“It’s best not to be too moral. You cheat yourself out of too much life. Aim above morality.”
- Colin Higgins (from Harold & Maude)
Watershed comedies are rare. Most forego tact for a variation on the more tasteless and easily marketable ‘go for the crotch’ thirty-second chuckle that has all but permeated and utterly destroyed the reputation of aspiring movie rom-coms and made a virtual mockery of every television sit-coms since the mid-1990s. But back in 1980, at least one comedy prevailed on a loftier plain. The trick and the majesty of director, Colin Higgins’ 9 to 5 is its premise has not dated all that much since; the ole boy’s club mentality still in play in boardrooms; the great divide between those toiling in the steno pool and those toting keys to the executive washroom perhaps even more transparent and embarrassing (given how far we have come in the struggles for equality elsewhere). Thus, while clothing and hairstyles that were sooooo eighties then, now appear laughably bad; the cringe-worthy, if sublime, sexist treatment encountered by three aspiring hopefuls in this proto-feminist ‘coming of age’ farce has not; a sad or perhaps, merely anti-PC stance, making 9 to 5 as invigorating and potently subversive and relevant as the day it first played. It is, I think, important to note the picture is not without its progressive flaws; Dabney Coleman’s Franklin M. Hart Jr. about as crude, cruel and clichéd as they come in a post-Steinem America, and, in hindsight, clearly meant to infer every man in a three-piece, sitting atop the corporate structure is no better than this egotistical and oversexed piglet. Oink! Oink, indeed. But let us not cast such aspersions on half the population, shall we?
9 to 5’s great faux pas is while it represents a diverse microcosm of nose to the grindstone-motivated women in the work force, more than capable of competing with their male counterparts (though rarely given the opportunity to rise above male-ascribed virtues as precious eye-candy), what with the uber-liberal, Jane Fonda calling the shots initiated for her own production company; later to be fleshed out by screenwriters, Colin Higgins and Patricia Resnick (Resnick’s story heavily rewritten by Higgins, then reshaped during shooting by Fonda’s input); the male perspective is virtually obscured, or rather skewed by a tsunami of feminist principles that unequivocally mark all white men as ‘the oppressors’. Now, before I get a thousand emails inquiring as to when I intend to stop dragging my Neanderthal knuckles on the Linoleum, I should perhaps draw breathe to point to a few facts about the movie that will not insult the PC sect; first, 9 to 5 is a story about women – not men – so, it really does not owe any favors to the bow tie and brown shoes. And, further still, it is a comedy, and one straddling the chasm between the brutally bad and sophomoric ‘T’ and ‘A’ laugh-fests that dominated the 1970s, and the soon to be even more crassly realized, if slightly retrofitted, 80’s screwballs. Equally, it has an important message to impart: about woman partaking in this usually never-to-be shared slice of the proverbial American pie, and, being acknowledged for their efforts.
And with the likes of Jane Fonda (a.k.a Judy Bernly), Dolly Parton (Doralee Rhodes) and Lily Tomlin (Violet Newstead) sounding the call for a triangulated attack on the business acumen inculcated by the dreaded ‘patriarchy’, 9 to 5 cannot help but be of good – if moderately sadistic - cheer and some devilish satisfaction to a certain ‘type’ of woman who would never dare perpetuate this sort of fraud in their place of employment but are permitted the vicariousness of behaving as no self-respecting woman in her right mind would. Smack dab in the middle of 9 to 5 we get three hallucinogenic ‘dream sequences’ as the ladies in question, after sharing a joint, fantasize particularly well-crafted, if wholly implausible and utterly absurd revenge scenarios to bring about Hart’s downfall. Judy sees herself as ‘the great white hunter’, playing to Hart’s predilection for good sport (she pursues him with a double-gauge shotgun and eventually has his head mounted on the wall); Hart, chased around the office by pitchfork and torch-bearing office colleagues – male and female – vaguely reminiscent of the angry townsfolk in pursuit of the monster at the end of Universal’s classic Frankenstein (1931). In the second of these ‘dreams’ we get Doralee’s reverse sexism as a horse-riding, rhinestone and sequined cowgirl who belittles Hart (her male secretary) with juicy comments about his ‘package’ and choice of cologne – Stud, ordering him to submit to her sexual advances, then lassoing the unwilling participant and mounting his hog-tied bod to a barbeque spit. Violet’s fantasy recasts her as sort of ‘Snow White-ish’ Marquis de Sade, poisoning Hart’s coffee before using his comfy desk chair to eject him from the twelfth story window of his office as a pack of friendly and furry cartoon animals culled from the Disney Studios exuberantly look on.
