After playing a lose cannon in Something Wild and a sex object in Body Double, Melanie Griffith finally got to showcase her real strengths in Mike Nichols' Working Girl. The thing about Griffith is that for all her 80s sex appeal, she's got such a gentle, soft-spoken voice and just the right amount of quiet verve that she doesn't quite fit into straight-up romantic comedies nor any sort of genre picture. Part of what makes Working Girl work so well is that it's the perfect marriage of subject and star: Not meant to be demeaning, but Griffith seemed born to play a secretary, but you would never believe her if she was just a secretary, content with assisting those above her for life. She's too contemplative, too intelligent for that, which is why it's ideal that in Working Girl she gets to play Tess, a secretary with dreams of having a big desk and big decisions to make.
The only problem is that she lacks that hard-nosed charisma that it takes to make it in the business world, something that seems second nature to her boss, Katherine (Sigourney Weaver). The film is wonderfully realistic in the way it drives home the fallacy that fulfilling your dream is just a matter of wanting it bad enough. In reality, circumstance and natural capabilities play a massive part, which often leads to an unwanted designation for life.
But this is a movie, and while in part it takes a realistic stance on this issue of the business world, it also has an almost fairy-tale quality to it. It's about good, hard work as self-fulfillment in the sense of honesty and creativity rather than money and pleasure. The irony is that for Tess, it takes dishonesty-posing as a business executive to propel her idea for a radio investment-to reach this level. In this sense the movie's entirely unrealistic, as well as in its depiction of an executive from another company whom Tess wants to collaborate with, Jack Trainer, played by Harrison Ford. Trainer completes the fairy tale world of the film by being business savvy, romantic, and corny, and ultimately grounded by good old fashioned moral sensibilities.
Besides the fact that these elements are what make the film so enjoyable, its two-sided depiction of work-life (acknowledging the unfairness that lies at its core while depicting a fantasy of how good work is when you work hard enough) that make it one of the smarter films about life in a big business. We've seen lots of them that take a hard-nosed dive into cynicism, which can supply ample realism but not many ideas. If you watch Working Girl just as screwball fluff, you'll surely enjoy it, but you'll miss the fact that it actually has more to say about work life than most movies.