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‘Still Working 9 to 5’ Film Review: Doc Examines 1980 Comedy’s Impact on Ongoing Fight for Gender Equity

SXSW 2022: The hit movie used laughs and stars to sell its message of equality, and things haven’t changed nearly enough over four decades

Camille Hardman and Gary Lane’s documentary “Still Working 9 to 5” cold-opens with an archival clip of Jane Fonda giving a television interview about “9 to 5,” the 1980 comedy she produced and starred in alongside Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton. As the interviewer presses her about what kind of film to expect from the radical activist, Fonda blurts, “it’s a movie about secretaries fantasizing about murdering their boss,” to which the interviewer responds, “So it’s not a political statement, is it?” This is an assertion that Hardman and Lane will emphatically disprove over the course of the next hour and 40 minutes. 

“Still Working 9 to 5” doesn’t innovate or experiment with documentary form: This is a straightforward talking-heads and archival-footage kind of project. But the access to the film’s stars and producers, as well as notable feminist activists spanning the first and third waves of feminism, is what makes this documentary appealing.

Lane produced and appeared in the 2011 documentary “Hollywood to Dollywood,” depicting the road trip he took with his twin brother Larry to deliver a script to Dolly Parton at her namesake Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, theme park, so his connection to the country star could have perhaps been the boost to get her on board the project. (Larry Lane also serves as a producer.) Parton even contributes a new recording of her iconic, Oscar-nominated theme song “9 to 5,” on which she duets with Kelly Clarkson. 

The first half of “Still Working 9 to 5” is dedicated to the development and production of the 1980 comedy, which had a unique journey to the screen. In the late ‘70s, Fonda and activist partner Bruce Gilbert turned from political action to making films that highlighted the issues they cared about in order to bring attention to, say, the plight of Vietnam vets (“Coming Home”) or the nuclear threat (“The China Syndrome”).

For “9 to 5,” Fonda partnered with the Boston-based labor organization run by Karen Nussbaum in an effort to address the issues facing working women in clerical jobs, at the height of the women’s movement. The script started with data and testimonials that Nussbaum delivered, and the film was cast before a word was written, with Fonda hand-picking Tomlin and Parton as her co-stars.

Fonda emphasizes the importance of craft and genre in delivering these messages to wide audiences. For “9 to 5,” comedy was the sugar that helped the medicine go down as well as a way to visualize real women’s experiences. The resulting film (written by Patricia Resnick and Colin Higgins and directed by Higgins) is both sharply incisive about the real issues facing women in the workplace and appealingly funny, which is part of why it became a cultural phenomenon.

After detailing the production and initial reception of the film in 1980 and its shocking box office success (released in December, it was second only to “The Empire Strikes Back” that year), Hardman and Lane take on the legacy of the film (which they sort of incorrectly deem a “cult” classic) throughout pop culture, as well as its resonance with the various fights for gender parity in the United States. 

“Still Working 9 to 5” tracks the film’s trajectory and its continued long life as a TV series and as a stage musical, alongside various political movements like the fight to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment in 1982, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in 2009, and the #MeToo movement in 2017. An archival interview with Harvey Weinstein at the 2009 Broadway premiere of the “9 to 5” musical, in which he mentions that everyone in his office wants to kill him, is a truly cringe-worthy piece of footage but a crucial moment for examining the way this story has moved through culture and taken on renewed meaning in different moments in the fight for women’s rights. 

In 2009, it didn’t seem like there was much need for the kind of feminist ideals laid out in 1980’s “9 to 5.” Hadn’t women achieved equality? The reception of the 2019 production in London’s West End would prove that this story wasn’t quite so dated after all, especially in the wake of #MeToo. It’s fascinating to compare the reviews of the film in 1980, with white male critics whining about the heavy-handed message and calling it “silly” and “dumb,” with the reviews of the 2019 West End musical production, which heralds the story’s effervescent energy and lack of argumentative subtlety. 

At times, “Still Working 9 to 5” feels rather continuously repetitive, perhaps because the filmmakers lay out their thesis at the top and then continue to hammer it home, but that might also reflect the frustratingly circular nature of the fight for women’s equality in this country. As activist Zoe Nicholson observes, it’s a constant process of advancement and steps back, something that rings all too true to this day — just look at the current laws being passed restricting reproductive and LGBTQ rights all over the United States. 

It does feel like “Still Working 9 to 5” bites off a bit more than it can chew as it rounds home plate, trying to connect the film to just about every progressive movement of the moment, and the links start to feel a bit harried and scattershot, rather than carefully laid out. The focus on the ERA is the film’s strongest argument, connecting Tomlin’s 1977 speech in favor of the Amendment to present day, as the ERA, finally ratified by the required 38 states, languishes. Though the film starts to get a bit noisy at the end, the call to action for Congress to act on the ERA comes through loud and clear, just like Dolly’s dulcet tones. 

“Still Working 9 to 5” makes its world premiere at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival.

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