The screenwriter of the 1980 hit film “9 to 5” says we’re finally facing reality

It’s still frustrating.
It’s still frustrating.
Image: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty
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When the movie 9 to 5 was released in 1980, women’s liberation was still a fresh concept for most of America. Rewatching the comedy, about three women fighting back against a sexist boss, you’ll notice that the clothing and office technology has changed, but much of the film’s message about the dynamics between men and women in the workplace remains sadly relevant nearly 40 years later.

The three women—played by Jane Fonda, Dolly Parton, and Lily Tomlin—are secretaries at a large company (we never find out exactly what it does) who get bullied and harassed by their strutting, pompous boss Franklin Hart (Dabney Coleman). Hart demands complete control of the workplace as he propositions and gropes Doralee (Parton), berates Judy (Fonda), and takes credit for the ideas of Violet (Tomlin). Through a farcical mix-up, the women end up taking charge of the business while holding Hart in captivity, and successfully transform the office into a progressive workplace with flexible hours and in-house daycare.

9 to 5 was a huge hit, and the second-highest grossing US movie of 1980, trailing only The Empire Strikes Back. Parton’s infectious title song topped the charts, and the movie’s success led to a spin-off TV show on ABC, and, years later, a musical that ran on Broadway in 2009.

The film has aged well in the eyes of contemporary critics—it’s rated 84% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes—but its feminist message was derided as overly militant by the New York Times when it debuted. The movie “concludes by waving the flag of feminism as earnestly as Russian farmers used to wave the hammer-and-sickle at the end of movies about collective farming,” sniffed the review by Vincent Canby.

Patricia Resnick was just 26 when she wrote the screenplay for 9 to 5. Quartz at Work called Resnick at her home in California to talk about her research into the lives of secretaries, what she would change if 9 to 5 were remade today, and why she thinks working women are in some ways worse off now than in 1980. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Quartz at Work: Tell us about your background. How did you come to write this movie? How much of it was based on your personal experiences?

Patricia Resnick: I went to USC film school for my last couple of years at college and then I went to work for (director) Robert Altman. I co-wrote a a couple of movies for him (The Wedding and Quintet). Lily Tomlin had actually given me my first writing job. I was working for Altman as a kind of PA (production assistant) and Lily was in a film he produced, and she asked me to write some sketches for her. They ended up going into her first Broadway show, and so Altman was like, “Oh, the kid can write.”

A couple of years after that, I read in the trades that Jane Fonda wanted to make a movie about secretaries, and wanted to work with Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton. I had a strong relationship with Lily and I had done a little bit of work for Dolly when she was the guest on a Cher special, and I had written a piece for them, so I kind of lobbied to meet Jane and pitch myself for the movie. She read some material of mine and ended up hiring me. She had a lot of things she wanted to say politically about clerical workers, but she wanted it to be couched in terms of a comedy because she felt that would let people hear the message without being put off by it.

So Jane Fonda was the driving force?

Absolutely. The only thing she didn’t have was a story, so I went off to think about that, and came back with the one liner, which is: “Three secretaries, with the worst boss in the world, who hate him so much they try to kill him.” That was the original version.

Because I had not been a secretary, I went to do some research at a big insurance firm in downtown Los Angeles and became very close to a number of the secretaries there. I heard their stories and went to lunch with them and had some drinks with them and observed quite a bit of what was going on.

The guy who ran the company was what, at the time, we called a chauvinist—kind of a male chauvinist pig. It was just the way he addressed the women. He was extremely dismissive, he was a little handsy. The idea of the secretary everyone thinks is sleeping with the boss and she’s not, that was something that came from one of the women there. We went out to what was probably a four-drink lunch that ended up with her in tears, telling me she knew everyone thought she was sleeping with him, and she wasn’t. It was all just based on what I was watching happen in front of me.

Lily Tomlin’s character, Violet, is a highly skilled professional who is passed over for promotion, and whose ideas are stolen by men, all while successfully holding down her responsibilities at home as a mother. In that, she feels like a stand-in for a whole generation of working women. Can you tell us what informed her character?

Violet wasn’t specifically based on any one person. I wanted her to reflect not just one particular type, but to try to cover different types. Violet is the super-competent woman who trains the guy who’s below her who then eventually leap frogs over her. That was such a standard thing to happen back then. All those things that were said in the movie—that the man promoted over her needs to support a family—that’s what people said, that was the thinking in 1979 and 1980. That was such a common excuse, and another thing he says, which is clients prefer to deal with a male in that position, I think that’s still used.

At the end of the movie, Violet, Judy, and Doralee have transformed the office into what must have seemed like a worker’s paradise in 1982—and probably still sounds utopian to many of us—with job sharing, flexible hours, and on-site child care. How much of that seemed like fantasy when you wrote it?

