Entertainment

'Still Working 9 to 5' Follows Dolly Parton's Breakout Movie Through Feminist History

Forty years on, it's still all taking and no giving.

Jane Fonda, Dolly Parton and Lily Tomlin in 9 to 5.
20th Century Studios

When Dolly Parton opened 9 to 5: The Musical on Broadway in 2009, it didn't explode anybody's world. Critics described it as overblown, dated and a little too comfortable making raunchy jokes while decrying the sexism of bygone days. At best, it was a nostalgic crowd pleaser: a quaint musical revamp of Colin Higgins' 1980 comedy, which highlighted such antiquated concerns as labor rights, sexual harassment and the challenges faced by working parents. Not exactly the sorts of issues anyone worried about in the 21st century. Oh, and it was produced and funded by disgraced Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein.

What a difference a decade makes.

The 2009 musical is just one step of the journey charted in the documentary Still Working 9 to 5, which chronicles the making of the movie and its spinoffs alongside the activism that inspired it. Directors Camille Hardman and Gary Lane track the history of women's changing legal and social position over the past 40 years, from the decades-long efforts to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment through to the #MeToo movement and the COVID-19 pandemic. Still Working 9 to 5 debuted Sunday at SXSW, where it was screened along with a new duet version of the title song, performed by Dolly Parton and Kelly Clarkson. 

Packed with new interviews and archival footage, the movie alternates behind-the-scenes movie trivia with the real-life issues women still face in the workplace. 

If that blend of pop culture fun and didactic feminism sounds unusual, welcome to the world of 9 to 5, which strikes a similar balance. Starring Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton as clerical workers who unite to defeat their chauvinist boss, it's a slapstick comedy with a biting and unapologetic feminist viewpoint. The movie was inspired by Fonda's work with Karen Nussbaum and Ellen Cassedy, founders of the 9 to 5 Association of Working Women. Fonda produced it through her own production company, IPC Films, which specialized in movies with a hard-hitting sociopolitical message. Other IPC bangers include The China Syndrome, a pre-Chernobyl thriller that warned of the risks associated with nuclear power, and Coming Home, a romance tackling the war in Vietnam. 

Fonda approached Parton and Tomlin for her workplace comedy before the script was even written, convinced they'd be perfect for the film, whatever shape it ultimately took. She cast Tomlin after seeing her live on Broadway -- "I was smitten," she says in the documentary -- and on the drive home she turned on the radio and heard Dolly Parton singing Two Doors Down. The rest is history.

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Dolly Parton faced questions from fans about her friendship with "radical" Jane Fonda.

Still Working 9 to 5

Still Working 9 to 5, produced by Shane McAnally, follows the script's evolution from an in-depth report on women's workplace experiences to a dark comedy, and finally an outlandish romp, complete with murder fantasies, elaborate hostage situations and an accidental poisoning. The movie's raucous sensibilities sometimes bumped up against those of the activists, who balked at the comic sequences. They were also an issue for Tomlin, who turned down the script initially because she wasn't impressed by the quality of the jokes.

Comedy, comedy, comedy

If Tomlin had reservations about the comedy, that was nothing compared with the studio's anxiety over the movie's hope of success. 9 to 5 had three female leads and a fight to pick with the patriarchy, both of which made people nervous in 1980. When the time came to promote the film, Fonda and her co-stars had one job: Make it sound like fun.

Still Working 9 to 5 director Gary Lane and his twin brother, producer Larry, are more than familiar with Dolly Parton and her work. They're the stars and producers of 2011's Hollywood to Dollywood, which documents their cross-country odyssey to make contact with Parton. The brothers' dive into the 9 to 5 archives has turned up over 1,000 video clips and photos surrounding the movie. And some of that press coverage, along with news reports on feminist movements through history, is cringe-inducing.

"They're like, 'Make sure it's a comedy, comedy, comedy, we want to get people in the theater,'" says Larry Lane. Over and over again, we see Fonda, Parton and Tomlin deflect interviewers' fears there might be something radical about three secretaries plotting to murder their boss. 

That footage also reveals a warm rapport between the film's three stars -- one that came as a surprise to some of Parton's fans. Parton faced questions from her fans and family about her friendship with Fonda, who was as well-known for her radical politics and her opposition to the war in Vietnam as her Hollywood career. In fact, Parton says she raised the issue with Fonda herself while making 9 to 5. "I said, 'I'm not a political person,'" Parton says in the documentary. "I didn't have to march up and down the streets, as I still don't. I try to live my convictions. I've been writing songs about women and their strengths since my first album." 

