Whether fighting a class-action lawsuit in a push-up bra, kidnapping a boss for progressive office improvements or embezzling wads of cash, women in the workplace have always made for intriguing cinematic fodder.
They also reflect changing, evolving or, sometimes, de-evolving attitudes and actions concerning career gals in society, something that's been relevant since, really, the beginning of film. And Hollywood never tires of the topic. The newest take, The Devil Wears Prada, pits a wide-eyed young assistant (Anne Hathaway) against her superior, a New York City magazine editor and ultimate Boss-zilla played by Meryl Streep. With this new look at the working woman, I thought of other memorable cinematic depictions -- some considered role models, some questionable, some just plain bad and some, mentally disturbed.
But no matter what they are, all the women here go against this famed, funny quote from Spencer's Tracy's drinking buddy in Woman of the Year (on my list): "Women should be kept illiterate and clean, like canaries."
No way. What kind of movies would be made about them?
Name: Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway)
Job Title: TV executive
Strengths: Ambitious, brassy, ballsy, idea-driven, helps create modern television as we know it
Weaknesses: A power-hungry bitch, bad in bed, encourages Howard Beale (Peter Finch) to continue his nervous breakdown on TV, helps create modern television as we know it
Final Analysis: Is this what the modern-day working woman would become? For some work-a-holic ladies, yes. Dunaway's blistering, brilliant performance as Diana shows how climbing the ladder and allowing career to take precedence over every other aspect of one's life could be, well, a tad limiting in terms of leading any kind of nourishing personal existence. Though some view this character as misogynistic, Dunaway's power-hungry future media mogul is just like any human, man or woman, who's entirely caught up in personal ambition -- she's just given some additional symbolic layers as a woman. Deservedly, Dunaway won a Best Actress Oscar for her role.
His Girl Friday (1940)
Name: Hildegaard 'Hildy' Johnson (Rosalind Russell)
Job Title: Newspaper reporter
Strengths: Crackerjack newswoman, super clever, ultra quick with the quip, has ex-husband/editor Walter Burns' (Cary Grant) heart
Weaknesses: Insensitivity to her fiancée (played by Ralph Bellamy) whom she certainly won't marry. She'll never have any kind of typical family life, but then, when you're with Cary Grant, who cares?
Final Analysis: Working in the boys' club of the newsroom, Russell's character isn't an overly ambitious shrew full of swaggering show; she's completely on the same level as every guy tapping out his copy. And the men not only know it, but wholly embrace it. What makes her interesting as an example of working women is that she feels it necessary to begin a "normal life" and attempts an ill-fated second marriage to pushover Bellamy. But ex-editor Grant can smell the play-acting a mile away, getting under her skin as only an ex-husband you're still in love with can. His Girl Friday says, with positive grit, that we need Hildy, not in the kitchen, but in the newsroom, full of rat-a-tat banter and, sometimes, heartless scoops. And you've got to love a movie in which an ex-husband teases, "Why, Hildy! You've got the old-fashioned idea that divorce is something that lasts forever, 'til death do us part.' Why, divorce doesn't mean anything nowadays, Hildy, just a few words muttered over you by a judge." This was made in 1940?
Woman of the Year (1942)
Name: Tess Harding (Katharine Hepburn)
Job Title: Political columnist
Strengths: Savvy, worldly, multi-lingual, exceptionally intelligent, has immensely sexy chemistry with Spencer Tracy
Weaknesses: Questionable mother with her short-term adopted child, neglects husband, can't make a proper breakfast
Final Analysis: Can women really have it all? According to Woman of the Year -- no. But then men don't necessarily get everything they want either, especially if married to Hepburn's Tess Harding. She's a revered columnist who's not just a working woman but a national icon. And the film reveals realistic chinks in one celebrated feminist's armor. Sure, she can engage in a whirlwind romance and marry sports writer Tracy, maintain all of her jobs, travel the world, entertain illustrious friends and adopt a Greek orphan, but, like any mere mortal, there's not a chance in hell she can give all these areas equal attention. Especially the orphan, whom Tracy returns (can you imagine this happening in a movie today?) due to his wife's poor mothering skills. Still, neither the film nor Miss Hepburn ever demonizes Tess. She's frustrating to her husband and imperfect, but no one's telling her to change -- just slow down a bit. It's something everyone should do.
