Runtime: 1 hour 36 minutes
Directors: Camille Hardman, Gary Lane
Starring: Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Dolly Parton, Dabney Coleman, Rita Moreno, Allison Janney, Bruce Gilbert, Karen Nussbaum, Ellen Cassedy
By Valerie Kalfrin
More than 40 years after the workplace comedy “9 to 5” showcased three secretaries plotting against their sexist boss, workplace equality is as relevant as ever. Debuting at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival, the documentary “Still Working 9 to 5” is both a breezy and entertaining romp through the making of the 1980 film and a sobering look at why it still strikes a nerve.
Directors Camille Hardman (“Big Dreamers”) and Gary Lane feature anecdotes from the team behind the top-grossing comedy, including Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Dolly Parton, and Dabney Coleman, who played their boss (a “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot” in the film’s dialogue). But there’s more here than just behind-the-scenes trivia. The film also touches on the TV series and two musicals that “9 to 5” inspired—and how women in the workplace still deal with sexual harassment and unequal pay.
As one person notes, #MeToo and #TimesUp have given us new slogans, but these aren’t new issues.
“Child care, maternity leave, paid sick time—all of those things at the center of the movie, women are still fighting for,” says labor organizer Karen Nussbaum.
As explored in the 2020 documentary “9to5: The Story of a Movement,” a real 1970s labor movement of female office workers gave rise to the original film. Nussbaum, who co-founded the movement with college friend Ellen Cassedy, was friendly with Fonda, who thought there could be a film in the stories the office workers shared.
Inspired by the screwball comedies and satires of Preston Sturges, producer Bruce Gilbert thought a comedic tone would be the best way to deliver social commentary. Fonda had seen Tomlin’s standup performances and brought her on board, then approached Parton, liking her personality in her music and interviews.
From the script changing hands to Tomlin at first stepping away from the project over the “slapsticky” humor, the main players have engrossing anecdotes. Parton got an earful for working with Fonda, “being such a radical gal,” but found Fonda sweet like her character. Tomlin laughs over having “a collision” a few times because “Dolly’s figure is so out of scale of human proportions.”
Watching the three sing (or try to sing) Parton’s catchy title song “9 to 5” while she strums an acoustic guitar is a treat. Tomlin says she thought, “If this movie is not a hit, this song will be.”
Although a New York Times review at the time called it a “militant feminist film,” the comedy struck a chord—and “Still Working 9 to 5” explores why. Released in December 1980, the comedy grossed $103 million, placing it behind only “Star Wars Episode Five: The Empire Strikes Back” for that year’s top domestic box office earnings.
The film arrived during the national discussion over ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, which Congress had passed in 1972. Thirty-eight states were needed to ratify; by 1982, only 35 had voted in favor.
The film includes January 2022 postscript from President Joe Biden, asking Congress to pass a resolution recognizing the ratification with 38 states now supporting it. Lest anyone wonder why that’s necessary, the film includes economic statistics showing that even today, a white woman earns 79 cents for every dollar a white man earns. Women of color earn less, with black women earning 61 cents, and Hispanic women earning 54 cents.
The documentary briefly touches on the spinoff 1980s sitcom “Nine to Five,” starring Rita Moreno, as well as two musicals in 2009 and 2019. Disgraced producer and convicted rapist Harvey Weinstein, of all people, invested in the 2009 version, saying, “I know that everybody in my company wants to kill me.”
Through interviews with labor advocates and other working women and men, “Still Working 9 to 5” points out that corporations still find ways to abuse people. If anything, Fonda observes, today’s working environment is worse: “Where do you go to complain when you’re part of the gig economy?”
It’s a grim thought, even as the documentary praises “9 to 5” for showing women finding agency and supporting each other. As Rita Moreno, who starred in the TV series, says, “I recognized the value of being a woman because it was lauded in the film.”