Throughout the late ’70s, Jane Fonda performed a remarkable feat of synthesizing her acting and her activism, serving as producer (sometimes uncredited) for the Vietnam-vet drama Coming Home (1978), the nuclear-meltdown thriller The China Syndrome (1979), and this comedy, which brought to light the gender inequity plaguing American workplaces. At first glance, Nine to Five might seem lightweight compared to its predecessors in Fonda’s producing oeuvre, but treating the theme with humor proved a savvy move because it attracted a wide audience. The picture earned more than $100 million at the domestic box office at a time when that was still a rare achievement, and now Nine to Five is considered something of a modern classic. The picture even inspired a TV series, which ran sporadically from 1982 to 1988, as well as a 2009 Broadway musical.
Cowritten and directed by Colin Higgins, who embellished a previous script by Patricia Resnick, the picture takes place in a midlevel department of fictional firm Consolidated Companies. The department’s boss is Franklin Hart Jr. (Dabney Coleman), whom female employees rightly characterize as a “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot.” Throughout the picture’s first act, Hart earns the enmity of protagonists Judy Bernly (Fonda), Violet Newstead (Lily Tomlin), and Doralee Rhodes (Dolly Parton). Franklin berates new employee Judy for incompetence, showing no sympathy for the fact that her post at Consolidated is the recent divorcée’s first job. He steals work product from Violet and blocks her well-deserved promotion. And he sexually harasses the buxom Doralee, bolstering his macho reputation by fomenting bogus rumors that they’re sleeping together. One evening, the women drown their sorrows and share revenge fantasies, which Higgins stages as elaborate dream sequences. Then a farcical showdown occurs during which Violent (mistakenly) believes that she’s poisoned Franklin.
A few plot twists later, the women find themselves holding Franklin hostage in his own home while trying to gather evidence that will entrap him and therefore free the women from suspicion.
As he demonstrated with ’70s hits Foul Play and Silver Streak, Higgins had a unique gift for orchestrating comedies with Swiss-watch storylines. Nine to Five is far-fetched and silly, but everything in the plot is worked out neatly. Ultimately, however, the narrative is merely a vessel for the theme: Nine to Five is a fairy tale for female professionals. Fonda, drifting back to the sort of light comedy she did in many of her earliest films, uses her performance to tell a story about self-actualization, letting her costars take the showier roles. Parton nearly steals the picture with her down-home charm, Tomlin grounds the film with a deadpan approach to jokes, and Coleman makes a great cartoonish villain. Despite its sociopolitical heft Nine to Five is consistently gentle and undemanding. Like the theme song that Parton wrote and recorded during production, which subsequently became a No. 1 pop hit, Nine to Five is a sugar-coated rallying cry.
Nine to Five: GROOVY