Nine to Five Turned 35 Years Old Last Month, But It's Still a Rich Man's Game

Actually, Violet's outfit still holds up.
Actually, Violet's outfit still holds up.
Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox

No matter what they call it.

At some point last year, probably while watching Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda in Grace and Frankie on Netflix, I realized 2015 was the 35th anniversary of their first (and only other) collaboration, the working woman comedy 9 to 5. I made a mental note to commemorate the occasion, then promptly forgot about it until last weekend, because "mental notes" don't work nearly as well as ones you write down someplace.

The anniversary came and went with pretty much no fanfare whatsoever. There was a listicle on People's web page ("15 Reasons to Love 9 to 5") that I haven't read because I resolved to give up lingerie shots of Kylie Jenner for New Year's. Still, credit People for being one of the only entertainment outlets to think to themselves, "Hey, maybe 20 think pieces on The Force Awakens per day is enough."

The lack of attention might make sense if 9 to 5 were lesser known, or had achieved cult status following an overlooked initial release, but it was the second-highest-grossing movie of 1980 (behind only, ha-ha, The Empire Strikes Back). It's also 74th on the AFI's list of 100 Best Comedies, if that sort of thing matters to you. Bigger deals have been made about lesser movies (did some asshole really write about St. Elmo's Fire ?), and so, a mere two weeks late, I'm here to talk about 9 to 5.

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Having watched the movie recently (twice!), it still holds up remarkably well. Directed by Colin Higgins and co-written by Higgins and Patricia Resnick, the movie is bizarrely timeless. If you can ignore minor anachronistic touches like the wardrobe choices (I'm convinced Dustin Hoffman based Dorothy Michaels's look in Tootsie on Judy Bernly) and seeing people smoke in their office, not only has little in the workplace changed, but the movie was weirdly prescient about what advances have taken place.

Example? On-site day care, job sharing and company-sponsored substance abuse treatment aren't universal in corporate America by any means, but they're increasingly commonplace in larger companies. I wasn't old enough when 9 to 5 came out to fully grasp how radical something like being allowed to put personal items on your desk was at the time. And having been employed by companies that still don't allow it, I can only imagine the number of tragic workplace freakouts that might have been prevented with a strategically placed troll doll.

9 to 5 stands athwart the previous decade's cinema awakening regarding women and the alleged "enlightenment" of today's movies, which include trash fires like I Don't Know How She Does It and otherwise decent flicks such as The Devil Wears Prada, which still managed to squander fantastic performances by Meryl Streep, Stanley Tucci and Emily Blunt. 9 to 5 somehow told women they didn't need to "have it all" to be successful (Tomlin's Violet is a widow with four kids; Fonda's Judy a soon-to-be divorcee) three decades before Anne Hathaway gave up a promising fashion career for her stupid boyfriend

Judy's arc is the most complete, and she's our avatar in this man's man's man's world. Guided by the worldly (and world-weary) Violet, Judy transforms from the wronged, timid woman with bad hair and worse hats into a confident professional. Her confrontation with her philandering husband, who stakes out the house where the three have imprisoned their boss (Mr. Hart), and her level-headedness (to a point) during the mistaken cadaver sequence show this.

The hats are still pretty bad, though.

Of greater significance (and much credit to Higgins and Resnick) is how nuanced Dolly Parton's Doralee is. Our initial reaction to her platinum hair and...huge tracts of land is to use them as justification for underestimating her. Mr. Hart takes this many unwelcome steps further, and the fortitude she displays in resisting his ceaseless advances is both admirable ("They treat me like a bastard at a family reunion") and heartbreaking, because you know, as far as Hart's sexual harassment goes, this is far from her first rodeo. No pun intended.

Anyway, not an easy role to nail down, especially for a rookie, but Parton's performance here would increase her visibility beyond country music and pave the way for future film and TV appearances, for better (uh...) or worse (Rhinestone, Steel Magnolias, Straight Talk). 

But my favorite is still Violet. Don't get me wrong; Dabney Coleman is tremendously unctuous as the sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot Franklin Hart (or "F Hart," if you prefer), but except for the role reversal during Doralee's fantasy sequence, his is the laziest character in the film. He pulls it off because Dabney Coleman was born speaking fluent condescension, and his lines are all gold, but Violet...well, I like to think of her and Peter Gibbons from Office Space as my fictional workplace counterparts.

I also took more enjoyment than I care to admit in the way she ruined that poor candy striper's first day at the hospital.

Because if Doralee personifies the struggles with sexual harassment that every woman in the workforce (let's be honest) has faced, Violet represents the no less demeaning flip side: the passing over for promotions, appropriation of ideas and general disrespect women experience at the hands of shitty superiors.

Because in many ways, nothing has changed. The trio's part-time scheduling plans and child-care initiatives are all well and good, but the Chairman still slaps down their silly equal pay efforts right quick. Like I said before, it's a timeless movie…except when it isn't. Is it a bummer that current drug policies would probably discourage the "old-fashioned ladies' pot party" that takes place mid-film? Sure, but at least secretaries are no longer required to gas up the boss's car, right?...right?

The ugly truth is, women's earnings as a percentage of men's have increased only slightly since 1980 (to 75 percent, for someone in Violet's age bracket). And with the disparity between the wealthy and everybody else in this country greater than ever before, we're still spending our whole lives putting money in their wallets.

At the very least, I hope Rid O' Rat changed its package design. It looked just like Skinny & Sweet!

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