When her husband leaves her for his secretary, Judy Bernly (Fonda) starts a new job at Consolidated Companies. She is befriended by Violet Newstead (Tomlin), an office manager who advises her on the best way to navigate through daily office life. The office is run by Franklin Hart (Coleman), their vulgar and somewhat incompetent boss. Hart spends a good chunk of his time hitting on his unreceptive secretary Doralee Rhodes (Parton) and spreading rumors that they are sleeping together. As a result, she is ostracized by her co-workers.
After Violet is denied a deserved promotion (since Hart doesn't promote women), she, Judy and Doralee begin bonding over their hatred of their boss, sharing with one another their personal fantasies of bringing him down. Hilarity Ensues when Violet accidentally puts rat poison into Hart's coffee; he finds out about it and tries to use the knowledge to blackmail Doralee, prompting the three women to kidnap him and hold him prisoner in his own house until they can figure out a way to fix the situation. In the meantime, they have to conceal Hart's absence and keep the office running as though he were still present...
Upon release, the film was incredibly successful and was the highest grossing comedy of that year. The movie was adapted into a television series that sporadically ran for five seasons. In 2008, it was also turned into a stage musical.
This film has examples of:
- The Alcoholic: Margaret, though she goes into rehab later.
- Arc Words: "You're a sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot!"
- Ate the Spoon: In Violet's Imagine Spot, the poison that she puts in Hart's coffee does this.
- Bathroom Stall of Overheard Insults: Played with. Everyone in the office knows that Roz hangs out in bathroom stalls to hear what the women gossip about in order to report it back to Hart. To make sure she isn't listening to their conversations, they check for her shoes. Later on, Roz has found a way around this by lifting her feet off the floor. She is able to report back to Hart that the main characters accidentally put poison in his coffee.
- Blackmail: Each side against the other. Frank uses Sexual Extortion with Doralee so they could keep quiet about the accidental attempt to poison him, and Violet, Doralee, and Judy in turn threaten to expose Frank's embezzlement scheme with Consolidated's merchandise for his silence about the incident.
- Bound and Gagged: See also Chained to a Bed.
- Brains and Bondage/Casual Kink: Judy's ex-husband Dick catches her in Frank Hart's bedroom while she's holding him hostage for blackmail and assumes that she's into BDSM. Judy uses this belief to her advantage in order to get rid of her ex-husband.
- But Thou Must!: Mr. Tinsworthy is a man who doesn't take no for an answer. This makes Hart get sent to Brazil.
- Catch-Phrase / Running Gag:Margaret: Atta girl!
- When each of the three main women hear about one of Hart's atrocities, they come out with an incredulous "What!?"
- Chained to a Bed: Frank Hart's three leading lady secretaries (Violet Newstead, Doralee Rhodes, and Judy Bernly) go much further than just chaining him to a bed — they install a restraining system that uses a garage door opener mechanism to keep Frank from harming any of the three secretaries should he try to make his escape. Judy's ex-husband Dick catches her in the bedroom with Frank attached to this security system and thinks that she's Sleeping with the Boss and into BDSM. Mrs. Hart comes home to find her husband attached to the system and later tells the story that it was some sort of exercise machine that he installed.
- At the end of film, prior to the credits, a flashback scene has Frank Hart accidentally triggering the restraining system when he thinks he's using the remote to change the channel on his TV.
- Cigarette of Anxiety: Violet's son offers to roll her a joint to get her mind off her problems at work, which she initially refuses and argues against, but when her son asks how long she's been waiting for the promotion, Violet casually says, "Slip it in my purse." Later on, the joint gets shared with Doralee and Judy in an "old fashioned ladies' pot party" at Doarlee's house where they end up sharing their revenge fantasies.
- Corrupt Corporate Executive. Hart, big time.
- Deadpan Snarker. Violet.Violet: Thank you, Roz. I know just where to stick it.
- Destination Defenestration: After Violet poisons Hart in her Imagine Spot, she uses his office chair to launch him out the window.
