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Film / Working Girl

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"I've got a head for business and a bod for sin."
Tess McGill

This 1988 comedy, directed by Mike Nichols, shows that even if you come from the wrong side of the Hudson, you can make it in business so long as you've got the balls to see through a good idea.

Tess McGill (Melanie Griffith) is desperate to be taken seriously and recognized for her brains and business skill, and hopes to rise from the typing pool at the Wall Street investment firm Petty Marsh. Given one last chance after blowing off "Bob from Arbitrage," she's made personal assistant to Katharine Parker (Sigourney Weaver) in Mergers & Acquisitions. Katharine is willing to accept input and ideas from her, and is intrigued by Tess's big idea that would save a large company from a foreign takeover. Katharine then breaks her leg while away skiing in Switzerland, and she asks Tess to look after things in her absence. Tess soon discovers that Katharine is going to try to pass off Tess's idea as her own to the CEO of the threatened company. On top of this, she discovers her boyfriend (Alec Baldwin) is also cheating on her. Tess sets out to do a deal by using her idea herself and teams up with Jack Trainer (Harrison Ford) to close the deal before Katharine's return. The two slowly fall for each other little knowing that the other is Katharine's boyfriend/secretary....

Working Girl was one of the more financially successful and critically acclaimed comedies of 1988. It was nominated for six Oscars: Best Actress for Melanie Griffith, Best Supporting Actress for both Joan Cusack and Sigourney Weaver, Best Director for Mike Nichols, and Best Picture. Carly Simon won the Best Original Song Oscar for "Let the River Run". The film also won four Golden Globes, with Griffith and Weaver each winning for acting, Simon for her song, and the movie as a whole for Best Motion Picture - Comedy or Musical. The movie also inspired a short-lived 1990 NBC sitcom of the same name, starring none other than Sandra Bullock as Tess McGill. A Screen-to-Stage Adaptation, with music by Cyndi Lauper, was announced in 2017.

Some say it's the "sassy sister film to Die Hard."

Working Girls is a different film entirely, about a New York brothel and its employees, and was released as an acclaimed indie production in 1986.

A pre-stardom Kevin Spacey has one scene as said lecherous, coke-sniffing Bob from Arbitrage. A pre-stardom David Duchovny has an even smaller part, as a guest at Tess's birthday party.

This film contains examples of:

  • '80s Hair: Most of the secretaries and the women on Staten Island. Joan Cusack, to the extreme. Also Melanie Griffith in the early parts of the movie. Averted with Katharine, whose hairstyle would be seen as perfectly normal and professional even today.
  • Actor Allusion: Katharine (Sigourney Weaver) steps off the helicopter carrying a giant stuffed gorilla. Earlier in 1988, Weaver starred in Gorillas in the Mist.
  • Alas, Poor Villain: Katherine responds to Trask chewing out and firing her by holding back tears and calmly telling him that she won't be spoken to in a rude manner, before sulking back into her office.
  • Ambition Is Evil: Very much averted with Tess. While some of her actions are ethically questionable to say the least, the film portrays her as only "doing what she has to do" to climb the corporate ladder without the "right" background or connections. Katherine, on the other hand...
  • Award-Bait Song: And the bait worked, as "Let the River Run" became one of the biggest hits of Carly Simon's career.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Katherine presents herself as a tough, but fair boss when she first meets Tess and mostly treats her with respect, but she is also quick to steal Tess' ideas and throw her under the bus at the first available opportunity.
  • Black Bra and Panties: Tess, also with matching garter belt and stockings!
  • Book Ends: The film opens and closes with establishing shots of New York City. The difference is in Tess' position. In the first sequence, she's sporting the abovementioned '80s Hair, clothes, and makeup and riding the ferry in from Staten Island. In the second, her look is of a polished executive and she's sitting in her own office.
  • Break the Haughty: Katherine, and very entertaining to watch.
  • Bridal Carry: Jack scoops Tess into his arms and carries her off to his bedroom.
  • Broken Bird: Jack Trainer, due to his Back Story.
  • Cardboard Box of Unemployment: First when Tess gets moved and later when she gets fired, she carries one of these boxes with her.
  • Chekhov's Skill: More like Chekhov's Bad Habit. Viewers will note that Tess has a tendency to take out her datebook, often unnecessarily, and forget about it. This ends up tipping Katherine off to what she's been up to when she leaves it at her place and she looks through it.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive / There Are No Good Executives: Mostly averted. The only obviously corrupt executive is Katharine. Oren Trask in particular seems to be an honest, intelligent, all-around good guy who just happens to be a rich CEO.
  • Dark Reprise: Katherine's words of encouragement sound unbelievably condescending once Tess learns what kind of person she really is.
  • Devil in Plain Sight: Katharine Parker starts off as a Bitch in Sheep's Clothing, but once Tess discovers her true colors, the Devil is revealed and Katherine makes no attempt to hide her malicious and vindictive nature.
  • Did Not Think This Through: Katherine never considered that eventually someone was going to ask her how she got the idea for Trask's merger with a radio broadcasting company and "I stole it from my assistant" would not be a satisfactory answer.
  • Distracted by the Sexy: Jack Trainer is walking distraction to every heterosexual woman, knows it and uses it to get Tess a private word with Trask at a wedding reception.
  • Epic Tracking Shot: The film begins with a 360-degree pan around the head of the Statue of Liberty, followed by a slow zoom in on the Staten Island ferry. It ends with a shot looking into the window of Tess's new office, then slowly pulls out to reveal the Manhattan skyline (though there's one obvious discontinuity in the shot).
  • Face Palm: When Katharine breaks in on the mergers meeting, Jack and Tess mirror each other's face palms.
  • Fake Faint: Katherine fakes a dizzy spell to garner sympathy from the board members who might listen to her secretary Tess (who's telling the truth about Katherine stealing her idea for a business merger).
  • Fanservice: Melanie Griffith has a couple of nice lingerie scenes (see Black Bra and Panties above); lampshaded by Tess, who suggests to Mick that for a change, he should get her something she can wear outside the bedroom. Sigourney Weaver's aren't bad either. And then Harrison Ford provides Fanservice both for the audience and his typing pool as he changes shirts while talking on the phone. The typing pool even gives him a round of applause in appreciation.
  • Food Slap: Incensed at the lewd advances a potential employer makes to her, Tess shakes up a bottle of champagne and sprays him with it.
  • Foot Popping: Seen in the scene where Tess and Jack fall for each other.
  • Girlboss Feminist: Katherine Parker starts off a potential role model for her secretary Tess, as she is a successful career woman who seems more supportive of Tess's career than the men Tess has had to work under before. Then Tess discovers that Katherine was going to sell off Tess's idea as her own after dismissing it in their first meeting. While Tess has similar ambitions to Katherine, Katherine is a condescending Wellesley graduate with money and connections who nonetheless calls herself a trailblazer for women, while blue-collar Tess has to struggle and lie about her connections just to be heard in the business world. Tess also takes pains to treat her own secretary equally when she gets a promotion at the end of the film, showing that she is going to avert the trope.
  • Glad I Thought of It: Katharine shoots down Tess's idea, then later submits it as her own.
  • Have You Told Anyone Else?: A non-fatal example. After Tess tells Katherine her idea about radio, Katherine carefully determines that it's Tess's own idea and even asks "Discuss it with anyone else?" After Tess says she hasn't, Katherine steals her idea.
