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Working Girl (1988)

Reviewed by Tom Ender

“For anyone who's ever won. For anyone who's ever lost. And for everyone who's still in there trying.”

The “tagline” above says a great deal about the potential audience for this film. This movie received a nomination for the Best Picture Oscar. Although I like Rainman, which took that Oscar and many others in 1988, I believe Working Girl to be the better film. Unlike some dystopian films that I have reviewed and recommend highly, this movie produces a good feeling. However, throughout much of the movie, a positive outcome seems unlikely. In addition to the wonderful story, if you like Carly Simon’s music you should enjoy this film since her voice and tunes dominate the soundtrack.

The movie opens with a view of the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor. As the camera moves around the giant female figure catching the scenery of the great port city, Carly Simon’s “Let The River Run” (won the Oscar for Best Music, Original Song) plays in the background and the credits roll. The camera eventually focuses on the Staten Island Ferry. The view moves inside as the camera surveys the large crowd of commuters coming to rest on a pair of women seated together: one presenting a cupcake with burning candles to the other.

Cyn (Joan Cusack, nominated for Best Supporting Actress) sings “Happy Birthday” before birthday girl Tess (Melanie Griffith, nominated for Best Actress) blows the candles out. When Cyn asks if she made a wish, Tess responds “yeah” and seems caught up with thinking about the wish. After the ferry arrives and they are walking, Cyn asks Tess about drinks later, after work, but Tess has several classes which she won’t skip. She senses a surprise party when Cyn keeps at her and asks when she should show up. Cyn says 7 PM.

Tess arrives at her office where she assists several stock brokers, primarily Lutz (Oliver Platt) and Turkel (James Lally). They seem to take her for granted not realizing she has more potential than working as their “gopher.” Turkel tells her she’s been turned down for the “Entre program” and Lutz tells her about his “friend” Bob in arbitrage, who is looking for a Secretary. As they leave the office other coworkers bring birthday balloons and sing to Tess. After classes going home on the ferry she does her homework. Once home, Mick (Alec Baldwin), her “significant other” leads the celebrants who “surprise” her.

After an incident in a limousine the next morning with Bob (Kevin Spacey) from arbitrage, Tess gets even with Lutz who set it up. However, as a consequence she meets with the Personnel Director (Olympia Dukakis) about another job placement. She’s told she has only this last chance and is assigned to Katharine Parker (Sigourney Weaver, also nominated for Best Supporting Actress) in Mergers and Acquisitions. When Tess meets Katherine it seems that perhaps her luck is changing. Even though Katherine seems self-absorbed she impresses Tess as encouraging her career advancement.

Actually, Katherine’s self-absorption borders on egomania. However, she has a Wellesley degree and the background which goes with it. She may seem merely obnoxious until Tess takes her up on her offer to help with ideas. Tess outlines an idea about a potential deal involving Oren Trask (Philip Bosco), a business leader looking for a media acquisition, and filling that acquisition with radio instead of TV. Tess also tells Katharine about her desire to get into the “Entre program” and hopes this example will work toward that. Katharine encourages that and takes Tess’s idea, later telling her that it didn’t mesh with Trask’s needs. However, she starts action to implement without Tess.

When skiing Katharine breaks a leg. While she's laid up at her parent's home, Katharine calls Tess to have plants watered, mail picked up and work “taken over” at her apartment. While performing the chores Tess discovers that Katharine has taken her Trask idea without giving her credit and bypassed her on everything involved with it. Part of the concept development involves a media specialist named Jack Trainer (Harrison Ford). Tess sets up a meeting with Jack. As she takes over leadership of her acquisition idea the events build toward success.

That much introduces the main characters and gives background. There are side stories which add to the emotional milieu, but relaying much more here might spoil too many of the movie’s surprises. Veteran director Mike Nichols (nominated for Best Director) paces the film perfectly. Working Girl demonstrates several very important truths: “breeding” counts for little in humans, truth usually comes out, and perhaps most importantly: markets in which “gumption,” persistence and courage win out destroy class systems.

Sigourney Weaver is magnificently hateful as Katherine Parker. Joan Cusack as Tess’s friend Cynthia is a treat.  Harrison Ford uses his charisma to make Jack Trainer seem almost like Han Solo in a business suit. However, Melanie Griffith playing Tess shines brightest, as though the “Let The River Run” lyric:

We the great and small stand on a star
And blaze a trail of desire
Through the dark'ning dawn 

was written precisely with her portrayal of Tess in mind, with the following describing the modern city of New York:

Silver cities rise
The morning lights
The streets that lead them
And sirens call them on with a song

If you feel you need morale boosting, if a story of succeeding in business against the odds suits your fancy, or your “gumption” needs some refreshing; then give Working Girl the chance to work for you. It always lifts my spirits. I expect it will for you also.

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