- Disney Creatures of the Farce: Violet's Imagine Spot (complete with Hart getting the Disney Villain Death). She's accompanied by the characters from Robin Hood.
- Embarrassing Slide: Judy suggests they blackmail Hart with compromising sex photos of him. Violet dismisses this, saying Hart would probably make duplicates and send them out as Christmas cards.
- Epic Fail: Doralee relates how she was going to turn the tables on a mugger and ward him off with her gun. She instead shot a hole in her purse. Subverted in that it did scare the mugger away.
- Fire-Forged Friends: Violet, Judy and Doralee become fast friends after a pot party ("It's called 'Maui Wowie'"), realizing they're all suffering the same pink collar ghetto nightmare.
- Follow the Leader: Teaching Mrs. Tingle.
- Foreshadowing: Parts of the trio's imagination sequences come true the following two days after they have them. On the following day (after the sequences) Violet accidentaly puts rat poison in Hart's coffee (like she did in her sequence, but without the imaginary animals). Then on the second day Doralee ties him up with telephone cords and a scarf (like Doralee's fantasy sequence). Then (on the same day) after freeing Hart (from being tied up by Doralee) Judy shoots (at) him with Doralee's gun (you guessed it, like in her sequence).
- Forged Message: The three ladies write corporate messages outlining changes in their policies, passing them off as signed by the boss' own hand (actually Doralee's, who said she can sign his name better than he can).
- Truth in Television: Many secretaries are trained to do their boss' signature.
- Grew a Spine: Judy starts as a Shrinking Violet, to telling her ex off, "Hit the road, buster! This is where you get off!"
- Groin Attack: Doralee threatens to turn her boss Frank Hart "from a rooster to a hen with one shot" with her gun if he makes one more indecent proposal.
- Human Head on the Wall: Played for Laughs. Judy's fantasy about getting even with Bad Boss Frank is to hunt him down like wild game. It ends with Frank's head mounted on Judy's office.
- Hunting the Most Dangerous Game: The basis of Judy's Imagine Spot.
- Hypercompetent Sidekick: Both Violet and Doralee are this to Hart, but especially Violet.
- Imagine Spot: While smoking Violet's son's pot one night, the ladies imagine how they'd like to get back at Mr. Hart. Each time, we get the Arc Words.
Rodeo announcer: Let's see how long it takes her to rope this sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot!
- Judy imagines her and their co-workers hunting him. She says the line.
- Doralee wants to turn the tables on him. Hers ends with her hog-tying him as a rodeo announcer says the line:
Franklin Hart: But why? Why?
- Violet's is a Disneyesque scene and is Snow White-turned-psycho (see above) and poisons his coffee. This time, Mr. Hart says the line.
Violet: Why do you think?
Franklin Hart: 'Cause I'm a sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot?
Violet: Bingo! (ejects him out his office window)
- I Need a Freaking Drink: All three leading ladies Violet Newstead, Doralee Rhodes, and Judy Bernly decide to leave work and head for Charlie's for a drink when faced with their individual work crises (Violet being passed over for a promotion, Doralee's advertised "affair with the boss", and Judy witnessing one of the co-workers being fired over a private discussion of wage differences). And at each of their departures, Margaret the alcoholic secretary simply says "Atta girl!"
- Karma Houdini: An unusual heroic version. Although Hart was well-deserved being sent off to Brazil after claiming that Doralee, Judy and Violet's work were all his, it doesn't change the fact that Doralee, Judy and Violet all kidnapped their boss for weeks, even if they had evidence against him. With only Roz wondering where he went, the staff probably didn't care much about him.
- Laser-Guided Karma: Misogynist Hart captured by Amazons.
- Male Gaze: Hart makes sure his pencils "accidentally" fall off his desk so he can get a nice aerial view of Doralee's chest when she bends down to pick them up.
- Marshmallow Hell: Doralee holds Frank Hart's face right close to her bosom in her Imagine Spot of how to get even with him.
