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Dolly Parton is an Essential Funny Woman in ‘Nine to Five’

‘Nine to Five’ is about letting go of prejudices and preconceived notions and opening your mind to new ideas.
Nine To Five Dolly Parton
20th Century Fox
By  · Published on July 14th, 2016

Welcome to The Essentials, a series of articles originally published in 2016 that dared to try and create a list of essential movies for film lovers. This entry explores Dolly Parton and her ‘Nine to Five’ partners-in-crime.

You may not have noticed, but some people – childish, insecure people – are in an absolute tizzy over the new Ghostbusters movie being focused on an all-female team. I haven’t been paying full attention, mostly because life’s too short to spend time listening to morons, but I believe the gist of the issue comes down to two non-facts.

One, the existence of a female-led Ghostbusters film will cause every copy of Ivan Reitman’s 1984 original to disappear from the face of the Earth. And two, women just aren’t funny, so what’s even the point of this farce. Have I got that right? Let’s assume I have.

That’s dumb. Watch Nine to Five.

Reboots don’t erase originals, and women – including the four leads here – have been showcasing their comedic chops on television and the big screen for years. Those truths are irrelevant though in the face of the illogical and inane fear that women are taking over the things and places that boys hold precious, and actual facts won’t prevent these boys from feeling threatened.

Sadly though, this laughable yet dangerous phenomena is nothing new.

It wasn’t a remake, but I wonder if the 1980 comedy Nine to Five would have caught similar flack had the internet and the anonymous masculinity of social media been around at the time.

Colin Higgins’ film, co-written with Patricia Resnick, is a triumph of women’s lib cinema from the ‘80s, but it seems to exist for many in the shadow of Mike Nichols’ Working Girl which came out eight years later. It’s definitely the lighter of the two comedies in regard to dramatic weight, but it makes up for it by unleashing three female leads into a blackly-comic but still very real world previously occupied solely by men. It’s fitting too as that’s also the theme of the narrative (as well as the theme of the theme).

Women in the workplace exist strictly to complete mundane tasks and be ogled by their bosses, but for three employees of Consolidated that existence is about to evolve. Violet (Lily Tomlin) is a widow raising four kids on her own, but she puts up with the bullshit because she’s next in line for an impending promotion. Doralee (Dolly Parton) is secretary to the office bigwig, but his actions have her co-workers convinced she’s also his mistress. Judy (Jane Fonda) is newly divorced and entering the work force for the first time, and she’s shocked to discover the mistreatment and double standards she’s been missing.

Mr. Hart (a terrifically sleazy Dabney Coleman), is the male boss at the heart of their troubles, and it’s in their interactions with – and because of – him that the three women find friendship, strength, and the desire to make a change. The film’s first act starts us in a reality of the times with working women who are undervalued, underpaid, sexually harassed, and trapped beneath a glass ceiling. It does this rather sharply through the varied and very different experiences of the three leads – one’s starting work for the first time, one’s struggling to be seen as more than a sex object, and one’s working towards career advancement.

The Equal Rights Amendment affecting fair treatment of women in the workplace (among other things) had only passed through Congress the decade prior, and while Mr. Mom more famously touched on the topic of a woman (re)entering a potentially hostile workplace three years later, Nine to Five captures it with more humor, vitality, and wicked wit. Violet in particular is a career woman – an idea that still threatens some men, and a character-type that still isn’t as ubiquitous in film as they should be.

There are dated moments throughout in the fashion and mistreatment of women, but one element that may not sit well with today’s audiences is the film’s embrace of guns. Doralee carries a concealed handgun – one used to keep Hart in line with threats like “I’m gonna get that gun of mine, and I’m gonna change you from a rooster to a hen with one shot.” – and there’s an entire fantasy sequence that sees Judy stalking him through the office, shotgun in hand, while he tries in vain to hide. It’s played for laughs, and it succeeds, but while mass shootings – particularly those in the workplace – were a rarity prior to 1980, they’ve become an unfortunate part of the news cycle in the decades since.

Those fantasy scenes remain part of the film’s charm and power though as each of the three women share how they’d like to off the bastard. Judy hunts him down, Doralee hogties and roasts him over a spit, and Violet shares a Snow White-like scenario where she and some cartoon animals cheerily and chirpily poison Hart before tossing him out a window. (One wonders if Disney would be so accepting these days.)

This is dark, delicious material and the kind of morbid, cinematic sandbox that used to only feature boys rolling around in the lead roles. Pre-1980 exceptions exist – Ruth Gordon in Harold and Maude comes to mind, and maybe Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday? – but I’m hard-pressed to think of more than a few. They’re commonplace now though with female actors allowed to have just as much fun taking on playfully devious and morally flawed lead characters who make us smile despite their wicked acts.

Plot ramps up as an accidental poisoning leads to the theft of a corpse and the kidnapping and imprisonment of Hart, and while these aren’t fantasy sequences they’re every bit as over the top. Physical comedy, something the film had already been dabbling in with Hart’s broken chair and Judy’s copy machine mishap, magnifies too as they strap their victim into a hang-glider rig and chain him to an automatic garage-door opener. There is joy and satisfaction in seeing Coleman dangling helplessly from the ceiling – the filmmakers know as much as evident by their ending the movie on a freeze-frame of just such a scene.

Possibly lost amid the big laughs and romp-like scenes are the details of the three women both at home and in the workplace. Violet realized long ago that she doesn’t need a man at home to survive, but we get to see Judy learn the lesson and find the strength to move on from her cheating ex-husband. Doralee meanwhile is given a sweet and loving relationship with her husband that plays as a terrific contrast to the stereotype that viewers and her co-workers had fallen into believing regarding her work outfits and supposed interaction with her boss. Even in these more grounded moments the characters aren’t made to be perfect women – Violet and Judy, as well as the other women in the office, initially treat Doralee poorly due to their beliefs before realizing their error.

They make changes to Hart’s draconian office rules and instigate new ideas and incentives resulting in happier, more effective workers. Some of their adjustments – on-site daycare, shared shifts, health programs – are more standard fare these days, and the validation comes from above when the company’s chairman of the board arrives to praise the effectiveness of the changes. The film can’t resist one last dig though as he whispers to Hart that the whole “equal pay” thing needs to be rolled back to prevent female employees from getting the wrong idea.

Nine to Five isn’t a man-hating movie or one that pits men versus women. It’s about letting go of prejudices and preconceived notions and opening your mind to new ideas. These were progressive ideas in 1980, but they remain important and necessary lessons today. Ideally the message will sink in without the need for further kidnapping and imprisonment, but hey, why fix it if it ain’t broken.

“You’re a sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot.”

“So I have a few flaws, who doesn’t, is that any reason to kill me?”

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.