Sunday, May 08, 2005

DVD review: Nine to Five

"It's quitting time, boss man."
"It looks just like Skinny & Sweet except for the little skull and cross bones."
"I'm no idiot. I've killed the boss. You think they won't fire me for a thing like that?"
"We're going to need a seperate locker for the hat."
"If I want to do M&Ms . . ."
"I'll change you from a hen to a rooster with one shot!"
"Face it girls, we are trapped in a pink collar ghetto."
"I smoke a Mary-juna cigarette once at a party."

Some of you probably think we're quoting from the movie Nine to Five starring Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton. You're wrong. We're quoting from e-mails, from some of the e-mails. Awhile back, when it was noted that we'd be reviewing Nine to Five as part of our lead up to the release of Jane Fonda's first film in fifteen years and her first comedy in twenty-five years, we got a few e-mails. When it was noted last Sunday that we'd be doing the review this week, the e-mails poured in.

Besides quoting from the movie, many of you also wrote in to note your favorite scene. Often with a "please don't forget to mention this one" added at the end of the e-mail.

There's not enough space or time to quote all the lines you quoted to us or to mention all the scenes you noted to us. To do that, we'd probably have to post the entire script to Nine to Five.

Just to include the quotes above, we had to go through and select based on which lines were mentioned the most often. Nine to Five is an immensely popular comedy. It was a huge box office hit in 1980 and it remains popular to this day. There's not anyone with The Third Estate Sunday Review that hasn't seen it. There's not anyone who's helped us that hasn't seen it.
Any film maker would be overjoyed for their film to reach half the people that Nine to Five has reached and continues to reach.

So here's the thing, a lot of critics didn't like it at the time it was released. Some fell into the camp of "Fonda's blown it!" Those people felt that after tackling the Vietnam conflict in Coming Home and dangers of nuclear power in The China Syndrome, Nine to Five was a step down for actress and producer Jane Fonda. They felt the film was fluff.

They might want to watch the film again. Sexual harrassment and sexual discrimination? One reviewer huffily wrote (we're observing the Dorothy Parker rule of playground honor and not naming names) that anyone harrassing women like that would be immediately fired, that Mr. Hart (played by Dabney Coleman) wouldn't be allowed to act as he did and that the type of sexual discrimination in wages and promotion wouldn't occur in real life. What's interesting is that the EEOC would half-assed "fight" a sexual discrimination against Sears -- begun in 1979, lost in 1986. Apparently the reviewers were unaware of that case, one that was launched a year before the film opened? By the way, Clarence Thomas, a name we've all grown to loathe, he headed up the EEOC by the time they lost the case to Sears.* And, transition courtesy of Thomas, how can you talk sexual harrassment today and not note Anita Hill? That would come a decade after Nine to Five. So, reviewer we're not naming, want to rethink your "logic?"

Flex-time was also dealt with in the film and has only become more of an issue as more single parents balance family and work. The program that Fonda, Tomlin and Parton implement re: alcoholism starts the character Marge on the road to recovery. In 1980, was that the issue it would become in the nineties? No, it wasn't.

The need for daycare, is that an issue that was old hat, been there done that, in 1980? No, it wasn't.

Again, unnamed reviewer, do you want to rethink your "logic?"

Some reviewers just didn't feel the film was funny. It may not have been, to them. (Don't sit near us at the theater. We like to laugh.)

Then you had people (and the great Pauline Kael was among them) who had specific problems with the film. Some felt that the line, spoken by Parton's character to Coleman's, about changing him from a rooster to a hen with one shot was a betrayal of feminism or just illogical. Yes, the term is "capon." Thank you for the education lesson. Here's one for you, Dolly Parton plays a farm gal. The line is perfectly in keeping with the character. Is it "factual?" No, it's not. Is it something you can picture Doralee saying? Yes, it is. And that's why it comes out of the character's mouth. Would it have appeared strange for Doralee to say, "I can change you from a rooster to a capon with one shot!" Yes, it would. Take off your Bill Nye the Science Guy hats long enough to realize that characters in films aren't always footnoting. (And strange that the same reviewers who objected to that one line -- and used it as evidence to question the feminism of the film -- had no objections to any of Dabney Coleman's lines. They weren't factual either. They were in keeping with his character.)

Some wanted to bicker over the hospital scene (where Tomlin swipes the body and then Tomlin, Fonda and Parton drive off with it) and some wanted to bicker over the scene where Fonda's character (Judy) is defeated by a photo copy machines that does things that, our hair-splitting critics, felt the need to point out a photo copy machine could never do. Ladies. Gentlemen. It's a comedy. A comedic fantasy.

Looking over the reviews, it seemed like people put themselves into Judy's fantasy only instead of going gunning for the boss, they went after the film.

Reading through them one after another, we felt they should have saved the space and just typed up "Kill Joy Was Here."