In and of themselves, these dream sequences are funny; but they also suffer from the same sexism the ladies have been subjected to; a sort of ‘good for the goose and gander’ feminist philosophy that, mercifully, each character’s undiluted intentions never entirely stoops to fulfill otherwise. Personally, I find it one of the absurdities today that the ‘straight, white male’ has continued to be the favorite whipping post for every underprivileged minority seeking ignoble satisfaction by laying their fears and blame squarely at the feet of men in general – white European men in particular – first, as though they can be afforded the root cause for every ill of humanity since the beginning of time, and second, while even more ridiculously suggesting no developmental strides have occurred in the modern/civilized world since. All white men do not think alike any more than all white women or all black men and all black women have the same inherently pre-programmed core of values by which they seek to reshape the world around them. And most certainly, all white men do not think as Franklin M. Hart does. But hey, it’s only a movie and a comedy at that – so, we tend to embrace the laughter (as – no kidding – it is sorely needed these days). However, to celebrate 9 to 5 as a vindication of women’s triumph in the workplace despite the ‘patriarchy’, ‘glass ceiling’…call it what you will; these buzz words and supplanting of facts with feelings as a total eclipse about women’s contemporary ‘suffrage’ and the picture really does not have two good legs to stand on – high heels optional; amusing – but silly – and, at least in spots, grotesque as an exercise in deviant/militant ball-bashing.
Do not misunderstand: 9 to 5 is a hoot, a champion ‘feel good’ and a crowd-pleaser; the ladies taking on the establishment and winning, even to the point of getting Franklin Hart exiled to Brazil. Despite star/producer, Jane Fonda’s claim of being “super-sensitive to anything that smacks of the soapbox or lecturing the audience”, 9 to 5 is very much a ‘message picture’, arguably in the best tradition; illustrating, as Fonda had hoped, that while a successful office can frequently be managed without a boss, it cannot find its way, even to the executive water closet without the efforts of a good secretary (an army of them heartily preferred). However, the screenplay does overlook the transparency in this exercise; the ladies ruling jointly – even benevolently – over an office full of estrogen-infused front liners, seemingly without any interference or inner-office jealousies and quarreling. Oh, now who’s fantasizing?!? Having absconded with Hart to his Tudor country house, forcibly placed under ‘house arrest’ in dog-collar and wrist restraints, the proverbial ‘fly’ in the girls’ ointment becomes one of their own – Roz Keith (Elizabeth Wilson); the mannish Hart spy who, because of her obvious lack of physical attraction, ironically makes her perfect to betray her sex for her boss. Herein, another of the movie’s defective logic gets revealed; namely, only a woman lacking virtually all earthly sex appeal or one sacrificing everything to blindly stand by her man, as in Hart’s trophy wife, Missy (Marian Mercer) could find Franklin Hart appealing.
9 to 5 opens with a montage of working women starting their day; precursory scenes from the deluge, teeming with ambivalence and missed opportunities: annoying alarm clocks with their snooze buttons repeatedly smacked down, late taxis, pain-inducing high-heeled shoes, no time for a proper breakfast, spilled coffee, etc. et al. We get all this from the female perspective; set to Dolly Parton’s eponymous chart-topping hit single; completely forgoing the fact men are preparing for their day going through a similarly ritualized set of trials and tribulations – at the top, the bottom, and in all points in between. Keener eyes will take notice while virtually all of the main title montage is shot in San Francisco, the rest of the movie, minus the sequences shot at Hart’s home in Bel Air, takes place in Los Angeles.
We are introduced to Judy Bernly – a homebody, so out of touch since her hubby (aptly named ‘Dick’ and played by timid and tedious, Lawrence Pressman) left her for his secretary, she dresses as though it were still the 1940’s; her impressions of ‘the working woman’ about to be tested as Judy arrives for her first day’s trial by fire at Consolidated Inc. Aspiring power broker/Senior Office Supervisor, Violet Newstead is Judy’s first contact within this hierarchy and roster of responsibilities about to befall her. Violet is a no-nonsense, shoot-from-the-hip, clear-eyed ‘trainer’ who has seen her male apprentices blessed by corporate advancement while she is being held back by the boy’s club mentality, bitter but hopeful for the crumbs Hart may or may not choose to scatter in her direction. Judy also meets Hart’s executive assistant, Roz Keith and his private secretary, Doralee Rhodes; a buxom, vivacious and good-natured southern gal whom the rest of the office erroneously suspects is having an affair with Hart. Somewhere in the backdrop is Peggy Pope (as office lush, Margaret Foster), Roxanna Bonilla-Giannini (the stereotyped Hispanic single mother, Maria Delgado) and Ray Vitte (the token marginalized black man; mail room clerk, Eddie Smith). Typical of 80’s film fare, poor Eddie makes his point about being unable to climb the corporate ladder into the steno pool (ironically, the cesspool form whence Judy, Violet and Doralee all aspire to escape), never to be heard from again. So, the patriarchy wears a bedsheet too?!?
