Let’s face it. Forty year anniversaries aren’t as popular as twenty-five or fifty. But for a 1980 movie whose stars are still not only performing in showbiz, but downright thriving – why skimp on the celebratory coffee and Skinny & Sweet? (Joke explained in the below paragraph.) Why not take a few moments to cheer?
9 to 5 is a 1980 feminist hootenanny. It has something important to say about gender inequality in the workplace, and does so in a hilariously fun, clever way. The plot: Three mistreated female office workers fantasize about bumpin’ off their “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot” male boss. But, one lady almost goes through with her fantasy – albeit by accident.
Violet, played by the superb Lily Tomlin, accidentally adds rat poison instead of Skinny & Sweet artificial sweetener to her boss’s coffee. (Per Violet – “The boxes are identical except for the skull and crossbones.”) To avoid arrest, Violet and her two co-workers, Judy and Doralee, played by legends Jane Fonda and Dolly Parton respectively, abduct their boss and hold him captive for weeks as they learn that not only is he a “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot” to his female counterparts, but he’s actually been stealing from the company and now they have to prove it. Big gulp. That’s one complicated comedy.
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The blackmail plan to spare these ladies from jail is hatched. And note that all three ladies are in deep at this point. Aside from the rat poison which originally only put Violet in the hot seat, Doralee’s in deep, too – she ties up their boss, Mr. Hart, with telephone cord in his office. And then Judy almost shoots Mr. Hart, or as Doralee would say, Judy was “acting like he was first prize at a turkey shoot!” Funny stuff. The abduction scene is side-splittingly hilarious, as these three kind-hearted ladies are clearly out of their element. Being bad? As the saying goes – “There’s a first time for everything.”
In the end, after a few cheeky plot twists and turns, all’s well that ends well. Though the ladies don’t prove Mr. Hart an embezzler (as he beats them to the chase, covering his illegal activity) it doesn’t matter. Chairman Tinsworthy, so impressed by Mr. Hart’s recent positive job performance and enhancements to his department (changes which the ladies actually made), forcibly transfers Mr. Hart to their Brazilian office. Maybe he can work some “magic” down there. It’s the wilds of the Amazon for this despicable character. Closing credits for the movie reveal Mr. Hart gets abducted yet again – this time by a tribe of Amazons. Most would say “just desserts” for this rotten boss.
And as for Violet, Judy, and Doralee? Violet is promoted to Mr. Hart’s position. Judy marries the Xerox copier representative, and Doralee leaves the company to become a country-western singer. Congrats to them!
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Best Actress Academy Award winner Jane Fonda (Klute, 1971, and Coming Home, 1978) brought 9 to 5 to the silver screen in 1980, and the world can thank her. Daughter of master actor Henry Fonda from the Golden Age of cinema, Jane Fonda is worthy of accolades. 9 to 5 was her chipper little brain-child. And with great folks behind the camera (director, screenwriter, etc.) to help bring her vision to life, Jane Fonda created a unique mix of social conscience, comedy, and plain old-fashioned “great film-making.” She was decades ahead of American society in discussing the prickly issue of gender inequality in the workplace. Gender inequality isn’t funny in 1980 or in 2020, and for her to champion making this film, tackle this tough topic with humor meanwhile not sacrifice its weight – is skillful and commendable.
Then there’s Lily Tomlin. No slouch to comedy herself, Lily Tomlin first gained fame on TV’s lively variety show Laugh-In (1969-1973). Known for her wicked imagination, she created legendary characters like little five-year-old Edith Ann and tough-nut telephone operator Ernestine. Lily Tomlin even won a Tony Award for her one-woman Broadway show (The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, 1985). And since 2015, she and Jane Fonda, longtime buddies from 9 to 5, have been starring in the Netflix comedy sitcom Grace and Frankie. Both in their eighties, it’s a pleasure to watch them tear down the house of age-related prejudices. Why stop only at gender inequality in the workplace?
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Which brings the viewer to the phrase “pink-collar ghetto” – possibly the most important (and funny) line of 9 to 5. What does it mean anyway? Pink-collar ghetto was a term first used in the 1970s to denote any job that would typically be “relegated” to a female – often school teacher, nurse, or secretary (today, better known as the politically-correct term of “administrative assistant”). These jobs were of lower seniority than men, offered lowered pay, and most often no upward mobility. Thus, women in these positions often felt stigmatized, marginalized, disenfranchised, and stymied. All heavy baggage.
These women weren’t white-collar (a term referencing high-paying positions historically belonging to men). Nor were these ladies blue-collar (referencing manual labor positions also historically belonging to men). These women equated their jobs to being stuck in a ghetto, but not just any ghetto – a pink one (pink being a “female” color). “Pink-collar ghetto” is a powerful visual – and Lily Tomlin delivers this line both smartly and comically. Squished in at Charlie’s bar between her new pals Jane Fonda and Dolly Parton, she says – “Face it, ladies, we are in a pink-collar ghetto.” Hilarious. Tragic. 1980 true.
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We then complete this feminist trio with Dolly Parton in her big-screen debut. 9 to 5 was Dolly Parton’s very first movie, and it’s the vehicle that catapulted her into the bright lights of Hollywood – after finding unbelievably bright fame as country-western singer-turned TV star on The Porter Wagoner Show (1967-1975). Back in the day, Dolly Parton was in the royal ranks of singers Elvis Presley and Barbra Streisand. In 9 to 5, she brings that “star” factor. She also brings a touch of welcome brown suede and fringe – not to mention her signature bright blonde wigs! Importantly, her acting is pitch-perfect. As a viewer, you find it hard to believe it’s her first movie. Today, Dolly Parton still has an exceptionally strong singing career, and does the occasional movie and television special. She even has her beloved hometown amusement park, which she built back in the 1980s – appropriately called Dollywood.
