The shop-girl makes good films gets an update (for the late-80s) in Working Girl. If you look under the hood of this thing, it’s built to last and form a foolproof exterior that runs like a dream. Add in a dash of the battle of the sexes vibrancy from films like Woman of the Year to the mix, and you’ve got the recipe for a crowd-pleasing comedy. It’s pure Cinderella-style fantasy, but there’s a core of spunky, can-do dreamer positivity that is quite fetching.
Working Girl tells the story of Tess McGill (Melanie Griffith), a secretary with big dreams and aspirations but the inability to get them accomplished. After getting a new job with a barracuda (Sigourney Weaver, sensational) who appears sunny and supportive, Tess, through a wacky series of circumstances, falls in a duplicitous plan to grab the brass ring for herself. Along the way she falls in love with an executive (Harrison Ford, charming and ponderous instead of amorous), commiserates with her best friend (Joan Cusack, absolutely golden while alternating between eccentricity and emotional support), and gets caught up in her lies and schemes. Of course, this is basically a feel-good romance so we all know that we’re going to wind up with a happily ever after.
It’s fun to watch Working Girl and realize that Harrison Ford, and Alec Baldwin to a lesser extent, is the sexualized character. There’s a scene where he changes his shirt in front of an open window while all of the female secretary pool watches and applauds. His brief foray into revealing his skin is treated as a peepshow while Griffith’s scenes of undress are more complicated. There’s a scene where she’s wearing the lingerie that Baldwin buys her for her birthday, and she feels exasperated and unfulfilled by the whole ordeal. There’s another where she’s briefly seen vacuuming nearly naked in a frenzy to cleanup Weaver’s apartment before her arrival that’s merely played for laughs and not to arouse the audience.
Tess is not unaware of her place in the world. She’s prone to both describing herself as built with “a head for business and a bod for sin,” and assessing her need for a makeover with the signifiers of appearance, primarily telling Cusack that "serious hair” is imperative. Appearances are everything, and Tess is trying her hardest to not only take night classes to build up her vernacular and acumen, but speech courses to soften her rough Long Island accent and baby-doll voice. There’s more than a little bit of Melanie Griffith in Tess, and this truth brings a vitality and spark to her performance that she distinctly lacks in others.
Griffith was a largely unknown commodity as an actress prior to Working Girl. She’d appeared in two critically acclaimed/cult favorite Jonathan Demme and Brian De Palma films, Something Wild and Body Double, but in no box office hits. If she was known at all, it was through the prism of her relationships with other famous people, mainly her romance with Don Johnson and her famous Hitchcock blonde mother, Tippi Hedren. It’s hard not to read Tess’ yearning for respectability as a reflection for Griffith’s own wants as an actress, and she’s absolutely stellar here. She’s proven to be one of our more inconsistent actresses, but nothing can take away from the variety of moods and humor that she brings to this film. It’s success or failure rides on her leading work, and it’s a success overall. Much like Tess, Griffith made good with Working Girl.