Viewed with 20/20 hindsight, all of history appears inevitable simply because it went to the trouble of happening. More than four decades after it defied skeptics, entertained millions, and hit the No. 2 spot (just behind “The Empire Strikes Back”) on the list of top-grossing 1980 movies, green-lighting “9 to 5” might now appear to be one of those surefire, no-brainer decisions made by Hollywood brass with absolute certainty of striking box-office gold. It wasn’t, of course, and reminding us of just how dicey a proposition it really was back in the day is just one of the enlightening and amusing elements of “Still Working 9 to 5.”
Documentarians Camille Hardman and Gary Lane do a splendidly entertaining job of showing how the comedy came together, with Jane Fonda — then at the height of her star power with two Oscars under her belt — and producing partner Bruce Gilbert serving as the driving forces for a film originally envisioned as a socially conscious drama (not unlike Fonda’s “The China Syndrome”), then a jet-black comedy, and finally a lighter and brighter piece of work that nonetheless hit all the right notes while underscoring injustices in the workplace.
Fonda was inspired to tell a story about three undervalued and incredibly underpaid secretaries by her interactions with Karen Nussbaum and Ellen Cassedy, who founded the 9to5 National Association of Working Women in 1973, and appear here among the many talking-head interviewees. But the script for “9 to 5” was still being written when Fonda corralled her two co-stars — Lily Tomlin, whom she long admired, and Dolly Parton, whose recording of “Two Doors Down” Fonda fortuitously heard on her car radio while driving from an L.A. performance of Tomlin’s “Appearing Nitely” one-woman stage show.
Parton had never acted before and hesitated to accept Fonda’s offer of a starring role only because she worried how her country-music fans might react to her appearing opposite “such a radical girl.” After the script finally was completed, Tomlin thought too many scenes were too “silly,” and briefly bailed from the production. She changed her mind, at the very strong encouragement of her partner, Jane Wagner. And yet, she admits in one of the newly filmed interviews, she continued to question key bits of comic dialogue — until she discovered, during preview screenings, that those lines were audience favorites.
The doc notes in passing that Gilda Radner was briefly considered as Tomlin’s replacement, and that Fox wanted a “movie star” like Steve Martin instead of Dabney Coleman — then deemed too much of a “TV actor” — to play the boss. (Not incidentally, studio execs felt the need for some male star power in a movie with female leads.) Both revelations serve as pointed reminders that hit movies often are like Jenga towers: They stand the test of time only because significant pieces were not removed.
Your enjoyment of “Still Working From 9 to 5” likely will depend on your regard for “9 to 5,” which received mixed notices during its initial theatrical release. But there’s more to the documentary than mere nostalgia. Hardman and Lane interweave throughout their behind-the-scenes narrative interviews and archival footage to demonstrate that the movie helped galvanize the public, and that you can easily connect the dots between its empowerment themes and the contemporary #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. As Ellen Cassedy says, “These are new slogans, but these are not new issues.”
The most provocative thing about the doc is its inarguable insistence that things have not improved for women in the workplace nearly as much as they should have since the ’80s (especially, but not exclusively, scenes dealing with paycheck imbalance and sexual harassment). Allison Janney recalls that when she starred in the 2009 Broadway musical adaptation, “9 to 5: The Musical,” she initially fretted that the show would seem like a relic from another age, and was shaken to realize that it was, in many important respects, timeless.
The most jarring moment in “Still Working 9 to 5”: An appearance by Harvey Weinstein, one of the musical’s investors and producers, in archival footage where he cheerfully describes the show as “about women’s emancipation,” adding, ”I know that everybody in my company wants to kill me. And they’ve all bought multiple tickets. This show can survive just on my company.” No, really: That’s what he says.
Despite original songs by Dolly Parton, the musical ultimately closed after only 148 performances. Likewise, a TV sitcom spin-off of “9 to 5” starring interviewee Rita Moreno (and derided by her and anyone else who talks about it here) lasted only two years on ABC — but was popular enough in reruns to be revived as a largely recast first-run syndicated series for two additional seasons, adding up to a total of 85 episodes between 1982 and 1988.
And to address the elephant in the room: Yes, recent real-life events (like certain Supreme Court rulings) only enhance the potency of this documentary’s underlying message that advances should never make women too complacent while most of the rules, in and out of the workplace, continue to be written by men. After all, it’s not like Fonda, Tomlin and Parton didn’t warn us back in 1980. As their characters toast their victory over their sexist boss at the end of “9 to 5,” they nonetheless agree their triumph is “just the beginning.” It’s enough to make you crazy if you let it.