Monday, December 20, 1980.
NINE TO FIVE. Co-written by Patricia Resnick. Music by Charles Fox. Co-written and directed by Colin Higgins. Running time: 110 minutes. Rated Mature with the B.C. Classifier’s warning: "occasional coarse language.”
NINE TO FIVE IS THIS season's people picture. It's the kind of comedy that critics feel guilty about liking.
Open and obvious, its humour is based on unlikely coincidence, cliché and stereotype. Within it, though, is enough truth to make it palatable, enough good acting to make it watchable, and enough real fun to generate a passable number of genuine laughs.
Here we are in the Consolidated Companies tower. From his office, floor supervisor Franklin M. Hart, Jr. (Dabney Coleman) can see the rows of desks, typewriters, adding machines and working women that are his domain.
Into this closed, cold world comes Judy Bernly (Jane Fonda). On her own since her husband ran off with his secretary, Ms Bernly feels overdressed and out of place. It’s her first day on the job.
Judy has a lot to learn. Her teacher is Violet Newstead (Lily Tomlin), an ambitious single mother and a 12-year employee of Consolidated. Violet resents the ease with which men advance up the corporate ladder.
“I’ve never seen anyone leapfrog to the top so fast," she says of Hart, Jr. "And I've got the bad back to prove it."
Like everyone else, Judy learns to shun cheerful, well-endowed Doralee Rhodes (Dolly Parton), Hart’s secretary and, according to the office rumour mill, his mistress.
She also learns about Roz Keith (Elizabeth Wilson), the floor’s company fink, and that she must never, ever utter the words "salary" or “union" on pain of instant dismissal.
Although the film is set in Los Angeles, the situation at Consolidated will be familiar to millions of working women all over the United States and Canada. One afternoon after five, Judy, Violet and Doralee share their depression, a drink, a bit of pot and their fantasies.
Judy sees herself as a big game huntress. We see her tracking Hart through the building in a monochromatic dream sequence.
Doralee imagines herself a hard-riding cowgirl who turns the sexual-harrassment tables on her persistent, totally insensitive boss. Violet, in a delightfully Disneyesque turn, is an ever-smiling Snow White who brings her boss a poisoned cup of coffee.
At this point, the film broadens out to become a full-blown farce, a comedy of errors involving mistaken identities, kidnapping, forgery and a hysterical bit of body snatching.
Nine to Five is a comedic about-face for Colin Higgins, the writer-director responsible for the 1978 romantic thriller Foul Play. His previous screenplays, a list that includes 1971’s Harold and Maude and Silver Streak (1976), have shown a marked predilection for weird characters and offbeat situations.
Here, though, his characters are quite ordinary folk toiling in an everyday environment. It’s their overreactions to a simple (if unnerving) coincidence that sets the comic machinery in motion. Suddenly we’re confronted with an escalating series of outlandish circumstances, a chain of events fully exploited by the director and his cast.
The star performers play off one another nicely, and Higgins has the good sense to emphasize their strengths. Tomlin the comedienne, Fonda the dramatic actress, and down-home musical celebrity Parton come together in a plotline that gives each of their characters the opportunity to fulfill her expressed fantasy.
A few years ago  a smartly paced little gearjammer called Smokey and the Bandit came out of nowhere. It offered us 96 minutes of good-hearted, blue-collar wish fulfillment. It went on to gross $61 million in the U.S. and Canada, an impressive token of audience esteem.
Nine to Five, designed to offer similar pleasure to the pink-collar filmgoer, is every bit as likeable.
The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1980. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.
Afterword: I blame the eggnog. Nine to Five — the film’s title — arrive in theatres during the Christmas season. It opened with 9 to 5 — the song’s title — an upbeat musical number in keeping with the Yuletide. My review emphasized the picture’s comedic intent at the expense of its social-commentary subtext. Smitten with Dolly Parton’s scene-stealing big-screen debut, I failed to acknowledge Jane Fonda’s keystone role in its creation.
A social activist from the time of the Vietnam War — see my review of the concert documentary FTA — Fonda came up with the idea for Nine to Five, financing it through her own production company, IPC (named after the Indochina Peace organization). During a 1981 interview with London’s The Times, she said that the title honoured “an organization in Boston called ‘Nine To Five’, which was an association of office workers.” She soon recognized that it would play better as a comedy, and is credited with casting Lilly Tomlin and Parton in co-starring roles.
For country artist Parton, Nine to Five was her big leap into the entertainment mainstream, and she responded to the challenge with 9 to 5, a song that has become a working-class anthem. Yes, it was nominated for the Best Original Song Academy Award. More important from the commercial standpoint, it reached No. 1 on both the country and pop charts, with Parton winning matched Grammys in Best Country Song and Best Country Vocal Performance, Female.
Fonda was executive producer of the 1982 spin-off television series 9 to 5, which featured Parton’s younger sister Rachel Dennison in the Doralee role. In 2008, Parton took credit for the music and lyrics for the stage play 9 to 5. It opened on Broadway in 2009, earning four Tony Award nominations, including Best Original Score.
Parton followed her success in the original Nine to Five with the starring role in director Colin Higgins’s 1982 adaptation of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, a big-screen musical hit that paired her with good ol’ boy Burt Reynolds. Less successful was her match-up with the decidedly urban Sylvester Stallone, in Bob Clark’s forced attempt at musical comedy, Rhinestone (1984).
All was forgiven, though, in 1989 when she returned to form in the ensemble piece Steel Magnolias, Herbert Ross’s adaptation of a stage play about life in the small-town South. I also enjoyed her performance as an open-line radio host in 1992’s Straight Talk, one of only three feature films helmed by prolific television sitcom director Barnet Kellman. In recent years, Dolly Parton has concentrated on her musical production, performances and philanthropy. Although she studiously avoids appearing political, her $1-million donation to scientists working on the Moderna coronavirus vaccine trials in 2020 suggests a progressive turn of mind. In 2021, she adapted one her biggest hit songs, Jolene, to promote “Vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, vaccine,” releasing the video to coincide with her own shot in the arm. Dolly Parton turns 76 today (January 19).