It began as an ordinary discussion session, Jane Fonda recalls. She was researching her new movie, "Nine to Five," with a group of office workers. As they talked about their jobs, Fonda heard "a litany of problems the women had in common -- from low pay to lack of promotion to sexual harassment."
But then writer-director Colin Higgins asked the women, "Have you ever fantasized about killing your boss?"
Suddenly, "people couldn't get their stories out fast enough," Higgins says. "Everyone had thought of sticking their boss in the Ibm machine at one time or another."
The writer had found his plot, and the resulting movie opens here on Friday. In Higgins' suspense comedy script, three secretaries (Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton) fantasize about killing their inept, chauvinistic boss.
Fonda became interested in making a film about secretaries through her association with Karen Nussbaum, a friend from antiwar movement days who is now director of Working Women -- an office workers' organization at whose Cleveland headquarters the discussions took place last year.
Set in a large corporation, "Nine to Five" examines power in office. From the start, Fonda and her co-producer, Bruce Gilbert, had conceived it as an ensemble comedy modeled after Preston Sturges' work of the '40s. Fonda emphasizes the importance of humor: "It takes more genius to take a serious subject and turn it into laughter than to hold a mirror up to a serious subject."
But her intent is earnest. "There is this thing about being a woman," she says. "We tend, so many of us, not to really feel deep inside our gut that we have the right to expect more. That we have the right to get angry." She offers an analogy to her own screen career: "In the beginning, nobody forced me to do 'Barbarella' at gunpoint. I did it on my own free will . . . never understanding the pernicious role of culture. I'm sure many secretaries feel: 'My boss doesn't force me to fill out his racing forms. I do it because I want to do it.'"
The script was written with Fonda, Tomlin and Parton in mind. The three stars had never worked together before, but found an immediate rapport. For Lily Tomlin, making "Nine to Five," was "like camp or junior high. . . . We had built an attachment for each other. When we first got together and were getting friendly and sharing a lot of stuff, I felt I was the high-school girl from Detroit who won the contest. You know -- you write a letter and spend the evening with the stars."
Tomlin recalls that when she was breaking into comedy 18 years ago in New York, "I used to alternate between being a waitress and being an office temp. You'd go a little berserk being a waitress, then you'd to back to being an office temp, then you'd go beserk then you'd go back to being a waitress. But you made more as a waitress."
She remembers office life: "In those environments, those sealed offices . . . I used to get hysterical. I didn't know what was wrong. I hated to go the the store, my energy would drain away. That closed environment is debilitating physically. Not to mention the lights over the mirror in the ladies room!
"I would do office work for two or three days, then I would black out. I would say I was going to the john and wouldn't come back. Or, I'd go to lunch -- hit the streets and the world of the living -- and I couldn't return."
Tomlin empathizes with her character: office supervisor Violet Newstead, a widow with four children who is passed over for promotion by a young man she trained. The boss continually insults her by demanding that she fetch his coffee. Her fantasy is to substitute rat poison for his Sweet 'n' Low.
Tomlin says that "if you're in a really grind job, where you get no strokes, it must be awful." But, she says, "I'm just perverse enough, I could almost like to have a desk and play office. There's a certain part of me that likes a lot of detail. A part of me likes cleaning all that detail up.But I don't know how long I could do it. I do it for myself even though I have a secretary."
Dolly Parton, too, was able to draw on her office experience.
"I could relate to my role in 'Nine to Fivd,'" says Parton. "I started my career when I was 18. I went to Nashville. I was a songwriter, and had hundreds of songs. Well, I knew I was gonna be a successful writer and I didn't want to put my songs everywhere, so I started my own publishing company with my best girlfriend from home, July Ogle. We ran the office ourselves for years and did all the paperwork."
In the film the lecherous boss takes advantage of the sweet personality and sexy looks of Parton's character, Doralee Rhodes.
For those who confront such problems in real life, Parton says, "you can't just up and walk out of a job. But if the problems on the job are more severe than the profits and if it's gonna make you an emotional wreck, then you could confront the person. You could say -- 'Now look, I know this is gonna sound like a crock of ----. You've never listened to me before, but this is gonna have to change or I would rather be doin' something else. And I need this job and you know it.'"
In the film, the secretaries' friendship is fostered by sharing their frustrations. Parton says, "I don't think the fact that women are gettin' together is gonna solve all the problems women have and will have. But it certainly will improve some conditions."
Fonda's partner, Bruce Gilbert, puts it another way: "Getting coffee will never be the same after this movie comes out."