Judy’s first impressions of Franklin Hart are mixed with trepidation and eagerness; the latter quashed after Hart stumbles into the Xerox room turned paper-wasting sand trap by Judy, whom he admonishes, then threatens with expulsion even before she can punch her first timecard. Hart has no compunction about firing Maria after Roz alerts him to an impromptu ‘conversation’ Maria had with several other women about pay scales and salaries in the ladies room. While Margaret, only half revived from her chronic drunken stupors, is content to let the other women take the lead in their mounting grievances; Doralee endures Hart’s notorious and piggish amusements behind closed doors, knocking a pencil holder on the floor during dictation merely to have a good stare down her ample cleavage. Forewarned by rumors Doralee is sleeping with the boss, Judy assumes the worst and initially adopts a rather priggish attitude; repeatedly rejecting Doralee’s kind invitations to luncheon. Missy Hart is oblivious to her husband’s ill-conceived false starts at an inner-office affair. Hart orders Violet to do some shopping for a present for Missy on her lunch hour; then, gives the present – a silk scarf – to Doralee instead; a move, causing Violet to fly into a rage, especially after she learns from Hart she is being passed over yet again for another promotion in favor of a much less experienced male colleague.
Threatening Hart with exposure of his philandering, Doralee inadvertently realizes why the other women in the organization do not like her; because they assume she is Hart’s slutty mistress. Meeting in an afterhours bar, Doralee, Judy and Violet drown their sorrows in some cheap booze. Remembering she has a joint given by her teenage son, Violet invites Doralee and Judy back to her place for a ‘girl’s night. Under the sway of its psychotropic after effects, each muses a particular delicious revenge; Judy, as the hunter who has Hart’s head mounted on her trophy wall; Doralee, hog-tying a reluctant and impish Hart after he refuses to accept her sexual advances, and Violet, imagining herself a sadistic fairy-tale princess, spiking Hart’s coffee with rat poison, before ejecting him through an open window, presumably, to his death. In the aftermath of this cherished respite, Violet commits a near-fatal sin. Asked by Hart to buy more of the sugar substitute, Skinny n’ Sweet to liven his coffee, she instead, and quite inadvertently, tinges Hart’s coffee with rat poison (the two boxes virtually identical in color and packaging). Violet leaves the coffee on Hart’s desk and returns to work.
As Hart reaches for the tainted drink his office chair malfunctions, sending him sailing backwards; knocking the coffee over and knocking himself unconscious on the credenza. Doralee discovers ‘the body’ and has Hart rushed to the hospital. Meanwhile, realizing her mistake, Violet assumes Hart’s collapse is the result of the poison. Telling Judy about the accident, the two hurriedly arrive at the hospital. In a hilarious case of mistaken identity, a mob informant simultaneously brought in after being poisoned for real, dies. Hart awakens on a gurney and refuses medical treatment for what amounts to a slight bump on his noggin. He goes home undetected. However, a few moments later, Violet, Judy and Doralee overhear the doctor inform a waiting police officer that ‘the man they just brought in’ has died. Assuming the worst Violet plots to keep her ‘murder’ a secret. She masquerades as a doctor and absconds with the corpse, stuffing it into the trunk of her car. With Doralee and Judy’s complicity, the trio drives to a remote location where the plan is to weigh down the body with cement and toss it into the bay. However, in her zeal to elude the police, Violet has driven into a dumpster, ruining the fender of her car. In reaching for the crowbar in the trunk, Doralee makes the fateful discovery; the man in the trunk is not Hart. Sneaking the body back into the hospital, left in a wheel chair in the washroom to be discovered by a pair of orderlies, Judy, Violet and Doralee arrive at work the following day, jolted by Hart’s matter-of-fact arrival: very much alive and more belligerent than ever.
