Escape to New York?

Against the Current No. 18, January/February 1989

Susan Cahn

WORKING GIRL, written by Kevin Wade and well directed by Mike Nichols, is a terrific Cinderella story set in, and glorifying, modem-day American capitalist society. The good guys win and true lovers unite and all this happens in the high-powered world of Mergers and Acquisitions (M&A), where, it turns out, honesty is rewarded and anyone, from anywhere, even Staten Island, can climb sweetly to the top, if only s/he tries hard enough.

Melanie Griffith (Tess McGill) is luminous as the working girl from Staten Island who must relearn how to speak, wash off her garish and obviously “worker” make-up and chop off her luxurious locks (“You have to have serious hair if you want to be taken seriously”) in order to make it in the world of high finance. Harrison Ford (Jack Trainor) is charming in his slightly cynical but wholly boyish way as her partner in the boardroom and the bedroom (isn’t that the way of the world? the sexual charge from consummating a deal….)

Sigourney Weaver (Katherine Parker) is dead on target as the double- or triple-dealing boss whose well-deserved injury gives the working girl her entree to the fast track. The acting is wonderful; the photography is beautiful; the story-line entertaining; the ending happy — what more could a moviegoer want?

Well, perhaps from Kevin Wade, best known for Key Exchange, nothing. But from Mike Nichols, the man who made The Graduate and who recently directed Waiting for Godot, the moviegoer might want some awareness of the message conveyed by this apparently light-hearted and good-humored film. From Mike Nichols, it is not enough that Jack Trainor early on expresses distaste for the kind of person and relationship spawned in this world — Trainor gets over his distaste and soon seems to share the film’s fondness for Wall Street, its denizens, its methods, and its goals.

The first and most obvious message of the film is that capitalism works. The American dream, says Working Girl, is a wonderful and worthy dream and it comes true for the pure of heart.

The founding head of the huge conglomerate, Trask Enterprises, is not just a decent guy; he is also, like founding heads of conglomerates everywhere, I guess, a loving father, an attentive husband, a man open to new ideas and new comers (i.e., those who have graduated from non-Ivy League schools).

Hotshot M&A specialist Trainor is not just sexy; he is also, like M&A specialists everywhere, I guess, sensitive, caring, giving, and has a great sense of humor.

The villain of the piece is not just duplicitous; she is also, like successful women everywhere, I guess, arrogant — so arrogant that it does not even occur to her that her secretary could put two and two together, much less notice when she is stabbed in the back. As Katherine Parker deserved her broken leg, so she deserves her broken romance and broken career. The film teaches us that Wall Street is a street of just desserts.

What makes Tess so deserving of success? The key seems to be her recognition of how unworthy her lifestyle is in the beginning, how tacky and tawdry are the lives of working girls, and her keen desire to “make it.”

Certainly, as presented by Mr. Nichols, working girls are different from and less than graduates of the Seven Sisters and Tess’s goal to get out of the working-girl world a worthy one.

Working girls, after all, wear too much make-up, too tight (or too short) skirts, too high heels; they talk in a nasal, New York kind of way; they wear Frederick of Hollywood underwear; and – can you believe it? — they don’t even know they’re tacky. They think they’re OK and it’s not for lack of trying that they’re not all Madonnas or Chers or Elizabeth Doles. They think it’s something other than the right accent and the right outfit that makes people rich and famous and they see to think that people are born with that other.

Nicholas assures us that we can achieve the other: we like Tess, can rise up by going to speech class, discarding our chewing gum, and disavowing our roots. We, too, can deserve the life of Ivy Leaguers. And if we deserve it, obviously, on Wall Street, we’ll get it.

Even the photography and the music serve to convince us that Wall Street is the promised land for which we should all be striving and which will reward us in accord with our merits. The scenes on working-class Staten Island are grey or dark or rainy and, in the distance, Manhattan beckons those most determined to make it, those who do not “settle” for grey, working lives. The ferry to Manhattan, the Emerald City, or as the film’s music calls it, the New Jerusalem, moves from dinginess to blinding sunlight. Nature itself smiles at those on the fast track.

The more we might want and, indeed, expect from Mike Nichols and a film that pretends to take working women seriously is a sense of the irony of the tale. Instead, Nichols makes the story into a fairy tale. The film is by no means credible but its very lack of credibility makes it more insidious and appealing in its message that we should continue to dream the American dream. The horrible thing about the movie is how successfully it conveys that we can as individuals escape from the bleakness of our lives into an enchanted Wall Street and that the first step out is rejection of working-class culture.

January-February 1989, ATC 18

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