Working Girl Films from The Best of Everything to FOR A GOOD TIME, CALL…


Operating a phone-sex business may not be exactly what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they framed the “pursuit of happiness” as one of our inalienable rights. But for Lauren and Katie, the two central characters in FOR A GOOD TIME, CALL…, phone sex becomes its own form of manifest destiny. What starts out as a way to make ends meet becomes, through hard work, street smarts and team effort, these two women’s realization of the American dream. Polar opposites in terms of personality, these roommates from hell happen to be perfectly matched for the business: prim and proper Lauren has the organizational skills; carefree Katie brings her dirty mind (and mouth). Perhaps the greatest liberation these characters experience is financial –– the freedom to go their own way and not have to kowtow to corporate demands. While women continue to make great strides in the workplace, their struggle to earn comparable wages for similar work or to compete in the old boys club is an ongoing drama in American and European society. And the cinematic dramas and comedies that recount that struggle provide a fascinating insight into how much has changed (and stayed the same) for working girls. We cast an eye over at other original movies that look on the financial side of life.

British Work | Career Girls

At the heart of FOR A GOOD TIME, CALL… is a complex friendship between Lauren and Katie, former frenemies whose acrimonious history stretches back to their college days and a drunken incident involving one of the ladies having to pee in speeding car…. Devotees of British director Mike Leigh might recognize shades of that love/hate dynamic in the two former college girlfriends who are the subjects of his 1997 bittersweet gem Career Girls. Again, the two women could hardly be more different from one another, although the tensions between this British pair are rather more subterranean. Lynda Steadman’s character is painfully shy and anxiety ridden. That of the late Katrin Cartlidge is funny and caustic to the point of cruelty. Meeting up one weekend after a long absence, these now young executives engage in university reminiscences that expose a decade of quiet hurt. Despite the title, business success for these two women is just a power-dressing veneer that covers over feelings of vulnerability. For all the trappings of workplace security, they are still looking for meaning in the material world. “They have a bit of money, they’re independent, their lives are different, but it’s a role they’re playing – it’s not what they’re actually doing,” Mike Leigh told Filmmaker Magazine. “They have become ‘career girls’. [The title] is not about ‘work’ but the way [the women] are now playing it.” Those who saw Lord Of The Rings will get a kick from this film as they spot Andy Serkis playing the lecherous yuppie who tries to sell these career girls his high-rise condo while also trying to flirt with them. His lustful craving is a hilarious foreshadowing of his Gollum alter ego. And an avaricious stand-in for corporate masculinity as a whole.

Time Punchers | 9 to 5 to Clockwatchers

For years, many women working in offices were thrown into the deep end of the secretarial pool and left to either sink or swim, while their male bosses looked on from their windowed offices. The drudgery of this dead-end office work is captured in a number of classic films. Perhaps the ultimate office revenge fantasy, the 1980 comedy 9 to 5 follows a trio of very different secretaries as they turn the tables on their sexist, egotistical, lying bigot of a male boss (wonderfully played by Dabney Coleman). While the women team up to fight the man, the reason are quite different. Jane Fonda plays the timid prude forced into a life of filing servitude and Xerox machines after her husband left her for his own secretary. Lily Tomlin is the no-nonsense office manager and widowed mother of four who is constantly overlooked for promotion in favor of less talented men. And country chanteuse Dolly Parton, making her film debut, is the buxom blonde forever harassed by the pencil-dropping habits of her pig-headed overlord. But the takeover is more than a putsch of patriarchal power. The ladies set up their own corporation, Consolidated, which sees a significant uptick in productivity using their kinder, gentler modes of operation. For the film, the original screenwriter, Patricia Resnick, went undercover to work as a secretary in order to gather stories of real women. But as a perhaps bitter irony, when Twentieth Century Fox greenlit the project and tapped Colin Higgins to direct, he rewrote the script, firing Resnick, the female screenwriter, in the process. If 9 to 5 transformed 70s feminism into a dream of revolt, workers in the Jill Sprecher’s 1997 Clockwatchers are a lot less energetic. Its cast offers another powerhouse of comedic talents, but indie-style. Toni Collette, Lisa Kudrow and a memorable Parker Posey star in what Sprecher has dubbed an “anti-female-bonding movie,” a comic look at women struggling to keep afloat as “temp” workers in a nameless corporation. In its review, The New York Times noted how “this gently surreal comedy…rubs your face in the petty humiliations endured by women at the low end of the company totem pole.” Roger Ebert was even more appreciative: “the movie is so mercilessly funny, because it sees stupidity so clearly.”

