Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Hit Me With Your Best Shot - Working Girl

Written as part of the series hosted by the great Nathaniel R. at The Film Experience. Go and read!

It's impossible to oversell how incredible the opening credits sequence of Mike Nichols's Working Girl is. That soaring shot around the Statue of Liberty to the Manhattan skyline to the Staten Island Ferry is just awe-inspiring, and when combined with Carly Simon's music, it's nothing short of perfection, selling you on everything our main character wants before we've even met her.

Tess works as a secretary in one of those nebulous corporate businesses that seem to do everything at once but exist for no real purpose other than making money. She's also been going to night school to get her degree, and so she's smart and a real go-getter. But unfortunately, the fact that she looks like Melanie Griffith means that no one thinks of her in that way. Until she gets placed under Sigourney Weaver's Katherine.

And that's when things get interesting.

As the film goes on, it becomes clear that what we're seeing is a duel between two different kinds of femininity: Katherine's take-no-prisoners ambition, wielding sexuality as a weapon to get what she wants vs. Tess's quiet, growing confidence, moxie, and use of street smarts (AKA "women's intuition"). Who exactly is slyer, and whether she gets the reward or punishment she deserves says more about the viewer than it does about the film itself, mostly because of Mike Nichols's pitch-perfect direction.

See, it would appear as though the film is on Tess's side, but let's not forget that the only reason she finds out about Katherine's stealing of her idea by single white female-ing her while she's recuperating from a skiing injury. And she still lies and manipulates her way into a big deal, a better job, AND a swoon-worthy man - not all that different from what Katherine was doing to her.

The difference between Katherine and Tess is razor-thin, and hinges on one thing and one thing only: Tess's status as underdog. If you love a good underdog, rise-up-by-your-bootstraps story (and let's be honest, who doesn't?), you're on Tess's side, thinking that the ends justify the means. But I can easily see powerful people of both sexes, but particularly women, being on Katherine's side - the woman knows business and was only doing what she had to do to get ahead in a world that sees women as objects, not equal partners. Her only "crime" is trying to pass off someone else's idea as her own, and then trying to save herself when she was found out. Any one of us could have done the exact same thing if the circumstances were right. While the script on the face of it seems to reward the more traditionally feminine, unassuming Tess, and punish the more masculine, aggressive Katherine, Nichols never seems to really want to go there. He seems to get how problematic that construct is, and works against it whenever possible.

As much as the script tries to make Katherine a hateful, heinous bitch (with Weaver alternately playing to that and away from it, brilliantly), Nichols keeps trying to cast some shade on Tess wherever he can. It's not just that the scene where Tess uses Katherine's apartment plays so queasily - there is no trace of wish-fulfillment fantasy here - it's in the way Griffith says "Well, if that's the way you want to go..." when a colleague of Katherine's gives a suggestion on catering a dinner party; it's in the way that Olympia Dukakis's HR rep tells Tess that none of her previous superiors in the company will vouch for her; and it's in the way that Tess slowly but surely moves away from her Staten Island friends throughout the movie.

Sure, Joan Cusack's Cyn is always there ready to lend a hand, but they are practically inseparable when the movie begins, and as the film goes on they are farther and farther apart in many scenes, until at the end they're in two completely separate spaces. At first, Tess's status as a Staten Islander is a defining trait. But she's already trying to eradicate her accent, and then she loses her jewelry, and then her big hair, and then nearly all of her ties to her home, family, and friends. How is the erasing of Tess's uniqueness (in the context of the film's business world) a good thing? Is the message here that you have to change yourself to get ahead?

The film's last shot, a reversal of the opening track in on the ferry, certainly has irony written all over it: For all that she's done, Tess is now just one of many faceless businessmen and women in one of many multi-company skyscrapers in Manhattan. It's both a huge accomplishment and not so much of one.

Best Shot Runner-Up

It's hard for me to say exactly when this reading of the film occurred to me. The seeds were planted in this early shot of Katherine at her dinner party (with dim sum served by Tess, apparently because she only suggested a caterer and not wait staff - is Katherine punishing her or did Tess offer?). She instantly stands out, and the film constantly associates her with the color red from then on. It's clear she's a woman trying to make her way in a man's world, and using everything she has at her disposal - money, smarts, sexuality - to do so.

Then there was that deeply uncomfortable scene with Tess in the absent Katherine's apartment, specifically the moment when she starts putting on Katherine's make-up and perfume, which is just deeply, deeply creepy while still somehow not feeling too out of place in the context of the film. And then came the ending, which Nichols seems to complicate as I've detailed above.

But then there was this shot, seemingly a throwaway gag, but on second look very revealing about Katherine's character:


She has made so many friends in the hospital after her accident, and she's having a great time enjoying herself while not being at work. And AT THE SAME TIME, it can just as easily be read as Katherine being a callous woman tossing orders around at Tess while she is having the time of her life, blithely not giving a damn about work or the well-being of others (look how she even got a nurse to give her a pedicure!). It's maybe not the most arresting shot in the film, or the one that provoked the biggest reaction out of me, but it's the only one in the whole film that I actually went back and looked at again and saw a deeper meaning. And in a seemingly bland, of-its-time comedy, that's pretty impressive.

1 comment:

  1. I never thought of this film in such detail but you have given me pause to think more about this film. I never thought of Tess as an innocent since she studied and worked her way to the top. Wouldn't it be interesting to see how her former boss first made it big. I bet she used to be a Tess as well in her youth