Halfway through Working Girl, Tess McGill (Melanie Griffith) and Jack Trainer (Harrison Ford) crash an affluent wedding reception. Tess is sure that she can convince the bride’s father to invest in her revolutionary business idea. What Jack doesn’t know is that Tess, who claims to be a hotshot executive, is actually a secretary blagging her way up the corporate ladder. Met at the door by the bride’s parents, Tess and Jack seize upon the explanation that they are “friends of Mark’s”.
As a statement of intent, the film couldn’t be clearer about its screwball aspirations. (The specific allusion is to Bringing Up Baby, in which Katharine Hepburn explains Cary Grant’s presence in Connecticut in the same way.) It’s a moment that suggests a lineage between Griffith/Ford and Hepburn/Grant.
It’s true that Jack’s discomfort with his surroundings, and his anger at Tess, recall the impotent frustration of Grant’s David Huxley. Jack grimly sucks an elaborately decorated cocktail through a straw, channelling Grant’s way with silent comedy. Even his outburst at Tess sounds like a moment from Bringing Up Baby: “You’re like one of those crazed cops, aren’t you? The kind nobody wants to ride with, because his partners all end up dead or crazy.”
The moment is so good it merits another photo:
The film has motioned toward screwball in earlier scenes. Following convention, Tess and Jack’s first encounter is a classic “meet cute”: she goes to a party to develop a business acquaintanceship with him, he hits on her at the bar, she responds without knowing who he is, he doesn’t tell her. However, while the reference to screwball is clear, this is a determinedly post-Production Code encounter. Tess ends the night by passing out from a combination of alcohol and Valium.
While Ford’s performance owes something to Grant, the correspondence breaks down with Griffith. She bears no resemblance to Hepburn. A more fitting comparison, given her working-class background and determination to advance without falling back on sexual wiles, might be with Jean Harlow in Wife vs. Secretary.
If there is a Hepburn analogue in the film, it’s – note the first name – Katharine Parker (Sigourney Weaver), who plays Griffith’s unscrupulous boss. She’s an ice-cold operator who will do anything to close a deal. Unlike her secretary, she doesn’t think twice about using sex as a weapon in the boardroom. It’s no surprise that Weaver is fantastically funny in the role (there’s a great sight gag playing on her performance as Dian Fossey); what’s unexpected are the cracks Weaver shows in her armour. Ultimately, however, the film rejects her cynicism and selfishness. Despite their shared confidence, Katharine betrays the progressive feminism inscribed in Hepburn’s persona.
When Griffith does gets her own office at the end of the film, it’s not at the expense of female solidarity. She’s successfully crossed from Staten Island to The City without rejecting her past. The final shot of the film tracks back from Tess’ office window, taking in the expanse of the skyscraper. She has found a place in the business world through her own intelligence and ambition, an inspiration to best friend Cyn (Joan Cusack) and every other working girl.