretary has over her boss – kind of like WALL STREET (1987) meets MY FAIR LADY (1964), but in reverse.
  • The fact that Tess is wearing Katherine’s dress is nice – functions as revenge for stealing her idea and also highlights their respective gulf in salary (Tess has to drop a Valium on learning the price “$6,000!”)
  • Joan Cusack is terrific in a supporting role as Tess friend
  • Tess on justifying cutting her locks off: “You want to be taken seriously, you need serious hair”
  • Harrison Ford – who had top billing remember – only appears about 30 mins into the movie.
  • It is a convenient movie coincidence that Tess and Jack hook up so quickly, but maybe he was subconsciously attracted to Katherine’s dress (which Tess is wearing).
  • Ford was great in the 1980s – in the Indy series and here he showed comic timing, screen presence and old school charm.
  • Note the contrast between Ford’s old school gentleman and Weaver’s hypocritical boss
  • Nice shot composition as Ford offers Tess a nightcap
  • Mercifully Nichols spares us a jazz-flavoured sex scene (all the rage in the 1980s) by tastefully cutting straight to the morning after
  • Nice zoom shot to indicate Tess twigging that she has just spent the night with one of the guys around the table.
  • Is the stock repurchase Tess suggests the same as the leveraged buyouts Gordon Gecko (and actual Wall Street guys were doing).
  • Joan Cusack plays the “coffee, tea, me?” bit perfectly. I imagine Nichols knew it would get an audience reaction.
  • Tess: “Why didn’t you say you were you last night?” Key line which applies to Tess as much as Jack.
  • Jack’s gift to Tess actually means something (although he doesn’t know it yet).
  • Tess’ costume change (“you look different”) marks the distance between her new career and old life
  • Thankfully Nichols resisted the temptation of not having Tess actually wear a red dress to Chris Deburgh’s Lady in Red.
  • Baldwin proposal scene is splendidly awkward.
  • Ford getting changed in his office (and getting applause from his co-workers) is a great visual gag (again the motif of clothes – so key in the workplace).
  • Tess: “I’m not going to spend the rest of my life working my ass off and getting nowhere just because I followed rules that I had nothing to do with setting up.” Let’s get this engraved somewhere. Seriously.
  • Katherine is deliciously saucy in the hospital bed scene. We just know she has done something filthy off-screen with that doctor.
  • Street scenes in New York are where the ADs really earn their dough – you can easily spot extras staring into the camera
  • It’s nice that Jack has some insecurities about deal making that mirror Tess’.
  • Ann Roth’s costumes in the wedding scene are brilliant – note that Tess is wearing a white dress at the wedding but it blends in anyway.
  • Ricki Lake has a cameo at the wedding.
  • This is a wonderful riff on the conventional movie wedding – it plays like a heist scene crossed with a business deal and the acting from Ford and Griffith is delightful
  • Notice how the short scene when they celebrate the deal is free of dialogue – just a passionate kiss
  • Sex scene reflects the occasional awkwardness of love making (e.g. Men have trouble getting their shirts off as the cuffs stick)
  • Simple but effective compositions in the bedroom scene
  • Katharine returns almost like a spoilt child – is the gorilla toy a King Kong reference?
  • Ford and Weaver’s chemistry is fantastic – you really do get the feeling that they’ve been a couple.
  • Solid visual comedy with Griffith eavesdropping on the unsuspecting couple in the bedroom.
  • Katherine: “Can Little Jack come out to play?” LOL.
  • Filofax provides key plot turning point – Katherine is betrayed by Tess (parallels to the way Gecko finds out about Bud’s betrayal)
  • Ford and Griffith convincingly say “I love you” to each other – not an easy thing for any actor ever to do.
  • Note the Arthurian round table, which might reflect Bosco’s good heart.
  • The analogy Philip Bosco’s character makes about the deal with the vehicle stuck in the tunnel is great and reflects the whole story of the film (i.e. Tess is the 10 year old girl who has the good idea)
  • Weaver is splendidly villainous in the climactic boardroom scene
  • Beautiful shot of Tess and the Statue of Liberty at magic hour as she contemplates what might have been.
  • Tess turquoise dress and Baldwin’s tuxedo are more examples of Ann Roth’s costume work. Shades of EDUCATING RITA (1984) in that scene – possibly an influence on the whole script?
  • Katharine: “Oh my god. She’ll stop at nothing!”
  • When Tess does the elevator pitch to Philip Bosco and refers to the Forbes and Page Six articles the talk show host she mentions (“Bobby Stein”) is clearly referring to Howard Stern.
  • The climactic comeuppance for Katharine is beautifully written and played by all concerned (“get your bony ass out of my sight”).
  • Tess on why she didn’t explain the truth earlier: “No one was going to listen. Not to me. I mean, you can bend the rules plenty once you get upstairs but not when you’re trying to get there. And if you’re someone like me, you can’t get there without bending the rules.”
  • Lunchbox briefcase that Jack gives Tess echoes his earlier briefcase present.
  • Really great closing scene. Plays with our expectations and the characters at the same time – that’s proper filmmaking.
  • Tess is also told to hit SHIFT-ESC for her schedule on her IBM DOS PC. Early days for office computers.
  • A great closing scene to a movie can cover all manner of sins. To a really good one it just gives the audience an extra lift e.g. BACK TO THE FUTURE (1985)
  • Tess: “I expect you to call me Tess. I don’t expect you fetch me coffee unless you’re getting some for yourself. The rest, we’ll just make up as we go along. OK?”
  • Film ends on a nice note of female solidarity to balance out all the feuding with Katharine – it also echoes an earlier scene but you get the feeling that Tess is really going to be the boss Katherine should have been.
  • Old school optical effect for the closing shot of Tess in window?
  • Nice symmetry to the beginning and end of the film – camera move pulls back to reveal Tess as part of the Manhattan skyline. This contrasts with the opening where it swooped in on here going to work.