All of that was very much from the research that had been done by these various organizations into workers rights. That was all pulled from that. Most of that is still not really around. If you look at the number of major companies that have daycare, it’s a handful. Flexible hours, job sharing, that’s still not really standard. They were kind of cutting-edge ideas, but it’s amazing to me that they are not all in common practice still.

Despite their success, the company’s chairman—who applauds most of the women’s improvements—scoffs at the idea of paying women the same as men, as if that’s a bridge too far. Was that your intention, to show that no matter how far these women can push things, equal pay was still unacceptable in male-dominated workplace?

Yes, absolutely. How long ago was it that the movie came out? Thirty-seven years ago? Thirty-seven years later, we still don’t have it. ERA (the equal rights amendment) still hasn’t passed it. Even though the movie is a comedy, and there’s fantasy, we’re still somewhat in the world of reality.

Do you think it achieved Jane Fonda’s goals? It sounded like she wanted to introduce these ideas in to the mainstream, cloaked in the guise of a comedy, to move the conversation forward.

The movie 9 to 5 has aged well.
What a way to make a living. From left to right, Fonda, Parton, and Tomlin.
Image: AP Photo/Wally Fong

That’s a hard one.

I certainly think that it presented the ideas she wanted to present,  in a palatable form. The world was on the cusp of changing when I wrote the script. You never hear the words “sexual harassment” in the movie, and the reason is because none of us had heard the words sexual harassment. We didn’t know that phrase. Things started to change, but it’s certainly gotten much more attention recently as having something to say politically than it did at the time, and certainly much more so when the musical came out.

Part of the problem is that theater critics—who in America tend to be primarily, if not exclusively, male— is that they didn’t understand how a contemporary audience could relate to 9 to 5, because they felt none of these things were problems anymore (in 2008, when the musical debuted in Los Angeles). Only men think that. Women always knew that didn’t go away. Until recently, the only men who didn’t think it had gone away were the men participating. The men that weren’t doing that kind of thing just had no idea that this is part of women’s daily life, and it always has been and unfortunately this is not going to go away now either. This is not going to fix everything.

I’m concerned about blowback. I’ve heard, here and there, that a number of guys in the business are saying, ‘I’m just not going to hire a female assistant and I’m not going to have women in the writers’ room because I don’t want to have to watch everything I say and everything I do.”

Things change slowly and incrementally, and I certainly don’t think any one of us is going to wake up in a couple weeks and feel that sexual harassment is gone and women are gong to be hired equally.

Clearly a lot hasn’t changed for women in the office. But a lot has. How much would the movie need to be updated if you remade it in 2017?

If it was going to be made today, I think there’s a lot of differences. In certain ways, things are even harder for women now, just because of the advent of all the tech stuff, which didn’t exist in 1980. Anyone would kill for a nine-to-five job now. We’re all expected to be reachable and ready to work, 24 hours a day. Women are expected to work and parent, and they’re expected to be available. That’s changed for the  worse, and I would want to look at that.

People are struggling. You could squeak by back then on a secretarial job—you could raise a family. People have to do crazy things now. People are bringing their kids to work when they’re sick because they can’t afford to take care of them. Many more people are one or two paychecks away from losing everything. Those pressures are much stronger.

The sexual harassment stuff isn’t as blatant. Hart probably wouldn’t say out loud the things he said, and therefore it’s more insidious. Right now it’s changed, but as of a year ago, there were a lot of younger women who didn’t consider themselves as feminists, who thought that was a dirty word, who honestly thought their chances in the workplace were equal with men. Between the election and everything that’s happened, it’s been a bit of cold water of reality in the faces of younger women. I think that’s a good thing, because you can’t change the world until you recognize what’s going on.

In the context of women getting credit for their work—or men taking credit for it—did you benefit from the success of 9 to 5? Was your career buoyed by it, or did the credit go elsewhere?

It’s an interesting question. It’s kind of exactly what we’re talking about. We needed to get a director quickly—with Lily, Dolly, and Jane, getting them together to shoot was a pretty small window, and the director (Colin Higgins) that came aboard was a writer-director and he basically took over and rewrote it. I was allowed to visit the set once. It went from being a much darker comedy—I actually had them trying to kill him, as opposed to fantasizing about trying to kill him —and he basically pretty much took credit for the entire movie. The only thing that changed that is, sadly, he passed away at quite a young age (in 1988, at age 47), and he’s not here and I am. Therefore I’m the one people are talking to.

Did the film help me? Absolutely. Was I allowed to direct after it came out? I was not. Listen, things aren’t so great for female directors now, but back then it just wasn’t going to happen. If you just look at the percentage of the writers guild that’s female versus men, same thing with the directors guild, same thing with the number of parts written per year for males and females, it’s still completely unbalanced.

I feel very fortunate that I’ve been doing this for about 40 years and I still really love writing. As long as there are people willing to hire me, I intend to keep doing it. I think it’s the best job in the world. I always think it’s funny I’m so associated with 9 to 5. If I had an office job, I would have shot myself.