Celebrating 40 Years of the Radical Feminist Comedy 9 TO 5
Forty years ago this week a film hit American theaters that would do its part to change the fabric of American culture, though people who saw it at the time might be forgiven for failing to notice it was anything but a raucously funny comedy. But for millions of women 9 TO 5 illustrated some of the mostly unspoken realities of office life, casual sexual harassment, double standards in performance evaluation and advancement, and other outrages. It must have been wildly cathartic for women who had faced these realities to see the trio of Lily Tomlin, Dolly Parton and Jane Fonda get their over-the-top revenge against the reprehensible boss.
The movie was an enormous success, by every measure. Audiences roared with laughter, and the lines formed around the block. It’s also a intentionally radical piece of agit-prop, carefully designed by its producer Jane Fonda to inject awareness of the prevailing workplace circumstances into the audience’s consciousness. While, when viewed through today’s lens, it lacks an intersectional perspective about matters pertaining to race and sexuality, at the time it was by far the most radical piece of film that ever played theaters in America’s heartland, to be sure. For all the marching and activism that Fonda was known for, this may have been her most effective political maneuver.
In order to make the situations as true to life as possible, Fonda and her producing partner Bruce Gilbert arranged to talk to the membership of a group called the Association of Office Workers. From this diverse group of women, Fonda heard first-hand about the conditions faced by women in office workplaces, and from this raw material the script was born.
The matter of casting would be tremendously important, of course. Fonda could essay one of the roles, but the other two were up for grabs. One night, Fonda went to see Lily Tomlin’s one-woman show and she became an obvious candidate for another one of the leads. On the way home from the theater she turned on the radio and heard Dolly Parton singing. Parton had never acted on screen before, but come on – she clearly had it. The triad was complete – theoretically, that is, it took a year to get everyone on board. The part of the boss was unforgettably played with maximum unctuousness by Austin native Dabney Coleman.
It’s a hell of a story and Jane Fonda can tell it best, so we’ll let her.
Here’s an uncut interview with Jane Fonda with local DFW entertainment reporter Bobbie Wygant in which Fonda discusses the origin story of the film in more depth. Enjoy.
Of course, Hollywood’s scorecard always reflects dollars and cents above all else, and it succeeded in that department too, grossing over $103 million domestically. Adjusted for inflation that is over $325 million in 2020 dollars. Its social value was even greater than that, of course, and it is still widely watched and enjoyed today.