- Metaphorgotten: Lampshaded.Violet: What are you, a man or a mouse? (beat) Or a woman or a wouse? (giggles)
- Mondegreen: Dick accuses Judy of being into S&M. She hears it differently when she tries repeating it during her "The Reason You Suck" Speech.Judy: ...and if I want to play sex games or do M&M's, you can't stop me.Dick: M&M's?!
- My God, What Have I Done?: Violet, when she thinks she's poisoned Hart.
- Nerd Glasses: Judy's eyeglasses are octagonal and huge.
- Nice Hat: Judy's hat on her first day of work.Violet: We're gonna need a special locker for the hat.
- No Big Deal / Noodle Incident: "Hey, Vera. We've got another stiff in the john."
- Oh, Crap!: Hart after Doralee's "The Reason You Suck" Speech.Hart: ... shit.
Hart: ... Brazil?!
- When each of the girls realizes the corpse in the trunk is not Mr. Hart.
- Later, Hart gets off another good one when being told where he's been reassigned:
- Finally, the last lines of the film, by Roz, literally means in French "Holy shit!"
- Pointy-Haired Boss: Evil variety. Also the straight-up incompetent sort, given that the performance of Hart's department drastically improves once the trio get him and Roz out of the way.
- Poison Is Corrosive: Violet's Fantasy Sequence involves poisoning Hart's coffee with something that ends up dissolving a spoon.
- Poison Ring: The above poison comes from a large ring Violet is wearing.
- Precision F-Strike: Sweet-as-sugar Doralee's suggestion what to do with Hart:I say we get us a couple wranglers to go upstairs and beat the shit out of him.
- The final words of the film, spoken by Roz: "Ho-ly merde!"
- Pretty in Mink: Mrs. Hart shows up wearing a full length lynx coat. Unfortunately for her, it seems Mr. Hart would rather buy her expensive clothes than spend much time with her (as he was trying to seduce Doralee when Mrs. Hart shows up).
- Real Life Writes the Plot: Patricia Resnick noted during her research that Doralee was based on a real secretary who was the nicest person on Earth — but everyone else in the office disliked her because they thought she was sleeping with the boss (she wasn't.)
- "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Doralee delivers one to Frank Hart when she gets fed up with his sexual harassment, and Judy delivers one to her ex-husband Dick after he catches her in Frank Hart's bedroom and assumes that she's now Sleeping with the Boss (and into BDSM).
- Reassigned to Antarctica: The rare unwanted reassignment that's actually supposed to be a reward. Mr. Hart so impresses his superiors that he's promoted.... to the Brazilian branch of the company in the Amazon jungle.Hart: Brazil?
- Recovered Addict: Margaret is on her way to becoming this by the end of the film thanks to the encouraging letters from 'Hart', especially with her bright hair and upbeat attitude.
- Reasonable Authority Figure: Tinsworthy. He genuinely seems like a Cool Old Guy, and is willing to take Hart's division's unorthodox programs seriously — but isn't necessarily on board with all of them.
- Roger Rabbit Effect: The forest animals that appear in Violet's fantasy vision of doing in Mr. Hart (where she is dressed like Snow White).
- Rhythm Typewriter: For the title song (although the sound is actually made by Dolly Parton's fingernails on a table).
- Running Gag: The same joke (about Hart being "a sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot") is used in all three of the fantasy sequences.
- Searching the Stalls: During Judy's Imagine Spot.
- Sexy Secretary: Again, we're talking about Dolly Parton here.
- Shout-Out: Violet may be dressed as Snow White, but the animals are from Robin Hood.
- Similar Item Confusion: When Violet is making coffee for her boss Mr. Hart, she accidentally adds rat poison instead of artificial sweetener. He luckily avoids drinking it and is not poisoned.
- Sleeping with the Boss: Doralee is accused of doing this, and Judy makes it look like that's what she's doing (with the added bonus of BDSM) in order to get rid of her ex-husband Dick.
- Stealing from the Till: The ladies use this as blackmail.