Confiding their great relief to one another while on break in the ladies room, Judy, Violet and Doralee are quite unaware Roz is hiding in one of the stalls, writing down their every word with eagerness. Sharing this information with Hart, he decides to have his revenge on all three by pressing formal charges, even though he is no worse for the wear from their botched murder and cover-up. Doralee subdues Hart, hog-tying him as in her fantasy and stuffing the scarf he gave her as a present into his mouth to keep him quiet. After everyone else has gone home, the girls take Hart to his plush estate; establishing a round-the-clock vigil to keep him quiet while Violet scours the office looking for dirt on Hart to use as leverage. She quickly discovers Hart has sold a lot of office furniture and other supplies kept in Consolidated’s warehouse and pocketed the money. Alas, it will take the corporate head office seven days to send over the full account of the missing inventory. So, Hart will have to remain under lock and key. Violet, Judy and Doralee concoct a makeshift restraining apparatus out of leather cuffs and metal chain link; a garage door opener installed in the Hart’s bedroom with just enough tether to allow him the run of the room and the adjacent washroom.
Two problems arise…or rather - three: first, Roz, constantly pressuring Doralee to set up an appointment with Hart. After a few false starts, Violet writes an action memo, presumably in Hart’s name (actually signed by Doralee) sending Roz to France for a language emersion course. Believing she is doing the boss’ bidding, Roz happily departs. Agreeing to spend her nighttime hours at Hart’s residence, Judy is followed to the estate by her ex, Dick. Problem #2: Dick proposes he and Judy get back together. Judy is all set to forgive Dick, except he becomes incensed upon discovering Hart dangling in his restraints from the bedroom ceiling, assuming Judy is involved in some twisted S&M sex games. The third problem occurs when Missy Hart returns home from her vacation several days ahead of schedule, discovering Hart in his leather restraints. He covers up, suggesting he is trying out some new age ‘exercise’ equipment. Missy is so naïve she does, in fact, buy this explanation, even agreeing to go away on another short trip for a few days, but only after helping Hart out of his restraints. Inadvertently, Missy lets the proverbial ‘cat out of the bag’; telephoning Doralee to thank her for the flowers Hart supposedly sent her, but also revealing to Doralee that Hart has been freed from his restraints and thus ‘free’ to cover his tracks about the missing office furniture he sold for personal profit. Sure enough, rushing back to the warehouse, Violet finds it full of the supplies in question.
However, an unlikely reprieve develops when, upon returning to the office with Doralee, Violet and Judy held at gunpoint, Hart quickly discovers a complete change come over the office. In his absence, the women, forging Hart’s signature on a barrage of action memos, have exploited his clout to redecorate and rearrange everything to accommodate their needs – introducing a flexible hours schedule, special needs and daycare program among the various progressive reforms; office productivity rising by more than 36% in just a little under six weeks. Such unprecedented growth is noted by the company’s President, Mr. Hinkle (Henry Jones) who brings Consolidated’s greatly feared Chairman, Russell Tinsworthy (Sterling Hayden) to meet ‘the man’ responsible for all these changes. Hart is initially terrified but quickly realizes he can rely on Violet to remain silent about her complicity and help explain all of the policies he knows absolutely nothing about to Tinsworthy. At the end of their meeting, Tinsworthy informs Hart he is being relocated to Consolidated’s brand new office in Brazil; a post seemingly of little value to Hart, but thus forever ridding Violet, Doralee and Judy of his sexist overtures; also, the threat of formal charges. As Hart is carted off to discuss the future, the girls toast their newfound success in his office with champagne; Roz, newly arrived from the airport, to her horror discovering the balance of power has shifted. Could these be her last days at Consolidated too?
9 to 5 is a charmer. It also marked Dolly Parton’s debut in movies; a role she nearly turned down and only agreed to do after it was contractually negotiated she could also write the movie’s title song. This became a mega hit for the country/western star and something of an anthem for the working classes, garnering Oscar and Grammy nominations; winning Best Country Song and Best Country Vocal Performance, Female of the year. In an era unaccustomed to such permutations (singers were generally singers – period!), Parton easily steals the acting thunder right out from her more seasoned contemporaries. Some years later, Parton would playfully muse, “I thought, ‘well…I’ll give it a try and if it’s a flop I can always blame the other two!” It is Dolly’s congeniality, I think, coupled with her plucky and homespun resolve that gets the job done; a perfect counterbalance to the somewhat predictably more proficient Jane Fonda and amusedly wicked Lily Tomlin. Reportedly, Fonda came up with the idea of using both Tomlin and Parton in the picture after a single evening’s trolling for talent in L.A. If so, it proved then, and has remained ever since, inspired casting. There is a real camaraderie between these ladies; a joy to watch in their interplay of dynamic personalities, plying their craft from diametrically different points of know-how that nevertheless comes together in unexpected ways.
