Women spent much of the 1970s insisting on their right to occupy the workplace on the same terms as men, but by the end of the decade things had stalled. While some career women were able to move beyond the secretarial pool and the switchboard, the barriers were still imposing: the number of women in management — even middle management — was vanishingly small. Screenwriters Patricia Resnick and Colin Higgins tried to capture the constant humiliations and frustrations women faced at the office in Nine To Five, a comedy that plays a bit like a paleolithic Office Space.
Violet Newstead (Lily Tomlin) is a sharp go-getter at Consolidated Industries, one of those movie corporations that doesn’t seem to produce anything in particular. After 13 years on the job, she has come to rule the roost of the secretaries on the 12th floor, but has been repeatedly passed over for promotion to management. The most galling snub was losing a management position to Franklin Hart (Dabney Coleman), a “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot” whom she trained in at the company years earlier. Now Hart lords his petty authority over the women around him; he shouts at Violet to bring him coffee (while taking credit for her ideas), sexually harasses his secretary Doralee (Dolly Parton) and eyes as fresh game new secretary Judy (Jane Fonda).
The loutish and incompetent Hart doesn’t realize that his office drones have been pushed to the breaking point. They dream of doing away with him in a series of colorful fantasy sequences, and then — in a mordant screwball-comedy twist — come to believe that they have fatally poisoned him.
There’s a whiff of old Hollywood in Nine To Five, a deceptively simple crowd-pleaser that makes its points without offending its capitalist overlords; Dabney Coleman’s Hart is so cartoonish that no one could call his comeuppance political. The movie is as peppy and sunny as the Dolly Parton song that kicks it off. And speaking of Parton, this was her first screen role, and she shows herself a natural on-screen; she is so relaxed and convincing you would think she’d already starred in a dozen films. Jane Fonda’s Judy is rather bland as the new kid, and in fact Fonda — whose production company helped to bankroll the project — is so low-key she seems to be hiding in plain sight. Lily Tomlin is really the protagonist, and she wins us over with a smart, sardonic performance.
This is one of the most popular film comedies of its era, spawning a TV series that — while pretty much forgotten today — lasted three seasons. The cast of that series included Dolly Parton’s sister Rachel Dennison as Doralee, and Rita Moreno as Violet. — Michael Popham
NINE TO FIVE screens Friday and Saturday, June 11 and 12 at 7:00 and 9:15, and Sunday, June 13 at 5:00 and 7:15. Tickets are $8.00, and you can purchase them here.