Climbing the Corporate Ladder in High Heels | Working Girl

If the 80s exalted in unbridled greed, with corporate raider Gordon Gekko from Oliver Stone’s 1987 Wall Street as its mascot, Mike Nichols’ 1988 Working Girl brought women into the capitalist free-for-all. Get past the big shoulder pads, the even bigger hair and Melanie Griffith’s baby-doll voice and you have in Working Girl the perfectly constructed modern Cinderella story set in the late 80s world of Wall Street mergers and acquisitions. Working Girl charts the rise up the corporate ladder of a blue-collar Staten Island secretary, Tess McGill (played by Griffith). Screenwriter Kevin Wade hit upon the idea for the script as a retelling of the American dream. Producer Douglas Wick remembers being in New York City’s financial district: "Everywhere we looked, Kevin and I noticed smart-looking, pretty young women rushing to work in tennis shoes and carrying high heels. We started talking about them and realized that they all must have a story." Of course, the film has two stories – one about a woman on the rise, the other about woman who won’t help her out. Sigourney Weaver, as her arch-nemesis, was nominated for an Oscar for her blistering portrayal of  the bitch boss. While Griffith, Nichols, and the film itself were also Oscar nominated, the only winner was Carly Simon for her moving anthem to ambition, “Let The River Run.” And the emphasis on boats and water was no coincidence as Nichols intended from the start to graft gender issues to the iconography of race. "When I started working on the script of Working Girl, the most important thing to me was the combination of immigrant and slave ship image…The slaves, as usual, are imported from somewhere else–because nobody can afford to live in Manhattan–and then there's the idea of the underground railroad, when Tess' friend at the end leaps up in joy, because 'one of us' made it out."

Mad Women | The Best of Everything

While the politics of The Best of Everything (1959) are a far cry from the feminism that would emerge in a decade’s time, it nevertheless trades the melodrama’s traditional milieu of home and small-town gossip for the publishing world and office politics. Jerry Wald, who’d produced Peyton Place a year before, picked up the rights for Rona Jaffe’s debut novel while it was still in galleys. The Best of Everything tells the stories of innocent young women who come to Manhattan looking for love, adventure and a career that might introduce them to their future spouses. “Here’s to men: Bless their clean cut faces and dirty little minds!” is the toast that opens this movie. The story has recently had a resurgence due to another workplace melodrama, AMC’s TV series Mad Men, in which Don Draper is seen in bed reading Jaffe’s novel during season one. In 2004, Camille Paglia had compared the book to another cable hit, Sex and the City, in that in both works the women were “very much at the mercy of cads.” As the story progresses and the women are trapped by the men they date and the jobs they’ve taken, the delicious irony of the title becomes clear. The one successful career woman, a powerful editor, played to the hilt by Joan Crawford, is such a nasty piece of work that New York Herald Tribune noted, that although she has only seven minutes of screen time, “Miss Crawford comes near making the rest of the picture look like a distraction.” Fittingly for a film about women and their jobs, the movie marked a tough point in Miss Crawford’s own career, who confessed to gossip maven Louella Parsons that she needed to work after the death of her fourth husband, Pepsi-Cola executive Alfred Steele, had left her in debt. When this unflattering comment unnerved Pepsi’s PR department, Crawford told the film’s producers that she’d host the film’s trailer, but only if she could be holding a bottle of Pepsi.

In Labor | Films of Working Class Women

Mention Norma Rae and chances are people remember Sally Field’s Oscar acceptance speech (“You like me, right now, you really like me!”) more than they do the harrowing 1979 drama and the killer performance that earned her that Academy Award. Based on the true story of Crystal Lee Sutton, who was fired from her textile plant for trying to unionize its employees, this film opened the world’s eyes to the deplorable working conditions endured by those on the bottom rungs of the American ladder. Thankfully, Norma Rae is not the only film to expose such social iniquities. Nor is it an isolated example of women fighting for our fundamental rights, or representing the stories of real working women. Julia Roberts won a Best Actress Oscar for Erin Brockovich as the sassy, unemployed single mother who almost single-handedly brings down a polluting California power company. Meryl Streep was at her brilliant best playing another real-life working-class figure in Silkwood, in which she fights for her own rights as someone exposed toxic chemicals in the workplace. In Bread and Roses, British filmmaker Ken Loach applies his social realist style and humanist concerns to the plight of two Latina sisters who work as cleaners in a downtown office Los Angeles building where they become the central figures in the Justice for Janitors unionizing campaign. Another UK director, Nigel Cole, looked much closer to home for his 2010 crowd-pleaser, Made in Dagenham, which dramatized the Ford sewing machinists strike of 1968 that aimed for equal pay for women. Its theme song is performed by Sandie Shaw, herself a former Dagenham Ford clerk. And then there’s the seminal 1954 film Salt of the Earth, based on another actual strike, this one against a zinc mine in New Mexico. The twist here is that the wives of the miners are the ones who picket the mine, after an injunction prevents their husbands from doing so. Written, directed and produced by members of the “Hollywood Ten”, Salt of the Earth gained further notoriety when lead actress Rosaura Revueltas was deported to Mexico during filmmaking in an effort to shut down production. She would end up in Germany working with Bertolt Brecht in his theatre. As for Salt of the Earth, the only film to be blacklisted during McCarthyism, it ended up on the National Film Registry in 1992.

