Revisiting 9 to 5.
Last Saturday, 9 to 5: The Musical opened in Los Angeles in preparation for its Broadway debut in April 2009. The show was initially slotted for 2007, and yet that theater season came and went with no 9 to 5 and no good explanation for the delay. Perhaps producers had trouble finding suitable stand-ins for original movie co-stars Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton. Finding actresses that can sing and sympathetically describe mounting a man's severed head above the office credenza would be a challenge for any casting director.
Making the decision to retain the film's 1980 setting must have been easier. While audiences can be grateful they won't be asked to endure awkward jokes about BlackBerrys or Bangalore, this choice raises another question: Will a 30-year-old comedy about sexism in the workplace feel as period as Mad Men? Has consciousness raising turned into camp? The DVD of 9 to 5, released most recently in a "Sexist, Egotistical, Lying, Hypocritical Bigot Edition," offers a chance to see how far we have—and haven't—come.
Fonda and producer Bruce Gilbert designed 9 to 5 to be a statement film about a problem that everyone now knows as sexual harassment. "It was just normal," Fonda explains in the DVD commentary. "Nobody talked about it." Eager to break that silence, she and Gilbert interviewed working women about their everyday experiences on the job, and they discovered that "just normal" included more-than-indecent proposals and X-rated quid pro quos. Normal was a boss who passed off your ideas as his own; normal was losing a promotion to a man you'd trained; normal was a barely contained, ever-simmering anger.
The duo presented their findings to screenwriter Colin Higgins, told him who his leads would be—Fonda had already signed up Tomlin and Parton—and asked him to make something of it. Higgins set the script at the blandly ominous Consolidated Companies, an every-office where pantyhose-clad knees are forever one distracted moment away from slamming into the sharp corner of a file drawer. Dropped ceilings and brushed gray aluminum have rarely communicated so much back story.
Yet it's the psychic strains of the job that dwarf all others. Longtime office manager Violet Newstead (Tomlin) is competence personified, but when she presses boss Franklin Hart Jr.—played by Dabney Coleman and his hips—for a long-overdue promotion, she's told to shush. Doralee Rhodes is Hart's secretary, played by first-time actress Parton. Unbeknownst to good-natured Doralee, the whole office believes she's Hart's mistress. The source of these rumors? Hart. Judy Bernly (Fonda) is less aggrieved for her own sake than for her co-workers'. When she witnesses a colleague get summarily fired for a small infraction, she immediately rustles over to protest. (The woman demures, "That's OK, Judy. I wanted to spend more time with my kids anyway.")
The three women discover common cause one night over drinks at a bar and, later, over a joint in Doralee's chintz-choked living room. What, they ask themselves, would they like to do to the boss? Elaborate fantasy sequences ensue. Judy puts on a cowgirl outfit, chases Hart around the office with a shotgun, and blows him away as he cowers on the toilet. Doralee, also mysteriously in Western gear, assumes the boss's job and subjects Hart—now her secretary—to a bitter taste of his own medicine. ("You've got a nice ass, Frank! But, you know, you oughta get your pants cut a little tighter; you need to bring 'em up just a little in the crotch.")
Vincent Canby panned the film in the New York Times for "waving the flag of feminism as earnestly as Russian farmers used to wave the hammer-and-sickle at the end of movies about collective farming." But moviegoers seemed to love it. 9 to 5 was the No. 2 box office draw of 1980, second only to The Empire Strikes Back. The movie's eponymous theme song—written and performed by Parton—topped the Billboard singles chart and quickly became, in Fonda's words, "a movement anthem." Even the daffy fantasy sequences were a hit, reportedly drawing approving whoops and hollers at special screenings for administrative assistants and other clerical workers.
Megan Hustad is the author of How To Be Useful.