Of the three women, Tomlin received the bulk of the praise. Tomlin is excellent in the film and we'd rank it as her second finest comedic performance since The Late Show. (We're exempting the filmed version of the play In Search of Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe because it's a mixture of film and stage.) We were surprised by the reactions to Parton and Fonda. Dolly Parton's largely dismissed as funny in one sentence and then the reviewer moves on. This is an incredible performance by Parton. (Steel Magnolias is another fine performance by Parton.)
When reviewing The Electric Horseman last week, we noted that Willie Nelson was basically a good sport in that film. That's how Parton's treated by many reviewers in this film. Parton's not just along for the ride, she adds tremendously to the film's humor and action.

Another film like Nine to Five (the three once intended to reteam and spoke of Jury Duty -- not the Pauly Shore film -- as a possible film they could do together) and Dolly Parton could have had Bette Midler's Disney career in the late eighties. She's that good.

Fonda seems to be carved up by the reviewers for being an actress committed to a role, one that some pulling out the knives didn't think was worthy of being recorded on film. At one point, Judy notes that all she's "ever done is be a housewife." A displaced home maker didn't garner sympathy from any of the critics carving up Fonda's performance. That's surprising because displaced homemakers were becoming a regular feature of the landscape at the time the film was made. Some reviewers saw Judy as "dumb."

What film were they watching? The point of Judy, and Fonda essays this perfectly with delivery, expressions, movement and the aid of her costumes, was that she's wounded and a stranger in a strange land. She's spent her whole life, as she states in the film, doing what her husband wanted. She's ignored her own voice and doubted her thoughts. You see that develop throughout the film. When things are out of control, for instance, after the body's stolen from the hospital, who's the one smart enough to call for a break? That would be Judy.

"Pull over." She says. Ignored, she screams it repeatedly. As the movie continues, Judy will learn two things, to trust her instincts and that she doesn't need to yell to be heard, that everyone's not going to dismiss her the way the creep she was married to did. Since they missed that point, we're assuming that they also missed the scenes with the creep. Where he tries to tell her what to think, what to say, and how to act.

Judy's not dumb. She's scared at the beginning. She's doubting herself. But she's not dumb at the beginning. And the script is as much about Judy's transformation as it is a comment on the modern work place.

Three women starring in a film wasn't that common in 1980. Boys on the Side and other films would come much later. In fact, when The Turning Point and Julia both came out a few years earlier, there were many headlines because it was news that two women were carrying a film.
So maybe, in 1980, it was just too shocking for some reviewers to handle a film starring three women?

It wasn't for the audiences (then or now). They laughed it up with the women identifying with the petty tyrannies of a boss that, as Dolly Parton noted in the song she wrote and sang in the opening film, "is out to get me."

Nine to Five was a huge hit when it was released. It's reach was aided by cable television which was still relatively new to most Americans. Hitting the premium channels and then the basic channels (and playing nonstop) it reached an audience that even many "hit" films of today can't reach now. That's because cable aided it. What carried it was the laughs and the fact that so many could identify with the film. (Roz, the office spy, is a nightmare we've all encountered.)

Fonda's hilarious in the film as are all three. Lily Tomlin is a master and the fact that Dolly Parton and Jane Fonda aren't just standing around with their mouths open is a miracle in and of itself. But all three women approached their roles with commmittment and the chemistry between the three is not to be underrated. It's really too bad that a Jury Duty never came about. (It should also be noted that the next big comedy hit starring three women -- a decade later, First Wives Club, has yet to result in a reteaming of Goldie Hawn, Diane Keaton and Bette Midler.) [Dolly Parton did perform a song, as herself, in The Beverly Hillbillies. Lily Tomlin played Miss Hathaway in that film and that's been the closest to a reteaming for the women on film.]

The film was a question mark in many minds from the beginning. Fonda and her co-producer Bruce Gilbert originally thought they'd be making a film where the women actually killed the boss. That was too much for the studio. For some reviewers, what was onscreen was still too much.

But audiences, then and now, responded. Nine to Five is still current. That's a little bit sad because it is too bad that we're still dealing with issues of combining child care with work; that flex-time, though more popular, is still not the norm; and that sexual discrimination and sexual harrassment are still excused by many.

But the fact is that a whole generation or two have been raised with this film. They've seen it and, like Fonda's Judy, they have been "awakened."

We'll note a complaint about the film. The DVD release needs to be redone. Get the three women together to provide a commentary or to do a fifteen to thirty minutes segement reflecting on the making of. The DVD of Coming Home offers bonus materials. Nine to Five should as well. The DVD needs to be re-released with bonus materials. We'd suggest including commentary or segment where the women talk about the making of. The original trailer. An essay on the issues the film addresses. A video of Parton performing "Nine to Five" live. Filmographies for the three women. For those watching on their computer's DVD player, a link to the organization 9 to 5. That a film that's remained so popular with audiences (read our e-mails from the last week) and continues to entertain is released as though it's My Blue Heaven, is a real shame.

When a film has this kind of staying power, it deserves a re-release on DVD.
* EEOC chairman and Reagan appointee Clarence Thomas told the Washington Post in 1985, as his own litigators were arguing the case in court, "I've been trying to get out of this since I've been here." [. . .] Thomas was, in fact, so outspoken that the Sears lawyers at one point considered calling him as their own witness.

That's from page 384 of Susan Faludi's Backlash. For more on the Sears case, see pages 377 to 388 in Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women.
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