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'Working Girl' (R)By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 21, 1988
"Working Girl" is a delectable reworking of the ultimate girl's myth, a corporate Cinderella story with shades of a self-made Pygmalion. This scrumptious romantic comedy with its blithe cast is as easy to watch as swirling ball gowns and dancing feet. But oh me, oh my, how much more demanding it is to be a fairy tale heroine these days. Happily-ever-aftering is hard as hell.
The divorce rate being what it is, Prince Charming just isn't the answer anymore. Today's Cinderella first sets her sights on a career, and if the prince is part of the package, so much the better. Girls in glass slippers want car phones, briefcases, seats on the stock exchange. And, fairy godmother, make that pumpkin a leveraged buy-out.
Here director Mike Nichols waves the wand over Melanie Griffith, who's as luminous as Marilyn Monroe, as adorable as one of Disney's singing mice. She clearly has the stuff of a megastar, and the movie glows from her. Harrison Ford and Sigourney Weaver are handsome arbitrageur and evil stepmentor to Griffith's struggling Tess McGill, a sexpot with a night-school MBA.
On her 30th birthday, the brokerage firm secretary becomes more determined than ever to climb the corporate ladder, fighting off lecherous and/or treacherous colleagues at every rung. Equal parts vulnerability and fiduciary pluck, the heroine sets her sights on the firm's entry-level program, but it is restricted to Ivy Leaguers who don't need the money. Tess, who looks, talks and walks like a blue-collar Staten Islander, initially doesn't fit the bill.
Weaver is the ultimate witch as the high-powered Katharine Parker, a breezy, insensitive sexist who pretends to help her new secretary while stealing her brilliant ideas. Katharine plays a game of just-us-girls, but Tess runs the errands and pours the coffee. "I'd love to help you, but you can't busy the quarterback with passing out the Gatorade," Katharine says. And there's the more insidious, "Bring me your ideas and we'll see what we can make happen." Truly Katharine is fit to fill Joan Crawford's shoulder pads.
She nevertheless serves as a role model for Tess, who takes off her tricolor eye shadow, junk jewelry and patterned hose in favor of a more businesslike look. Like Eliza Doolittle pulling herself up by her bootstraps, she also learns to mimic her boss' aristocratic accent. Then one day Katharine goes on a skiing vacation and breaks her leg. She asks Tess to look after things, giving her access to her closet, her computer and her business associates. One of the latter turns out to be a prince of a guy -- Jack Trainer (Ford), a good-natured investment broker who falls madly in love with Tess, posing as a broker in Katharine's Donna Karan suits, whilst they wheel and deal together.
Now when Tess talks, everybody listens. But there is always the chance that she'll be exposed, drop a telltale dese-dem-dose or, as in one touching scene, get up to fetch the coffee when she has in fact been offered some. Tess' gum-popping sister (jazzy Joan Cusak) is alarmed over her pretend success: "Sometimes I sing and dance around the house in my underwear. That doesn't make me Madonna," she warns. To add to her troubles, Tess also still cares for an old boyfriend (Alec Baldwin), a philandering, icy blue-eyed hunk who reads Motor Trend in bed. By all that is holy, Jack shouldn't stand a chance, but it is chivalry that counts.
Ford, looking exhausted and mussed, is something of an amiable love prop as Jack. But there are still a few tines in this rake, a bit of Indiana Jones in the three-piece suit. And Ford and Griffith seem to enjoy each other's company as they tear into the first-ever sexy scene involving briefcases. It's a tastefully torrid moment with an old-fashioned coda -- an urgent kiss that triggers the high-heel reflex.
Screenwriter Kevin Wade, the off-Broadway playwright who wrote "Key Exchange," makes Jack the spokesman for what men really want in this endearing dramedy. What he's done to Cindy-Eliza-Tess is a sociological revelation, an indication of what floppy bows and supply-side economics hath wrought. "I have a head for business and a body for sin," says the heroine. It's a message that would surely turn on even Freddie Mac.
"Working Girl" has a heady '40s atmosphere, lusciously photographed by Michael Ballhaus. The Statue of Liberty is a frequent focus, that fecund symbol of the opportunity that nearly eludes Tess. But capitalism proves a girl's best friend -- and capitalism is the ultimate Cinderella story. Sex and money -- let's get fiscal.
Copyright The Washington Post