In the 1980s, Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton led the iconic movie 9 to 5, but 40 years later, in the wake of the recent Roe v. Wade discussions, it’s clear the lessons from the film still hold true, arguably even more important now, shown in the new documentary Still Working 9 to 5, part of the Hot Docs 2022 festival.
“This film is a call-to-action for young women,” co-director and writer of the documentary, Camille Hardman, told Yahoo Canada.
“It is learning how older women did it, but also taking those experiences and taking that knowledge and saying OK, things have slightly changed, but they haven't changed enough, and now we're going to take the baton and we're actually going to go forward and make sure that this change happens.”
“We kind of feel like in some ways we may be filling that void with this documentary because we've got the original cast and they're talking about all their experiences, and over a thousand archival video clips and pictures,...there's a lot of fandom in there with a powerful message,” co-director and producer Gary Lane added.
Still Working 9 to 5 takes you through the history of the creation of the historic show, particularly stemming from Fonda’s personal learnings about issues for women who were clerical workers in the 1970s, largely shared by the activist group the 9to5 National Association of Working Women in the U.S., which inspired the film’s name.
Karen Nussbaum, co-founder of the 9to5 National Association of Working Women, would tell Fonda stories about what these office workers had to put up with. The group’s motto was, “raises, rights and respect.”
“Not just in terms of sexual harassment, although that was pretty bad, but wage theft, being fired if they were pregnant,” Fonda highlights in the documentary.
“Back when we made 9 to 5 in the late ‘70s women earned less than 60 cents to the dollar that men would earn for the same work, and it wasn’t easy for women to talk about money. We wanted to show how biased the system is against women.”
While 9 to 5 was certainly a comedy, the real genesis of the idea was secured in activism, to some people’s delight but to others dismay.
“It did touch a nerve, it was based in reality,” Parton says in the documentary.
Lily Tomlin initially turned down '9 to 5'
Funnily enough, 9 to 5’s bonafide comedy star, Lily Tomlin, initially turned down her now iconic role of Violet Newstead.
“There were things in it that I would consider kind of silly or empty,” she describes in Still Working 9 to 5.
It wasn’t until Tomlin found out that producer Bruce Gilbert and writer Colin Higgins had flown out to New York to talk to Gilda Radner about the role that she reconsidered.
“Gilda, that struck a knife in my soul,” Tomlin said.
“I went home and I told Jane [Wagner] that I had turned it down, that’s when Jane really hit the roof. She said ‘you get on the phone and call them and tell them you want that part.’”
'I thought that feminists were extreme and terribly embarrassing'
Still Working 9 to 5 also reveals how the stereotype of feminists being these unpleasant, extreme radicals was very much present, even for the people involved in the story.
“I thought that feminists were extreme and terribly embarrassing, and pushy and aggressive and I could not conceive of myself ever saying publicly, 'I don’t deserve thi terrible treatment,'" Rita Moreno who played Violet Newstead in the subsequent Nine to Five television series confessed in the documentary. “I didn’t think it was a terrible threat, I thought that was the norm.”
“The film was giving permission to women who maybe were still resistant, like myself, ‘don’t put up with that,’ and I loved the message.”
Dolly Parton also reveals that when she first stepped onto the set of 9 to 5 and started working with Jane Fonda she thought, “I hope she’s not going to be so radical and so opinionated and so political that I’m going to be uncomfortable."
“I even said that to her when we started, I said ‘I’m not a political person,’” Parton says.
“You look at Dolly, even though she doesn't say she's political, she's been writing about the strength of women for a very long time,” Camille Hardman highlighted. “You look at her, she encapsulates strength, she never gave up any of her publishing, she made sure that she owned everything, she started an amusement park when everybody told her not to.”
“We know Jane Fonda has been a force in many different ways,...and Rita Moreno, she was out there when everybody said a Latina woman wouldn't be able to conquer Hollywood. She did and she came out with an Oscar, and then Lily as a female comedian, again, she was out there, she was trailblazing for female comedians.”
'The men are acculturated by whatever forces are near them'
Lily Tomlin says something particularly interesting in the film about sexism and misogyny being “rampant,” both back then and now
“The men are acculturated by whatever forces are near them, they’re fathers, their brothers, their uncles, kids at school, just their own natural absorbing of whatever the entertainment puts out, [including] cartoons,” Tomlin says in Still Working 9 to 5.
“We can't hide away from the fact that there is a huge amount of misogyny that still happens and that does have to be shown in the media and in regards to TV shows, and you can't clean everything either,” Camille Hardman said. “Even though there's this acculturation and there's this systemic issue with different movies and cartoons, you have to show both sides…because sometimes this is the only people's view into various worlds.”
“You show what happens and then you see people rising up against those issues, and working out ways of changing their environment and creating solutions, and that's what people can look at as inspiration.”
In the name of showing the reality of 9 to 5, the Still Working 9 to 5 filmmakers decided to include a clip from Harvey Weinstein in the documentary, who was an investor in producer for the Broadway adaptation of 9 to 5.
“It’s women emancipation,” Weinstein is shown saying in an interview at the opening night of the Broadway show. “Secondly it’s about women wanting to kill their boss and third of all, I know everybody in my company wants to kill me, and they bought multiple tickets.”
“We were just in shock when our archives found that,” co-director and producer Gary Lane told Yahoo Canada.
“These guys were in positions of power and they were leveraging it to their advantage and [were tied] into the 9 to 5 story without us really knowing what they were going to do years down the line.”
“There was no question that had to go in,” Hardman said. “You have to show the good and the bad and the hypocrisy, that was pure hypocrisy on his part.”
“He was supporting all of these women's movements and he was very progressive, but behind closed doors, other things were going on… It happens on a daily basis and he was allowed to get away with dreadful behaviour. We’ve got to show that, that stuff happens.”