Working Mothers | Baby Boom

Diane Keaton, the actress who gave us the adorably ditsy Annie Hall and the sexy intellectual in Manhattan, conjured up another great archetype in 1987’s Baby Boom: the career-driven woman who also wants to be the perfect mom. She doesn’t arrive at such work/life harmony easily. Her workaholic life is thrown upside down when she inherits the 14-month-old toddler of a deceased relative – prompting her to move to Vermont. Despite moving away from her fast-paced corporate life, she can’t quite shed her ambition. In addition to starting a romance with the local vet (Sam Shepard), she starts a thriving baby food business. When her former employers offer to buy her out for millions, she decides instead to grow her budding enterprise on her own without having to sacrifice her personal life. The film was co-written and co-produced by Nancy Meyers, who’d go on to write, direct and produce another Diane Keaton vehicle, Something’s Gotta Give, after she’d separated from her husband and creative partner Charles Shyer (who directed Baby Boom). While the film was loosely based on a real life corporate executive, a Harvard-educated MBA named Nadine Bron, the story more accurately reflects Meyers' own ambivalence about ambition and motherhood. Commenting on her own career, Meyers said, “I’ve had directing offers and I’ve turned then down. It wouldn’t be right for my family….But that’s just the way it is. I’m not saying it’s fair: I’m not saying women should compromise, but they do have to compromise.”

The Price of Success | The Valley Of The Dolls

Based on Jacqueline Susann’s 1966 roman a clef, this lurid saga of three young women struggling to succeed in show business has every pulpy ingredient imaginable from alcoholism, adultery, and abortion, to breast cancer, suicide and the barbiturate “dolls” of the title. All rolled into one trashy Technicolor train wreck. For novelty value alone, it’s hard to beat a cast line-up that includes Sharon Tate, Patty Duke, Susan Hayward, a piano-playing Marvin Hamlisch, Joey Bishop and Richard Dreyfus in his very first movie role. But for as much as the movie is a fun, camp ride, it also spoke to the price women supposedly paid for their ambition. Adapted from Susann’s surprise bestseller, the title comes from a line --“You've got to climb Mount Everest to reach the Valley of the Dolls” – uttered by Anne Welles (Barbara Parkins), a career women who turns to drugs to deal with the pressure of success. Interestingly the book’s author, despite having to deal with breast cancer while promoting the book, not only succeeded but thrived in her position as a best-selling author. And while the book and film have been ridiculed by critics – Gore Vidal famously quipped, “She doesn't write, she types!" – the story has endured as both camp and inspiration. At the time of its 1967 release, Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert complained that Valley of The Dolls “tries to raise itself to the level of sophisticated pornography, but fails. And it is dirty, not because it has lots of sex in it, but because it firmly believes that sex is dirty.” Three years later, Ebert himself tried to make amends for this failing by teaming with sexploitation auteur Russ Meyer to write an even trashier sequel of sorts that Meyer also directed. The resulting 1970 schlock parody, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, grossed more than $40 million, putting it on a box office par with Valley of the Dolls, but at a fraction of the production budget.

Women On Top | The Devil Wears Prada

While most films deal with working women, either stuck at the bottom or struggling to climb some corporate ladder, a few focus on women on top. The Devil Wears Prada takes on one of fashion’s most iconic and powerful women. The film was adapted from Lauren Weisberger’s best-selling novel of the same name, a tell-all tale that many claim to be a thinly-veiled portrait of Vogue editor Anna Wintour, for whom Weisberger worked as a personal assistant for 10 months. While Wintour has failed to comment, no Condé Nast publication reviewed the book. The film focuses on the ordeals of the fictional assistant (played by Anne Hathaway), but the real star is Meryl Streep. Playing the cool, confident, perhaps cruel Miranda Priestly, Streep seemed to find more nuances than perhaps were in the original novel and arguably provided more vivid insight into Anna Wintour herself, as she appeared in R.J. Cutler's 2008 documentary The September Issue. There are moments when Streep lets the mask drop and we see a woman without makeup confronting the sacrifices she has made for her cut-throat career. Even Emily Blunt, in her scene-stealing breakout role as the snarky fashionista who is Priestly’s “first assistant,” shows herself to be far more vulnerable than your typical Hollywood caricature. This is the poignant side to the American dream, the one that shows the loneliness and neediness that comes with chasing that fame and fortune. And the dresses look absolutely fabulous.

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