After watching Dakota Johnson in Fifty Shades of Grey recently, I couldn’t help but be reminded at times of her mother, Melanie Griffith. In no way is Anastasia Steele comparable to Tess McGill, a Staten Island secretary determined to break the glass ceiling, but the actresses’ magnetic screen presence are similar, if only the new film phenomenon was as empowering as Mike Nichol’s 1988 classic, Working Girl.
I first discovered Working Girl about ten years ago as teenager looking for new movies to rent at the library. Weeks earlier I had stumbled across The Graduate; fascinated by the film, I decided to check out all of Mike Nichols’s films. Some I loved more than others, but it was Working Girl that resonated the most with me. For one thing, as an ambitious teenager from a working class family, I desired having the type of business success Tess wanted. It was more than landing the right guy – though Harrison Ford is far from bad – it was about finding your passion and not letting naysayers and circumstance stop you.
At the time Working Girl was made, Melanie Griffith was a surprising choice for the role, but I can’t imagine anyone else playing Tess better than her. When we first meet her, she just landed a job as secretary for Katharine Parker (Sigourney Weaver), an elegant, posh business woman. On the surface, Katharine is the complete opposite of Tess. Katharine has a short hair and wears tailored feminine suits and speaks, frankly, like an adult. Tess is a little more drab, has long, poofy hair and has a high-pitched child-like tone to her voice. They are products of their environments, and while Katharine is clearly thriving in hers, Tess is aspiring for more than a cheating boyfriend and a unmovable secretary job.
Tess has ideas, and when she gets the opportunity to make one of those ideas happen, she goes for it. Assuming Katharine’s role, who is out of work injured from a skiing accident, Tess brings in one of Katharine’s colleagues, Jack Trainer (Harrison Ford), to help her with her first deal for a major company.
The GIF above used to be my favorite line, but as I revisited the movie, I wondered if there was a problem with that. To be both smart and beautiful seemed like the perfect goal. There’s the cliché the beautiful people are stupid and that people lacking in looks make up for it in brains. Tess defies those clichés but also ends up shutting that quote down. Your value isn’t just in your looks or education, but who you are as an individual. It’s that person in you that knows how to make something out of the tools the universe gives you. Tess, while being beautiful, does do that. She realizes she has an idea, she has the tools, so she makes the moves to form the kind of world she wants to be a part of. That line doesn’t really do her much justice because ultimately it isn’t her looks that helps her win at the end, it’s her ideas and motivation, and ultimately, maybe even her kindness. That’s what I found so interesting about her character, that she didn’t need to be harsh or cutthroat like Katherine to make it. She needed to be talented and she used Jack and Katherine’s clothes and status to get to that point where she would get noticed just long enough to be heard.
“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.”
The romance between Tess and Jack is predictable and adds a little swoon to the story, but it’s by far the least interesting part. Seeing Tess return to her old world for her friend’s wedding shower and briefly reuniting with her cheating ex-boyfriend (played by Alec Baldwin), shows just how far Tess has come. She doesn’t cast judgement on her friends and their world. They’re happy, and she wants to be happy. However, it’s the daunting but freeing realization that she doesn’t have to no longer pretend that kind of life had to make her happy.
Working Girl is the type of film I wish we would get more of these days. Obviously, I wish for more of a modernized take on today’s working woman that isn’t emphatically done, but something real, raw and seemingly simply but thoroughly complex, just like Tess.