Working Girl (1988)
Name: Tess McGill (Melanie Griffith)
Job Title: Brokerage-firm receptionist
Strengths: Smarter than she looks, determined, desires better for herself
Weaknesses: Terrible shoulder pads, potentially annoying baby-doll voice
Final Analysis: Working Girl reveals the myriad questions that a woman with a "head for business and a bod for sin" endures while making her way up the corporate ladder. Will people refrain from judging her blue-collar roots? Will they really take her night-school MBA seriously? Will her strident, idea-stealing female boss (played memorably and, to some, unfairly, by uber bitch Sigourney Weaver) ever give her a fair shake? Well, no on all counts. Which is why Tess bends the rules in her whole, silly Secret of My Success switch-a-roo, pretending to have her boss' job after the harpy breaks her leg on a ski trip. While impersonating your boss probably isn't the most realistic way to find career success, Working Girl does examine not only male/female sexism but female/female sexism, snobbery and class-ism in the workplace. And Melanie Griffith vacuums in the nude.
Erin Brockovich (2000)
Name: Erin Brockovich (Julia Roberts)
Job Title: Legal secretary
Strengths: Crusader for justice, sharp-tongued, street savvy
Weaknesses: Bad temper and a few questionable cleavage-baring outfits
Final Analysis: Based on a true story, Erin Brockovich showed that a hot temper, a big heart and a heavy-duty push-up bra can do wonders for a career woman. It also showed that many women don't know just how powerful they are (past some hoochy-mama get-ups and a big mouth) until they tap into their true passion and positive goals. It all sounds very kumbaya/Oprah, but the film's just gritty, fun and quirky enough to pull off its "You go, girl" message. It helps that a sassy, almost harsh Julia Roberts (Julia makes for a better near-bitch in this writer's opinion) plays the titular character, a single mother whose low-paying, no-benefits legal secretary job with ambulance chaser Ed Masry (a terrific shaggy-dog Albert Finney) hits her justice jugular. Aiding the toxic-addled residents of a Southern California town, Brockovich is tireless, no B.S. and yes, victorious.
9 to 5 (1980)
Job Titles: Secretaries
Names: Judy Bernly (Jane Fonda), Violet Newstead (Lily Tomlin), Doralee Rhodes (Dolly Parton)
Strengths: Efficient, sympathetic, out-of-the-box thinkers, want to spearhead progressive work programs
Weaknesses: Judy can't understand the copying machine. And there's that whole business of kidnapping and humiliating their boss.
Final Analysis: Though comedic, 9 to 5 was a revolutionary film for 1980. Touching on issues like sexual harassment, gender discrimination and the difficulties of working mothers, the picture tackled its hot-button topics via kooky (the humorless might argue offensive) antics at the hands of three very different secretaries. Sick of the coffee-fetching, pencil-dropping, man-favoring entreaties of their boss (Dabney Coleman, who could trademark this character), the women bond together to avenge his "lying, sexist, hypocritical" ways. And what does that entail? Holding him hostage in an elaborate bondage contraption while wondering just what they're going to do with him. In the meantime, they take over the office and prove (maybe in P.C. fantasy) that all their ideas (including in-work day care) better the company. In the hands of Tomlin, Fonda and Parton, the film manages to remain charmingly down to earth even while extremely over-the-top. And you can never get Parton's theme song out of your head.
The Apartment (1960)
Name: Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine)
Job Description: Elevator operator
Strengths: Personable, a lovely button pusher
Weaknesses: In an office affair with a married man. Clearly a bad idea.
Final Analysis: Though Billy Wilder's Oscar-winning picture is really more about the male office world, with Jack Lemmon's amiable, struggling nice guy C.C. Baxter sleeping his way to the top (bi-proxy), its vision of women in the workplace is too intriguing to ignore. Especially those women who aren't necessarily climbing the corporate ladder, but are instead attempting to find a husband -- or break up a marriage. In the process of allowing his bosses the use of his apartment for various amorous dalliances with young ladies, Lemmon stumbles on one affair that rubs both him and the audience the wrong way. The company's cute, clever elevator operator, Fran Kubelik (MacLaine), is having a major fling with personnel big-wig Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), a married man and certifiable cad who's never going to leave his wife. What's intriguing about this depiction is how darkly but ultimately non-judgmentally Fran's character is drawn. She makes some bad choices (as do many ladies working for him), but clearly it's tough for the lower-rung working girl, especially if she actually finds herself in love. And, other than staying away from lecherous superiors, the movie really supplies no answers aside from this: Try falling in love with the right guy. In this case, Jack Lemmon, which ain't half bad.