By definition, 9 to 5 is a farce. It’s over-the-top. It’s not entirely on the “realistic” level. This film could have easily drifted into a serious PSA (public service announcement) on women’s rights, but instead of drifting there – it launches full-steam ahead into lovable shenanigans. After all, kidnapping one’s boss is not light fare – it’s pretty criminal. But 9 to 5 pulls it off. So much so that most viewers are probably cheering these three kidnappers on.
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This is where the brilliant casting of 9 to 5 becomes apparent. These are three different performers coming from vastly different backgrounds, each bringing her unique brand of magic. They come together to form the ultimate on-screen “power-chick-clique.” Uber-talented Academy Award winner Jane Fonda plays the dowdy divorcée Judy to perfection. Comedic powerhouse Lily Tomlin shines as Violet in her “bumpin’ off the boss” fantasy – which incidentally lands her smack-dab between some adorable animated woodland creatures. (Yes, hidden gem – 9 to 5 boasts brief animation.) And singer Dolly Parton gives Doralee sass, and a touch of down-home country class. Then add in Dabney Coleman as repugnant boss Mr. Hart, and Elizabeth Wilson as office-gossip Roz, and 9 to 5’s supporting cast shines, too.
The result is a movie that feels like a feast. Every shot is a veritable smorgasbord – whether it’s dialogue, a character’s facial expression, or even art direction, and costuming. It’s possible to watch this movie a dozen times and still find something new you hadn’t seen before. Case in point: During Violet’s “bumpin’ off the boss” fantasy which includes animated characters, watch the “knitting” bunny. It starts out with a small piece of knitwear. But by the time Mr. Hart is catapulted out his office window, thus meeting his demise – this bunny has knitted a big grey “gravestone” with the initials R.I.P. (rest in peace). No doubt for Mr. Hart. Giggle-worthy? Absolutely. But easy to miss? Yes. Watch 9 to 5 with hawk-eyes. It has both “big” and “little” comedic jewels.
9 to 5 also has a stellar theme song – fittingly called “9 to 5.” Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Song, it was a huge hit on both pop and country charts back in the early 1980s. Written and sung by Dolly Parton herself, it’s one of her all-time top hits – and has become a “working-class” anthem across the USA. It’s as relatable a song-theme as love and heartbreak.
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But if bolting back from Memory Lane and revisioning 9 to 5 for the year 2020, it’s hard to say how it would fare. Who would be cast? And where would it take place? Maybe it could star a talented trio of TV sitcom comics like 2016’s Ghostbusters remake (Kate McKinnon, Kristen Wiig, and Melissa McCarthy). And maybe it would be set in an aircraft manufacturing plant to showcase the modern 2020 woman – “out of the secretary seat” and “into the mechanical engineering cockpit.” All intriguing possibilities.
Still, the legacy of 9 to 5 lies in its novelty. For likely many 1980 moviegoers, it was the first time they glimpsed a “working woman” struggling to make her way up the “corporate ladder.” As mentioned, as a school teacher or nurse, upward mobility wasn’t really present. For instance, a teacher or nurse received a degree in her specific field, and most stayed in her position for life. Upward mobility wasn’t part of the equation. This is still often the case for these roles today.
But a secretary? Not quite the same. Women, like 9 to 5’s Violet, could join a company right after high school, learn about the company, work her tail off, excel and take on new tasks, and even “unofficially” lead and become indispensable to both the business and her colleagues. A promotion from time to time would then absolutely be warranted – and a change in job title to reflect the added responsibilities.
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But as 9 to 5 shows, the corporate world isn’t always fair. Mr. Hart discloses the real reason Violet is passed up for promotion by a man who she trained and has five years seniority over – “Clients would rather deal with men when it comes to figures” (money). Ouch. It’s hard to envision 2020 audiences not flying straight into frustration or even boredom with this premise. Frustration at the fact that this type of negative treatment of women still exists. 9 to 5 gave moviegoers a glimpse into something “new” in 1980. Even if updating to modern-day comediennes and changing the job title to mechanical engineer, the modern moviegoers’ response might be tepid (whether fair or unfair).
9 to 5 is one of those “lightning in a bottle” films. It had all the right dazzling ingredients, and, very importantly, was released at the right time. And even if the topic of gender inequality in the workplace is still unfortunately relevant in 2020, this movie provides a release-valve. It lets the viewer know that there can still be laughter within pain. There can also be beloved friends (smart, fun, and raucously imaginative!) to help you through a bad work-day. As the saying goes – “We’re all in this together.”
For fans of Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton, 9 to 5 is a “must-see.” You won’t be disappointed. For non-fans, it’s also worth a watch. You get to witness these three superstars hamming it up forty years ago – alongside old-fashioned Xerox copiers and paper rolodexes (small typed or handwritten “contact” cards). Who knows. You might even become a “converted” fan of these actresses. If so, you’ll have a ton of excellent movies to get caught up on since 1980. These ladies have been busy. They were dynamite back then, as they still are today. “Happy 40th Anniversary, 9 to 5.”
By Joslyn Gadwah
I was once an exec for The Economist magazine. Nowadays, I'm a published poet, travel writer, and "vintage" pop culture blogger from the New York City area. I love movies, and especially those dusty old classics. I "heart" the rich history of film.