- Stealth Pun: Hart was kidnapped by Amazons.
- Stereo Fibbing: When the ladies are pulled over by the traffic cop, with someone's dead body in the trunk.
- The Stoner: Violet's son. Later, the gals have an "old-fashioned ladies' pot party."
- Thematic Theme Tune: Parton's title song, which became a huge hit, and nominated for an Academy Award.
- Tied Up on the Phone: Doralee rips the phone cord out of the wall and uses it to tie up Frank Hart when he is about to use the phone to call the police on her, Violet, and Judy for their accidental attempt to poison him and to cover up the evidence.
- Torches and Pitchforks: The mob of office workers who hunt Hart down in Judy's revenge fantasy.
- Unwilling Suspension: When Hart is locked in his room.
- Watch It Stoned: They have a "good old-fashioned ladies pot party" and watch some movies.
- "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: Including Mr. Hart never being seen again after being kidnapped by Amazons.
- White Collar Worker: The division our heroines work is a white collar place.
- Your Cheating Heart: Frank Hart doesn't seem to have a problem with cheating on his wife to have some private time with his secretary Doralee Rhodes (who is also married), as long as Mrs. Hart remains totally oblivious. It's also the reason that Judy is divorced from her ex-husband Dick, and their attempt to reconcile their differences was foiled when Dick catches Judy in Frank Hart's bedroom and assumes that she's now Sleeping with the Boss (with BDSM added).
The Broadway Musical has examples of:
- Adaptational Personality Change:
- Tinsworthy. In the film, he appears to genuinely beleive that Hart is responsible for the rise in productivity. In the stage production, he has heard of Violet even before meeting her, believes her Character Filibuster (although he pretends to think her confession is a joke), and makes her CEO.
- Roz, whose affection for Hart is expanded from the film.
- Adorkable: Judy, who shares trivia when she's nervous.Violet [Thinking she's killed Hart]: I'm gonna walk the green mile, just like Susan Hayward in I Want to Live!!Judy: Fun fact: she won the Oscar for that role!Doralee: Judy, not helping!
- Big Bra to Fill: Rare is the Broadway actress with the physique of Dolly Parton. Most production's Doralee, including original Broadway cast's Megan Hilty, are noticeably less-endowed. Doralee is still implied to be extremely buxom, however, so most productions do what they can to pad the costumes and accentuate what the actress has.
- Canon Foreigner: Joe, a junior accountant who was added in order to give Violet a love interest. His importance to the story is lampshaded after he helps gather evidence of Frank's embezzlement.Violet: We couldn't have done it without you, Joe!Joe: Yes you could.
- Character Filibuster: Violet's speech to Tinsworthy, confessing her crimes and explaining how she does all the work and Hart takes all the credit because he's "The Guy".
- Jukebox Musical: Averted. The music is composed by Dolly Parton, but with the exception of the Title Track, it is all original and written specifically for the play.
- "I Am" Song: The three leads all sing "Shine Like the Sun", in which they each stand up to Hart and affirm who they are. Doralee also sings "Backwoods Barbie", which, being written by Dolly Parton herself, is clearly autobiographical.
- Ignored Enamored Underling: Roz. Her feelings for Hart have been upgraded from "loyal, possibly amorous" to full-blown Lust Object status.
- Intercourse with You: Roz's "Hart to Heart".
- "I Want" Song: Hart's "Here for You", singing of his longing for Doralee. Also Violet's "One of the Boys", dreaming of becoming CEO.
- Period Piece: The 70's setting from the film is maintained; this is reinforced throughout the show with references to 1970's pop-culture and technology, such as Violet's son wanting "Something called an Atari" for his birthday.
- Reassigned to Antarctica: Changed from the film to be the more conventional kind; in the stage production, Tinsworthy realizes that the women are behind all the productive changes, and assigns Hart to Bolivia with the intent of getting rid of him.
- Shout-Out: Judy and Violet appear to be film buffs, referencing films like I Want to Live! and Double Indemnity.