Baby Face (1933)
Name: Lily Powers (Barbara Stanwyck)
Job Title: File clerk and...
Strengths: Strong enough to pull herself out of a speakeasy life, terrific powers of, uh, persuasion
Weaknesses: Problems with ethics. Big problems with ethics.
Final Analysis: So brazen was Baby Face that the censors snipped five terrific minutes out of the picture, hoping viewers would leave with, perhaps, a less shocked look on their face. I'm assuming the trick didn't work as the movie (now with restored minutes intact) is considered one of the raciest films of the '30s. It certainly is one of the raciest films ever made about working women, utilizing both the plucky, hard-boiled sex appeal of a young Barbara Stanwyck and the dark concerns of the Depression -- how desperation can crumble one's morality -- to wonderful effect. Stanwyck is the comely lass who, after her horrific, pimping father dies, leaves a small-town speakeasy for a job in a New York City bank. In a very obvious depiction of sleeping her way to the top, Stanwyck literally ascends the stories of the office building, leaving scores of used men (one, a very young John Wayne) behind her. She ultimately becomes a kept woman -- happily so -- until a tragedy gums up the works. But she's still hard-hearted and out for herself, something that's surprisingly sympathetic, almost glorified in the film. Baby Face makes you realize there was no such thing as "the good old days." Or certainly, any kind of innocence.
Names: Iris Chapman (Toni Collette), Margaret Burre (Parker Posey), Paula (Lisa Kudrow), Jane (Alanna Ubach)
Job Title: Office temps
Strengths: They all really want to please their employers for an ever-important recommendation
Weaknesses: Eventual, though highly understandable, bad attitudes
Final Analysis: Clockwatchers is so underrated and under-watched many don't know just how topical and painfully real it is. Enduring Kafka-esque nightmares of data entry, pencil arranging and desk re-alignment to no discernable gain, the temps of Clockwatchers would like to get through just one day with one full-time employee acknowledging their existence. In the process, the four young, very different women become friends, a touching and sometimes hilarious situation that further comments on their existential plight. Clockwatchers soars because it's not 9 to 5 -- these ladies have no power other than one brave soul (an unforgettable Parker Posey) striking for a day and, in turn, getting fired. It's probably the best thing that ever happened to her. But then, who knows? Director Jill Sprecher (who was inspired by Olmi's Il Posto) called her work an "anti-female-bonding movie" and boy, is she right, as the women's friendships fade bit by bit once they leave the company. This sounds depressing, and it is, but it's also whip-smart funny and powerfully philosophical.
Names: Marnie Edgar/Margaret Edgar/Peggy Nicholson/Mary Taylor (Tippi Hedren)
Job Title: Secretary
Strengths: Attempts to stay away from any kind of romantic entanglements with men in the office. Clearly efficient. Smart dresser.
Weaknesses: We'll have to go with the massive theft from various employers. Also, her nutty problem with red ink.
Final Analysis: You might wonder why Alfred Hitchcock's psycho-sexual thriller Marnie has graced this list, but I think it's not only a fascinating study of repressed childhood memories, Freudian psychology and odd sexual hang-ups (and turn-ons), but a remarkable depiction of a troubled, perhaps insane working woman as well. Hedren is Marnie, a cool blonde goddess and compulsive liar and thief so traumatized by her past that her only arena for both escape and personal gain is work. Moving from city to city, she nabs jobs with her expert demeanor and skills (she is an efficient secretary) only to embezzle from employers along the way. She meets her match at the Rutland Company, where Mark Rutland (Sean Connery) recognizes her for the crook she is. And like so many men around crazy chicks, he wants her -- bad. Though the film covers a lot of ground concerning Marnie's fractured psyche, it's nevertheless a telling representation of just how bitter a woman can turn from men: enough to steal. On a side note, Hedren's daughter, Melanie Griffith, would also bend some rules in the aforementioned Working Girl, albeit with less explosive, less interesting results. And no Sean Connery. And worse hair. And nary the freakishly nutty sex appeal.