Deciphering the Code of Cinema From the Center of Los Feliz by Peter Avellino
Monday, December 31, 2012
And Not Take The Whole Thing So Seriously
The past is the past. I almost can’t think of anything but the past when I watch WORKING GIRL, particularly the opening shot of the Staten Island Ferry heading towards lower Manhattan but I suppose this is one example where lots of people would have certain reactions. I remember going back to see the film multiple times after its release in December 1988—at least in New York it played for months and the six Academy Award Nominations (Picture, Director, Actress, two for Supporting Actress and winning for Best Song) certainly didn’t hurt. That part of it is maybe a little surprising now considering how this film is probably thought of as ‘just’ a romantic comedy, an 80s relic of the Reagan era and that period when Melanie Griffith starred in films. Maybe it wasn’t until years later that I realized deep down I was kind of studying the film each time I went to see it again and deep down I’d have to admit that whenever I write some kind of meet cute in a script I’m really trying to emulate Melanie Griffith and Harrison Ford bonding over ‘lust and tequila’ during their first scene here. A lot of good it’s done me. But, yeah, I still have an attachment to the film. WORKING GIRL is dated, unavoidably. Hard not to watch the early shots of people streaming into office buildings down in lower Manhattan and notice how none of them are talking or texting on phones. The world has changed, the world always changes. I guess I’ve changed too. For the better, I hope. Maybe I don’t really care. I still have an attachment to this film and probably always will.
Staten Island secretary Tess McGill (Melanie Griffith), burning bridges at lower Manhattan financial firm Petty Marsh while desperately trying to find her way in, is assigned to Katherine Parker (Sigourney Weaver), a statuesque rising young exec with all the confidence that Tess lacks. When Tess comes to her with a surefire idea Katherine tells her the board voted it down but when she gets laid up out of town after breaking her leg on a ski trip Tess learns the truth about her boss attempted to claim the idea as her own. Also feeling burned from finding her boyfriend Mick (Alec Baldwin) with another woman Tess quickly takes advantage of her bosses’ absence and empty townhouse by enlisting finance ace Jack Trainer (Harrison Ford) to help her put the deal together. The plan is soon complicated when the two of them begin to fall for each other but things become even more problematic as Katherine’s return fast approaches and certain other truths begin to come to light.
Directed by Mike Nichols, WORKING GIRL in its own way displays the most confidence as well as the most inspiration of any of his post 70s films. The more I watch it the more aware I become of the degree of exaggeration evident in both production design and the costumes, from the female execs done up a little too much in that “woman dressed like a man would dress if he was a woman” style as Jack Trainer calls it and the secretaries who all seem just a little too outer borough in comparison with all that jewelry and eye shadow. But Nichols doesn’t seem particularly interested in emphasizing this through his deceptively relaxed mise-en-scène, instead making everything flow together seamlessly just as he makes the first shot inside the Staten Island Ferry a continuation of the opening helicopter shot. Instead of dwelling on those secretaries too much keeping much of this away from the primary story so it doesn’t seem to enter the sphere of his lead character and even when the setting of a sequence is somewhat heightened, like the tropical-themed wedding reception crashed by Tess and Jack he doesn’t dwell on that aspect very much at all.
Every beat of WORKING GIRL moves along expertly with the screenplay written by Kevin Wade (which surprisingly wasn’t Oscar nominated) which features reams of dialogue that I still admire in addition to how it’s flat-out beautifully crafted in how deceptively simple it is. It doesn’t even need to be all that complicated with the way it attempts to emulate a certain fairy tale quality from Tess helping Katherine on with her ski boots to how Manhattan (the Twin Towers always prevalent from way out in Staten Island) is clearly meant to be this shining castle surrounded by a moat, only letting certain people in to serve as underlings. Maybe it’s a lightweight story on the surface but everything about it manages to defy that term--as Carly Simon’s inspirational theme song “Let the River Run” repeats throughout, incorporated into the score by Rob Mounsey it becomes clear how much to Tess McGill that this all matters. It’s her life, that 30th birthday she celebrates at the beginning giving her own ticking clock along with the obvious one of Catherine’s return and that feeling takes this comedy beyond just the laughs.
Along with his willingness to focus on the story as opposed to what surrounds it, Nichols’ direction is totally unfussy, apparently seeing nothing wrong with playing minor lines of dialogue here and there from a distance, as well as always looking for moments where his camera hold on what’s going on and add to the story whether it’s Sigourney Weaver’s ultra-confident stride through the office in her introduction or, in Harrison Ford’s own first scene, that movie star grin in close-up as he makes his way towards Tess at the bar, not yet knowing that he’s the one she’s looking for. It allows the world to seem that much more real as well as letting the actors work with each other that much better in the moments when they really do need to connect with each other in close-up, which they do— sometimes just the glances between the characters are all the complications it needs. Scenes between Griffith and Ford feel like they’re shot in a slightly closer style and feel more intimate than such alternating shots normally would be, connecting the characters together in their love story all the more. In spite of Jack Trainer’s name, his role isn’t to tutor her and instead it’s like the characters wind up bringing out the best of each other. It almost adds a certain level of maturity all by itself—the title comes off as slightly ironic in the end, especially compared to leads in romantic comedies today, considering how Tess isn’t a girl at all but someone who’s trying hard to be that much more of an adult, in a film which looked at now is almost surprisingly casual about what is causing it to be R-rated (Griffith’s nudity was probably more surprising at the time to anyone who hadn’t seen SOMETHING WILD or BODY DOUBLE), earning that rating more than I probably remembered.
