“Working Girl,” which turned 30 last week, opens with a close-up of the Statue of Liberty over the drumbeat of its Oscar-winning theme song. Kevin Wade was inspired to write the film while looking across New York harbor at that symbol of freedom, as passengers poured off the Staten Island Ferry and into the steel towers of the financial district.
Tess, played by Melanie Griffith, is one of those ferry commuters, a secretary who slips from sneakers into heels at her desk, who takes night classes, reads the society pages and tries to ditch her heavy New York accent. When her backstabbing boss goes out of town, she decides to take over her office, her apartment and her $6,000 cocktail dresses.
“It was an immigrant story first and foremost,” Wade says. A commuter as an immigrant — a stranger trying to assimilate in a strange land of mergers and acquisitions.
Why do I love this movie whose premise seem to relate little to my life? The reason, I’ve realized, has a lot to do with the appeal of the impostor romantic comedy, a genre that includes the likes of “Roman Holiday” and “Tootsie.” The main character takes on a new persona, one that allows them to break from the constraints that were holding them back — a powerful metaphor for what we want in life and love.
“There’s a fantasy or maybe a deep-seated wish that, ‘If only I could go out in the world in a way different from me, I would be accepted, and what I think is of value about me wouldn’t be questioned,’” says Wade, who also wrote the impostor rom-com “Maid in Manhattan.” “That thing that you feel about yourself or that the world tells you isn’t worthy, that’s in the past.”
“Working Girl” is strikingly similar to “Big,” another have-to-watch-when-it’s-on-cable movie I watched again when director Penny Marshall died this month. Josh is a teenager who wakes up one morning as Tom Hanks — and moves from the suburbs to a new world of Manhattan big business.
Both 1988 movies are what happened when the rom-com golden age collided with the ambition and yuppie snobbery we see in “Wall Street.” (“Big” is only arguably a rom-com, but I’ll leave such arguing for another story.) After their transformations, both protagonists flourish professionally, as they’re pursued by successful but troubled executives (Harrison Ford and Elizabeth Perkins) enlivened by these fish out of water.
They each have a best friend who reminds them of who they were in their old life. (“Working Girl” has the best best-friend role from one of movie history’s best best friends, Joan Cusack, nominated for an Oscar along with Griffith and Sigourney Weaver.) They each endure a romantic disappointment that sparks their impersonation — Alec Baldwin’s cheating boyfriend, and Josh’s crush, the one who’s tall enough to get on the ride that he can’t.
As in many good rom-coms, mutual respect at work fuels the romance, as the couple heads toward a big business deal. In “Big” they work at a toy company, collaborating after-hours on his idea for an electronic comic book. A scene in “Working Girl" of the sweating couple crunching numbers late at night as they work on Tess’s proposal crackles like a Tennessee Williams scene.
In “Tootsie,” the professional is also intertwined with the personal: Dustin Hoffman’s character dresses as a woman to get a role on a soap opera — and his alter-ego becomes a feminist hero both to America and to his object of affection, Jessica Lange’s character Julie, who learns to stand up to her boyfriend (the entitled jerk you see in all these movies, here played by entitled-jerk specialist Dabney Coleman). In “Dave,” the head of a temp agency ends up as president of the United States — and channels his passion for job-finding into bigger things, with the first lady’s help.
Sometimes impostors literally want to break out of their old lives, as in “Roman Holiday,” where Audrey Hepburn is a princess pretending to be a commoner, while Gregory Peck’s character hides his shady-journalist self. Others do it for survival: In “Some Like It Hot,” Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon’s musicians dress as women to avoid gangsters, but end up finding romantic matches — famously perfect and imperfect, respectively. (Cross-dressing impostor rom-coms date back to “As You Like It” and “Twelfth Night.”)
Or sometimes the avatar embodies our aspirations in romance itself. A great example is “Pillow Talk,” in which Rock Hudson plays a rake posing as a polite Texan who’s actually looking for love — and then, surprise, falls in love (Hudson famously posed as a straight man). In “Shallow Hal,” Tony Robbins hypnotizes Jack Black’s character into seeing a woman’s inner beauty.
There are borderline impostor rom-coms, such as “You’ve Got Mail,” which becomes one in the second half, as Hanks’s character has to hide his true identity from Meg Ryan’s. In fact, once you start chasing this subgenre to its edges, you realize just how much romance in comedy depends on deception. All those secretive journalists, as in “Never Been Kissed." Bets, as in “She’s All That.” (Both, as in “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days.”) Resurrections, as in “Heaven Can Wait.” Memory loss, as in “Overboard.” Time traveling, as in “Groundhog Day” and “Peggy Sue Got Married.” Cyrano stories, such as “Roxanne” and “The Truth About Cats and Dogs.” Masks, as in “The Mask.” George Costanza pretending to be a marine biologist in “Seinfeld.” So many characters suppress traits, hide pasts — as all of us have surely done. These movies ask: To what extent is love a con game? (As it literally is in “The Lady Eve.”)
“Any time any of us is courting someone and we’re trying to win them over, we’re always impersonating — like everybody’s first date,” Billy Mernit, author of “Writing the Romantic Comedy,” says when asked about these movies’ appeal. “We’re trying to impersonate our better selves.”
The end of the impostor rom-com is like dates three, four, five or more — when the guise is removed, we see if the con of courtship can produce something genuine. “All these stories hinge on a climax where the reveal is a threat to the relationship, but it’s not so horrible that it can’t be overcome,” Mernit says. “The person proves nonetheless they’re still worth loving and it’s okay.”
The believability of that reconciliation is crucial. How wide is the gap between who we are and who we want to be? Does the person we love believe we can cross it — and are they willing to help us?
Dave decides to run for city council as himself — and the first lady shows up to help. But in “Big,” the gap is too wide — after Perkins’s character knows the truth, she mumbles something about giving Josh her number just in case, but then just drives him home. In “Tootsie,” after Hoffman’s character makes his plea to Lange’s to take him back into her life, we watch her face, anxiously. As Mernit puts it, when it comes to love, “What truths can we bear?”
And at the end of “Working Girl,” after Ford’s character risks his career to save Griffith’s, and he packs her a lunch to send her off to her new job, he’s not just handing her a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and Twinkies. He’s showing that he believes she can cross from the secretary’s office to the executive’s, from Staten Island to Manhattan, and that he will help ferry her along. What more could we want in someone?