  • I Can Explain: Mick to Tess when the latter walks into their bedroom at the wrong time, then Tess to Jack when Katherine reveals Tess is only her secretary.
  • Important Haircut/Expository Hairstyle Change: Tess cuts her hair in order to look like the sophisticated executive she's impersonating, hoping to become—and eventually is at the film's conclusion.
  • Indy Ploy: Jack gets into the act in getting Tess to dance with Trask. Bonus points that Jack is Indiana Jones.
  • Insufferable Genius: Katharine has a very high opinion of herself and isn't afraid to let other people know it. She has a degree from Wellesley, speaks fluent German to the owner of a Swiss ski resort in order to get the tower suite, and freely praises herself as a trailblazer for women in the business world. By the end of the movie, she may actually be Too Clever by Half....
  • Ivy League for Everyone: Jack Trainer has a BA in business administration from Dartmouth and an MBA from Harvard. Katherine, as mentioned above, went to Wellesley, one of the Seven Sisters colleges (essentially, the Ivy League for women). Tess gets told that her lack of this trope is one of the things holding her back.
  • Leitmotif: Variations on the melody of "Let the River Run" reoccur throughout the entire soundtrack.
  • Liar Revealed: Katherine's intrusion into the merger meeting exposes Tess as merely Katherine's secretary, forcing Tess out of the deal. Tess pays her back in kind by pulling this trope as well, explaining to Trask how she reached the idea of the merger, which exposes that Katherine knows nothing of the particulars of the deal, since it wasn't her idea like she claimed.
  • Lingerie Scene: Several of Griffith and Weaver.
  • Little Black Dress: Tess borrows one from Katharine's closet to wear to the Dewey Stone reception. She becomes light-headed when she discovers that the dress costs $6000.
    "It's not even leather!"
  • Meaningful Name: Petty Marsh. It lives up (or down) to its name. No wonder Tess wants out.
  • Noo Yawk Accents: Joan Cusack, dear God. Tess is aware of hers and is taking speech classes to make her accent less noticable. Note how the accents are much thicker on the characters from Staten Island than on the ones from Manhattan.
    Cyn: "Whaddya need speech class foe-wa? Ya tawk foine!"
    • Tess also uses her stronger Staten Island accent to pretend to be her own secretary on the phone.
  • Not Staying for Breakfast: On their first night, Tess leaves Jack's place in the morning before he wakes up.
  • Not What It Looks Like / I Can Explain: Tess comes back early to find Mick performing more than just a shirtless scene with Doreen.
    Mick: "Tess! It's Not What It Looks Like. [beat] Actually, it is what it looks like, but I Can Explain!"
  • Oh, Crap!: Katherine's expression when Trask asks her how she came up with the idea for the merger, which she can't do, because it wasn't her idea. She also lets out a very audible gasp when Jack refuses to help her out, realizing she can't talk her way out of this.
  • The Oner: The movie opens on a long unbroken helicopter shot circling the Statue of Liberty to right outside the window on the Staten Island Ferry, with a match cut to a tracking shot of the packed ferry and finally ending where Tess and Cyn are sitting.
  • Pimped-Out Dress: Giant Poofy Sleeves and disco blue tulle make for a hideous bridesmaid dress. But, hey! it matches the leisure suit tuxedos....
    • Subverted with most of the wardrobe. Extremely expensive, but understated, per the rules set out when Tess meets Katharine. This includes a $6000 sequined cocktail dress.
  • Plucky Comic Relief: Joan Cusack as Tess's friend Cyn, particularly when she pretends to be Tess's secretary.
  • Plucky Office Girl: Tess McGill is one of the trope namers.
  • Pretty in Mink: Katharine's sable coat that Tess borrows.
  • Rags to Royalty: Tess starts as an unappreciated, overworked secretary with both a job and relationship that appear to be going nowhere. By the film's end, she's pulled off a major business merger, finally gotten a position at a major firm, and is living with Jack.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Trask. At first, he's skeptical that Tess is the brains behind the merger idea, but once she gets an opportunity to explain how she came to her plan (something Katherine can't come up with, since of course it wasn't her idea), he is very impressed (and less so about Katherine afterwards).
  • Sharp-Dressed Man: Jack Trainer.
  • Shirtless Scene: Harrison Ford provides Fanservice to his typing pool. Alec Baldwin also has a couple, showing off his Carpet of Virility.
  • Simple, yet Opulent: Cynthia is shocked at an evening dress costing thousands of dollars, despite not being made of obviously fancy materials (like leather).
  • Stealing the Credit: Katharine intends to pass off Tess' ideas as her own...and reap the rewards for them.
  • The Triple: Cyn, flirting with Jack Trainer while pretending to be Tess's secretary.
    Cyn: "Can I get you anything? Coffee? Tea? Me?"
  • Umbrella Drink: Jack Trainer gets two of them while he and Tess crash the Trask wedding. Both of the drinks are for him.
  • Wounded Gazelle Gambit: Katherine uses an actual injury to gain sympathy when she barges into the meeting. Realizing that people might actually listen to Tess and not her, she fakes a dizzy spell, instantly garnering concern and attention from the other attendees.
    • Then deconstructed. Tess knows not to bother trying to explain herself or call Katharine out right then, pulls back, and comes back later to tell her side to the CEO when things are calmer and he's more likely to listen; which he does.