Monday, September 27, 2010

Day 172: Move over "wolf of Wall Street"

Tess McGill is one of the many commuters who make the daily Staten Island Ferry trip to their routine office job in Manhattan, in Tess’s case, like so many other of the other young women, as a secretary. Only, Tess is different in that she uses her ferry time to research financial and business opportunities in the daily paper, as Tess wants out of the typing pool and into an executive position, that’s why she’s just recently earned a business degree by attending college at night. But Tess has luck on her side, as her successful, formidable and ruthless boss, the financial executive, Katherine Parker, agrees to help Tess and will look over any potentially good ideas that her secretary has.

However, when Katherine breaks her leg on a skiing trip and is unable to return to New York, Tess discovers that Katherine has been duping her and is about to pass off one of Tess’s ideas as her own. In her boss’s absence, Tess wastes no time in using the opportunity to pose as Katherine and run the idea past executive, Jack Trainer, who is working on the deal. Tess and Jack immediately fall for each other, but Tess soon learns that the situation is both professionally and personally complicated, as Jack is Katherine’s boyfriend.

So, the pieces of plot are carefully arranged in the blend of Romantic Comedy and Comedy of Disguise that is Working Girl. This 1988 film that starred Melanie Griffith, Harrison Ford and (famously) Sigourney Weaver, in a delicious performance as Kathereine Parker, was a winner on all fronts: box office (it took $103 million [and that was twenty-two years ago]) so audiences obviously loved it, the critics went for it (the respected Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times said “The plot of Working Girl is put together like clockwork. It carries you along while you’re watching it, but reconstruct it later and you’ll see the craftsmanship"), and it garnered a sackful of awards and nominations for the three lead actors, for supporting actress Joan Cusack, for director Mike Nichols (The Graduate, Silkwood, Heartburn) and for Carly Simons anthemic song ‘Let the Rivers Run’.

But Working Girl is more than just the mix of two comedy sub-genres; Tess’s journey is heroic and transformational. Her rise and battle to escape everything that is her and so many other women’s lot, using her guile, tenacity and hard work, is the stuff of a rebirth plot and a her eventual triumph, over the monumental opposition inherent within the man’s world of the New York financial market (in which Sigourney Weaver’s Katherine is more-than-equipped to play like, and with, the boys, however dirty she has to get) is inspiring.

In the climactic moments of this great film, Tess finally manages to lay all asunder before her and win the day, so exposing the wretched Katherine in the process and winning Jack’s loyalty (his heart and body were hers from the get-go) and we are left with the sweetest of coda’s:

Tess and Jack have moved in together and Jack has prepared a lunchbox for Tess on this first day of her new job at Trask Industries. When Tess arrives at the office, she sees a woman on the phone and the dutiful Tess hangs up her jacket in the cubicle opposite the woman’s office; Tess knows her place in this familiar world. When the woman gets off th phone and introduces herself, Tess asks how she takes her coffee? The woman is nonplussed and embarrassed, after all, she is the secretary and Tess is the boss, she had just been caught out, on her boss’s phone, in her boss’s office. A stunned Tess McGill, takes in what is HER office and the view over downtown, then insists that her new secretary treat her as a colleague rather than a superior, after which Tess calls her friend Cyn, back in the typing pool to say “guess where I am”. Tess’s journey is complete.

Day #172 Tip: “Return with the Elixir”
Yesterday, I talked about the Resolution as the fifth stage of the five-part screenplay structure, the “tying of the bow on the giftwrapped present” that is the script.

In Christopher Vogler’s great book ‘The Writer’s Journey’ (based on mythologist Joseph Campbell’s work), the twelfth and final stage of the 12-part journey, is the “hero returning to the Ordinary World” but, and there’s always a but, “the journey is meaningless unless she brings back some Elixir, treasure or lesson from the Special World”.

What Tess brings back to the “ordinary” world which she is from - the very literal "typing pool" of life, where women of her kind are maltreated both professionally and personally - is hope and proof of a way out. Even though it strikes me that the script was written with more than a little sexist ink (and that’s over two decades on), nevertheless, Tess has definitely broken through that glass ceiling and this is is her “return with the gold”.

Just watch that last shot, panning out from Tess’s high-rise, office window in downtown Manhattan, underscored by Carly Simon’s Grammy and Oscar Award-winning song and tell me if that’s not a victory and an accomplishment; not just for women, but for everyone who's trying.

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