The media landscape out in the real world has changed enough by now, almost a quarter of a century since this film began shooting, that I suspect a purchase of a radio network wouldn’t garner the same degree of intensity (then again maybe it would, how should I know?) but it never overwhelms this story taking place in the world of the 80s—maybe it’s the Twentieth-Century Fox logo but I sometimes think about Charlie Sheen’s Bud Fox in the middle of his own tale of trying to get to the top happening right down the street. Certainly some sections of lower Manhattan are different now even as the Statue of Liberty is forever out there watching over it all, just like in this film. Not to mention that in watching this film clearly shot during winter months I get certain vague flashbacks of days long ago when I would walk down the streets of Manhattan and nothing imaginable seemed cooler than how I was getting to do that—maybe that sort of saxophone-infused score which seems to be genetically attached to every N.Y.-set romantic comedy of that decade forever adds to the feel. Like in this film, the vivid memories of doing it in my own winter coat. I actually still have that coat, hanging in my closet. It may not fit so well anymore, but I actually had it recently dry-cleaned. I don’t have any plans to visit New York any time soon, but maybe I want to keep it around in case I’m needed back there to play a supporting role in this kind of story. Hey, just in case. Bottom line is that the film remains hugely enjoyable, funny, intelligent and, for me, endearing, enough so that I’m somehow able to wipe from my brain whatever ugly eighties-ness should flow out of it and somehow never really does.
Considering how many times I saw this film back in the day it seems a little odd how in my mind it’s gotten slightly pushed aside in favor of what maybe are more iconic Melanie Griffith performances, the ones I’ve written about before and might be more apt to gravitate towards late at night. Maybe I just saw it too much back then. Maybe it’s because the film is set in a world I don’t have much of an interest in. Either way, her Oscar-nominated work here is her best all-around performance, nailing the flightier screwball scenes yet always making them go along with the moments when her character is determined to take everything seriously even if no one else around her will and the occasional awkwardness that shows in the performance her character is trying to give is utterly endearing. Not even appearing until 35 minutes in, Harrison Ford’s performance as Jack Trainer is the closest he ever came to that perfect Cary Grant vibe and he just nails it, enjoying the chance to act goofy with timing beyond the pale. He totally pulls off that balance of someone who comes off as smart yet scatterbrained enough to not know how his apartment’s going to look before he opens the door and when he gets his ‘little piece of tape’ speech explaining himself he’s totally willing to not just spit it out casually but also play the moment with a bit of souvlaki sauce on the side of his mouth. Seeming totally relaxed and ok with not having this entire movie on his shoulders it’s almost like this is the end of golden age ‘fun’ Harrison Ford which is both a joy to see now and also a little sad. He’s just so much fun here.
Also nominated, Sigourney Weaver delivers one of her most phenomenal performances as Katherine Parker, coming off as quietly ferocious and she she doesn’t have a moment where she leaps out, fully embracing the callow selfishness of her character and looking pretty fantastic as well. She’s maybe sexier than any woman has ever looked with a cast on her leg, much as that broken leg indicates how rotten she really is inside, right down to when we last see her and she absolutely refuses to acknowledge her loss. All credit should go to Mike Nichols for his direction of this fantastic large cast, some still rising and some then already known—Joan Cusack as best friend Cyn with her memorable Madonna speech was also nominated, Alec Baldwin brings just enough shadings to Mick as well as Kevin Spacey, Olympia Dukakis, Nora Dunn, Oliver Platt, Philip Bosco, Caroline Aaron, Barbara Garrick, Amy Aquino, Timothy Carhart, Ricki Lake and Amy Aquino, one of those people who have been in a hundred things and who I always associate with her one scene here at the end. She’s just right too. Pretty much an extra, David Duchovny can be spotted during a few scenes as one of Tess and Mick’s friends.
The much-discussed final shot of WORKING GIRL of course has many more implications looking at it now than it did then and it already had a few. Leaving some of that aside for me it serves as a reminder, maybe not quite as cynical as it once seemed, that the path that led Tess McGill to this ending is just one story out there, in some ways an acknowledgement of the ugly Reagan-era 80s side of it along with it also being its own version of the end of THE CROWD, whether that’s what we want it to be or not. And having an office of your own is nice, after all. Regardless, I still love the film anyway. Just as I love many films. So I’ll keep it to myself. Anyway, since the past is over and only the future lies in front of us I guess that about does it. Let the river run. Zei Gezunt.