We must not forget to honor Colin Higgins’ direction here. Higgins, who left us much too soon in 1988 at the age of 47 due to complications from AIDS, had already proven his mettle in Hollywood; writing the poignant, Harold & Maude (1971); then, embracing the absolute lunacy of a whacky whodunit with Foul Play (1978). 9 to 5 would be a meteor in Higgins brief career, followed two years later by the as ebullient musical with Dolly, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982). The films he might have gone on to contribute to our canon of cinema pleasures we will never know. But 9 to 5 remains a testament to Higgins proto-aptitudes for writing and directing quality farce. In the movie’s epilogue we learn Violet was promoted to Hart's job; Judy fell in love and married a representative from Xerox, and, Doralee quit Consolidated to become a much beloved Country and Western singer; Hart’s exile abroad resulting in his abduction by Amazons in the Brazilian jungle, never to be heard from again. Herein, it is Higgins’ mechanics – as a supreme constructionist of screen comedy - and his philosophizing on the dilemmas facing women in the workforce that I sincerely admire; clear, concise and only rarely relying on the prerequisite crudeness for which all 80’s comedies are guilty; most, for no other reason but to divert the public from realizing they do not have all that much beyond this to say. 9 to 5, on the other hand, has a great deal to offer the first-time viewer; the vivacity of its three stars, the no-nonsense in its writing style that pulls many punches, some more gender-specific than others; all, readily connecting then as now, with above-the-belt good humor: always in fashion. Even if hairstyles and clothing date, good writing is ageless. There is a lot of it on tap in 9 to 5. Despite pseudo-feminist propaganda in its byproduct ‘message’ about the evil only some men do to get a little piece of action on the side, 9 to 5 ultimately emerges as both a trendy and timeless piece of entertainment. For anyone still struggling to find that ‘better life’ out there in their work-related aspirations, 9 to 5 has it covered. Come on - “You think about it, don’t you?” and “What a way to make a livin’!”
I am not entirely pleased with Twilight Time’s Blu-ray for reasons I will disclose now. For starters, a lot – if not all – of the image has dated rather badly; colors and contrast fluctuating and looking ever so slightly boosted. Case in point: the girls’ marijuana party begins inside Violet’s living room; the image slightly faded and bathed in a sort of golden and slightly orange tint. Contrast is acceptable, but the image appears rather soft and slightly out of focus, especially when they migrate to the veranda. The first dream sequence, featuring Fonda as the hunter, toggles between a weird sepia-tint and a few sequences that are almost B&W. Never having seen 9 to 5 in theaters, I am not exactly certain which is correct. In either case, the palette is muddy and dull. The second dream sequence with Dolly’s Doralee is, I suspect, meant to take advantage of a rustic, outdoorsy, southwestern palette. However, herein the image is almost entirely graded in variations of flat orange. The final dream sequence, Violet as Snow White, has the most robust and varied colors but is sincerely compromised by built-in dirt, grain and other artifacts in the opticals used to combine live action with animation.
Color balancing is also an issue. As example: Hart’s crisp white dress shirt toggles from moment to moment between a bluish tint in one shot and then appears crisp and white in the next. Flesh tones are never natural, adopting either a pasty pink or orangey hue. Grain structure is heavy at times and occasionally hinting of a slight digitization. At other moments, it looks fairly indigenous to its source. Age-related artifacts sporadically crop up but do not distract. Overall, ‘inconsistent’ is the word I would use to best describe image quality. If I had to guess, I would suggest Fox, the custodians of this deep catalog title, have not done a thing to upgrade the transfer since 2005, the year they released a deluxe edition of 9 to 5 on DVD. Their shortsightedness shows. This is only a middling effort. The audio fares better in DTS 2.0; Dolly Parton’s hit single the only real benefactor. Apart from TT’s usual adherence to providing an isolated score, all the extras are culled from the aforementioned DVD SE, and include audio commentaries and featurettes too brief for a gold star comedy like this. Bottom line: recommended for the movie. The transfer is a sincere let down. Buy accordingly.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)