‘Still Working 9 to 5’: Film Review | SXSW 2022

Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton look at the making of their 1980 hit comedy and its continued political resonance.

Jane Fonda and her producing partner Bruce Gilbert had already spun issue-oriented storytelling into box office success with Coming Home and The China Syndrome when 9 to 5, their comedy about the plight of female office workers, went into production. It was named after a grassroots organization of women fighting for workplace equality and fair pay, and there was nothing funny about the statistics: There were 20 million female office workers in the American workforce of the 1970s, paid less than 60 cents to the male workers’ dollar, with six out of 100 making it into management ranks. The group 9to5 still exists, workplace parity remains a yet-to-be-achieved goal, and a century after the ERA was introduced, it has yet to become a constitutional amendment.

Camille Hardman and Gary Lane’s documentary about the megahit wisely takes a page from the movie it celebrates, opting for zingy over preachy. Their strategy pays off, especially in the doc’s first hour, which delves into the development, making and reception of the movie, as told by Gilbert, Fonda and her co-stars Lily Tomlin, Dolly Parton and Dabney Coleman. The directors interweave the commentary of activists who were around when 9 to 5 was released, including Karen Nussbaum and Ellen Cassedy, who founded the 9to5 National Association of Working Women in 1973, their work key to Fonda’s research.

Still Working 9 to 5

The Bottom Line

Pop culture meets political urgency in a lively oral history.

Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Documentary Spotlight)

Directors: Camille Hardman, Gary Lane

1 hour 41 minutes

The result is a sparky oral history and a tribute to the power of pop culture to spotlight tough problems; critics might have been lukewarm about its broad strokes, but 9 to 5 was the highest-grossing comedy of 1980, made a star of screen newbie Dolly Parton and spun off a TV series and a musical.

With its spirited interviews and well-chosen clips from the movie, Still Working unfolds with terrific momentum, though that energy gives way to a choppier second half: Tracing the feature’s afterlife, directors Hardman and Lane try to cover as many bases as they can, from the globe-hopping reach of the musical based on the movie to pandemic-era changes in the workplace and their effect on women. Still Working 9 to 5 might at times overstate the significance of the 1980 film, and especially its offshoots in other media, but certainly not the issues it showcased.

It’s worth noting that a few months after the December 1980 release of 9 to 5, Lee Grant’s documentary The Willmar 8 received its festival bow. Charting the 18-month strike of a group of female bank workers in Minnesota, the film, which would never receive a commercial release (it’s now available on Mubi), is a powerful complement to the big-screen hijinks of Fonda and company. It chronicles an important chapter in the history of American labor, centering on the courage of women who, like Tomlin’s Violet (and how many women still today?), were sick and tired of being expected to train men who would become their bosses while they themselves were never considered for promotion.

The making-of aspect of the doc effortlessly shines a light on the gender disparities of the period. As if to underscore the very theme of the movie, 20th Century Fox needed convincing that a feature could be led by three women, without an established male movie star as the villainous boss. (Clips make amply clear that the considerable comic chops of Coleman, who came from TV, are a crucial element of 9 to 5.)

The central roles were cast before there was a script, and Parton and Tomlin were thrilled to be personally chosen by Fonda, although Parton, a popular country artist, was mildly concerned about the potential fallout from working with “such a radical gal” as antiwar activist Fonda, and Tomlin turned down the role after she read the screenplay and found the jokes lacking. (She was strongly urged to reconsider by her partner, Jane Wagner.) Clips of the three leads’ promotional interviews for the movie, together and separately, capture not just their chemistry but the novelty of the movie’s subject and the curiosity it provoked.

Patricia Resnick, whose initial script was deemed too dark and reworked by director Colin Higgins (who wrote Harold and Maude), still doesn’t seem happy about the “slapsticky” direction the movie ultimately took. But she would go on to write the book for the 2008 musical (music and lyrics by Parton). Allison Janney, a member of the original Broadway cast, offers a few sharp observations on the message of the material, and Rita Moreno, who starred in a TV series based on the film — one that, by all accounts including hers, didn’t take long to jump the shark — relates how the movie 9 to 5 helped her break free of the idea that things would never be fair for women and there was nothing to be done about it.

Like Moreno, the culture itself would eventually catch up with the outrage beneath the laughs of 9 to 5. And then, with #MeToo, it would place that anger front and center. In the doc’s most jarring, complicating moment, Hardman and Lane invite our retroactive cringing with a clip of an exuberant Harvey Weinstein, investor and producer of the Broadway show, on opening night.

As it moves into a more general overview mode, though, their film loses steam. A few minutes spent on Lilly Ledbetter, who took her fight for equal pay to the Supreme Court, makes sense, but a sound bite from Arianna Huffington feels perfunctory.

It’s when it sticks to the dynamics of 9 to 5, onscreen and behind the scenes, that the doc frequently mines gold — as when sound editor Nicholas Eliopoulos recalls a nervous Parton playing her just-written theme song to him before sharing it with Fonda. Over the documentary’s closing credits, that infectious melody is reborn in a minor-key duet between Parton and Kelly Clarkson. It’s one of the doc’s most convincing arguments for the timelessness of the 1980 material. But, putting aside dated jokes in the comedy and unfocused passages in the doc, Still Working 9 to 5 makes its case: For anyone who cares about workplace justice, the work is far from done.

Full credits

Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Documentary Spotlight)
Production companies: Mighty Fine Entertainment, Twinzzone Productions, Artemis Rising Foundation
Directors: Camille Hardman, Gary Lane
Producers: Camille Hardman, Gary Lane
Executive producers: Larry Lane, Steve Summers, Shane McAnally, Gary Lane, Camille Hardman, Regina K. Scully, Geralyn White Dreyfous
Director of photography: Brian Tweedt
Editors: Oreet Rees, Elisa Bonora
Composer: Jessica Weiss
Sales: The Gersh Agency

1 hour 41 minutes