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#HotDocs22 Review: Still Working 9 to 5

April 28, 2022

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The 2022 Hot Docs Film Festival runs from April 28th to May 8th in Toronto, more information on tickets and showtimes can be found right here.

The women-in-the-workplace comedy 9 to 5, which starred Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton as three women dealing with office harassment by turning the tables on their sexist boss, became a surprise hit when it was released in 1980. Despite trepidation from the studio, 20th Century Fox, who viewed the female-centred dark comedy as a financially risky bet, the film struck a real nerve with audiences; it not only became the highest grossing comedy of 1980, but also the second highest grossing film of the year, behind only The Empire Strikes Back.

In their entertaining new documentary Still Working 9 to 5, co-directors Camille Hardman and Gary Lane explore the legacy of the classic. Through new interviews with Fonda, Tomlin and Parton, as well as Dabney Coleman, who played the male chauvinist boss at the centre of the story, the documentary offers an enlightening oral history of the making of 9 to 5, while putting it in perspective of the time. We also hear from activists who were at the forefront of the fight for gender equality in the workplace, as well as actresses Allison Janney (who starred in the Broadway musical adaptation) and Rita Moreno (from the short-lived TV series inspired by the film).

The film explores how Fonda actually developed the story alongside the 9to5, National Association of Working Women, an activist group founded by her friend Karen Nussbaum that helped raise awareness of the harassment that secretaries and clerical workers were facing on a daily basis. But Fonda and producer Bruce Gilbert, who is also featured here as one of the subjects, recall how they had to fight tooth and nail to get it made, and this wasn’t the only production trouble that the film faced.

Tomlin reflects on how she initially rejected the script because she didn’t find it funny enough, and nearly quit the project after the first day. Screenwriter Patricia Resnick also talks about how her original script was much darker, following five women trying to kill their boss, before being retooled by director Colin Higgins (who wrote Harold and Maude), to be more comedic and only have three leads. Gilbert describes wanting to make a “social comedy” inspired by the work of Preston Sturgess, namely his 1941 masterpiece Sullivan’s Travels.

The last act of Hardman and Lane’s film more broadly looks at advances and setbacks in the women’s rights movement over the past few decades, from failed attempts to pass the Equal Rights Amendment (E.R.A.) to the U.S Constitution, and the #MeToo movement (Harvey Weinstein produced the Broadway adaptation, so the film is obligated to address this). The documentary does lose some focus as it goes along, and, at only ninety minutes, feels like it bites off a bit more than it can chew as it branches off from being strictly about the making of 9 to 5.

The most interesting parts of Still Working 9 to 5 are the ones focused on the behind the scenes of the film itself, shedding light on the challenges they faced in getting it made and how much it impacted the culture at the time of its release some forty years ago. The film, of course, is particularly enlivened by the bubbly presence of Parton, who reflects on 9 to 5 being her first acting role, with her agreeing to be in the movie in exchange for getting to write the iconic, Oscar-nominated theme song, which became an anthem in its own right. I watched the original 9 to 5 right before this documentary, and I would say that it serves as a fine compliment to the classic comedy.

Screenings:

Friday, April 29th – 8:30 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 1

Monday, May 2nd – 10:00 AM at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema

Saturday, May 7th – 8:30 PM at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema

The film is also available to stream across Canada for five days starting on April 30th at 9:00 AM.

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