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Hot Docs Film Review – ‘Still Working 9 to 5’

“It’s a movie about secretaries fantasizing about murdering their boss,” Jane Fonda says with a smile in a clip from a 1980 interview that opens the documentary Still Working 9 to 5, produced & directed by  Camille Hardman and Gary Lane. As a pithy summation of the 1980 comedy smash 9 to 5, Fonda’s zinger does the trick. Yet, especially in light of recent news, the issues raised in this comedy gem are still relevant some 40 years later. Still Working, screening at this year’s Hot Docs documentary film festival in Toronto, is an in-depth retrospective of, not only the film, but the cultural landscape in America at the time.

The feminist movement today has become a bustling network of non-profit and social groups seeking legislation and private-sector initiatives, working toward true equality for women in the workplace and beyond. In 1980 though, that infrastructure was still largely in the developing stages. As directors Hardman and Lane point out in the film’s early sequences, there were 20 million female office workers in the labor force at the time 9 to 5 debuted, yet the vast majority were paid less than 60 cents to their male counterpart’s working dollar, and only six out of every 100 female workers managed to advance to a management position.

With that in mind, Fonda and producer Bruce Gilbert set out to make a screwball comedy dripping with social commentary on the plight of the female office worker and the uphill battle women faced in the daily working world. The film teamed Fonda with comedian and actor Lily Tomlin along with singer and emerging icon Dolly Parton against their sexist boss played by TV actor Dabney Coleman. The result was wildly popular with audiences and generally warmly received by critics.

In today’s era of the blockbuster, it’s easy to lose sight of just how successful 9 to 5 was. It ended its theatrical run with earnings of over $100 million against a budget of $10 million. Adjusted for inflation, that’s $349 million in today’s box office dollars. For context, The Batman, 2022’s biggest blockbuster so far, has made just $20 million more. Not to mention, 9 to 5 achieved its success with vastly fewer screens and less promotional resources.

As successful as the film was, the real smash hit at the time was its theme song. Written and performed by Parton, “9 to 5” spent two weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100 and continues to play in and outside of offices today. For Parton aficionados, some background is given on how Dolly created the tune, as well as the revelation she only agreed to be part of the project because Fonda allowed her to write the title song.

In the documentary, the success and pop cultural appeal of 9 to 5 takes a backseat to its broader societal impact. The film sparked a conversation in offices and homes about women’s equality in the workplace. The progress women have made toward equality, as well as the struggles that have come with that progress in the years since the film’s release, are detailed in the words of the women on the front lines. People like Karen Nussbaum, leader of the 9to5 movement to organize female office workers, activist Lilly Ledbetter and Jane Fonda herself. The filmmakers provide quite thorough background on the 9to5 movement, as well as the Equal Rights Amendment and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009.

The filmmakers present 9 to 5 as an important pop-cultural link to the long fight for equality for women. Jane Fonda was already a pioneer of political activism in Hollywood and continues to be today. Dolly Parton has tried to stay out of the culture wars that have been sparked in the last 40 years, but she’s never been afraid to use her voice, becoming a role model for all kinds of women [Editor’s note: and men, for that matter]. Lily Tomlin has consistently used her position and influence to advance issues important to women, such as women’s health. The film was far more than workplace vengeance cosplay.

As the title suggests, Still Working 9 to 5 ends not so much with “job well done” as “we’ve still got a ways to go.” Workplace conditions for female workers have improved since 9 to 5 was released in 1980, but at home and around the globe there is still plenty of work to be done. Over the years, the film’s story has struck a cultural nerve at the box office, on the pop charts, on TV, and on Broadway. Still Working 9 to 5 leaves us with the hope, in these tenuous times for women’s rights, that it may yet have more sparks for continued progress for women. As Allison Janney comments, “Don’t put up with shit. Demand respect. That’s a great message.”

Visit the film’s website, stillworking9to5.com.

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