As Netflix rolled out Grace and Frankie, a comedy series starring Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, now seems like a good time to revisit their canonical 1980 workplace comedy Nine to Five. In Nine to Five, Tomlin and Fonda star alongside Dolly Parton in a comedy about the travails of working women. And while the issues they address are serious, the touch is light.
Director: Colin Higgins
Producer: Bruce Gilbert
Writers: Patricia Resnick, Colin Higgins
Cinematographer: Reynaldo Villalobos
Editor: Pembroke J. Herring
Music: Charles Fox
Cast: Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Dolly Parton, Dabney Coleman, Sterling Hayden, Elizabeth Wilson, Henry Jones, Lawrence Pressman, Marian Mercer
US Theatrical Release: December 19, 1980
US Distributor: Twentieth Century Fox
Fonda is a newcomer and secretary at an organization specializing in myriad and unknown services (supply chains, shipping!) entered into the care of Lily Tomlin, a fifteen year veteran and office supervisor frequently passed over for promotion by clubhouse boys fresh out of management school.
Dabney Coleman plays the embodiment of these clubby simpletons as the manager of the department, and as the film frequently reminds us, “a sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot.” Coleman is the villain of the film, whose habitual harassment and degradation of his female coworkers motivates them to take matters into their own hands.
Nine to Five is not embarrassed to paint in broad strokes. It has a madcap sensibility. But one of the best scenes of the picture is pure social commentary. Dolly Parton, personal secretary to the vile Coleman, imagines a revenge fantasy where he is forced to endure the many ritualized scrutinies women experience in the modern workplace (Parton admires his outfit, and asks about his cologne, and offers him a spontaneous “no-strings-attached” gift). By making these so-called small indignities strange, it's easy to understand they are absurd, and they’re not at all small.
The film is not a masterpiece in technique or structure. The jokes are pretty straightforward. But it retains a good deal of it's original anarchic energy. As the trio enacts a plan of workplace change, it almost felt like I was watching a Muppet movie. It's funny to see Jane Fonda play such a straight-laced character—she the epitome of progressive chic and urbanity in movies like Klute. But the movie definitely makes you wish there were more people like Parton's character populating the real world. She delivers memorable lines like: “I've been chased by swifter men than you, and I ain't been caught yet.” And “I saw we hire a couple of wranglers to go upstairs and beat the shit out of him.”
Tomlin is the comedic dynamo of the team, but Nine to Five doesn't really make use of her talents. She has one unforgettable scene, decked out as an avenging Snow White, but the picture is a little too slapdash for the demands of rigorous slapstick and farce. All of Me, her 1984 film with Steve Martin, would finally provide an adequate vehicle for her.
Nine to Five is a silly film, aspiring towards something like the Looney Tunes, or I Love Lucy. This silliness occasionally enters into “aw, shucks” hapless Woman of the Year type gonzo antics (Fonda is inundated in a flood of Xeroxes), but these antics are always coupled with a general sense that there are many things inherently backwards in a working world designed to privilege a very certain class of people. It's telling that some of the revolutionary office policies that the trio advocates seem moderate today (greater control over the personal workspace, and flexible working schedules) but many more, however moderate they might be, are still so far out of reach; chiefly equal pay for women, paid maternity leave, job-sharing, and organization supported childcare. Nine to Five reflects a very specific moment in American history, and that moment is right now.