While Parton resisted the "feminist" label, she threw herself behind the film's argument that the 20 million women who kept America's offices running deserved fair play at work and on screen. Camille Harman points out that while Fonda's full-throated political activism and Parton's reticence might not have made them an obvious match, they had one thing in common: They'd fought for recognition and respect in a sexist and uncompromising entertainment industry.

"All three of them were very, very unique and probably had an understanding with each other that nobody else probably understood," Hardman says, "because they'd experienced the same things in a very male-dominated industry."

The original #MeToo musical

Despite some misgivings from critics, the movie scooped up a handful of awards and nominations, paving the way for a 1982 spinoff TV series starring Rita Moreno, as well as the 2009 Broadway musical. But despite the story's fist-pumping message, it bore the fingerprints of men later accused of perpetuating the systemic sexism that was just as rampant in the entertainment industry as anywhere else. Producer Harvey Weinstein, who was found guilty of rape and sexual assault in 2020, bankrolled the musical. Meanwhile, the TV show starred Jeffrey Tambor, who was fired from Transparent in 2018 following allegations of sexual assault on set.   

Director Hardman says the filmmakers debated whether to steer away from the role these men played in the movie's history, but ultimately felt their presence in the story only underscored the point they were trying to make. So many men whose misconduct was exposed by the 2017 #MeToo movement were celebrated for promoting women, she says. "Behind the scenes, they were doing exactly what was going on in these shows."

#MeToo exposed an uncomfortable truth: Sexual harassment is far from a thing of the past. The filmmakers contrast the 2009 Broadway musical, and its reception, with the years leading up to the show's 2019 revival in London's West End. In the wake of #MeToo, revelations about unequal pay at the BBC and a more polarized culture ready to lash out at anything deemed too "woke," the story had taken on a whole new resonance. Jokes about the villainous Mr. Hart leering at his secretary might have got laughs in 2009, but those jokes didn't seem so safe and nostalgic anymore.

"When we were doing the musical 10 years ago, a lot of these issues didn't seem as powerful, which is a sad commentary on the complacency that we all kind of fell into," the musical's producer Bob Greenblatt says in the documentary. But that's not the feeling anymore. "Dolly now calls it the original #MeToo musical."

Office workers without an office

So where does this leave us in 2022? The COVID-19 pandemic forced many office workers back home in 2020, making the stress of the workplace even harder to balance against the demands of family life. A McKinsey study found that women made up 54% of job losses in 2020 as families found themselves in need of unpaid childcare when schools closed down.

"When everything started getting bad, and people had to start going home, it was automatically assumed that the woman was to leave the workforce and take care of the children," says Larry Lane. "That's what we're trying to address right now, that it's not like back in the 1960s with, you know, Father Knows Best and all that. We want to get out of that logic for women and make it an equal playing field."

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Harvey Weinstein, who was found guilty of rape and sexual assault in 2020, produced and financed the 9 to 5 Broadway musical.

Johannes Eisele/Getty

People working from home in the pandemic have found themselves working longer hours and facing symptoms of burnout. Meanwhile, work has grown ever more precarious, with the decline of unions and the rise of the gig economy. Does the traditional nine-to-five job even exist at this point? 

"A lot of people don't have one boss anymore," Hardman says. "If you're a contract worker, who do you go to when you have a complaint? If you complain too much, they'll just give the work to somebody else."

The filmmakers also point out that the inequality felt by white women in the workplace is magnified for women of color. The original movie attempted to take some steps toward representing other marginalized groups -- in Patricia Resnick's original script there were five secretaries, and the filmmakers had hoped to cast Diahann Carroll as one of the leads -- but doesn't touch on the issues affecting women with disabilities or members of the LGBTQ community, for example. Hardman says 9 to 5 would look completely different if it were made today.  

One piece of unfinished business that runs throughout the 9 to 5 timeline is the Equal Rights Amendment, originally passed by Congress in 1972 with the aim to guarantee the rights of all people under the law, regardless of sex. After years of extended deadlines, Virginia became the 38th state to ratify the amendment in 2020 while the documentary was being produced. "We were literally editing in history," says Gary Lane. 

Despite reaching the required number of ratifications, however, the amendment is held back by the original 1982 deadline, which passed without the required 38 states. That deadline has to be eliminated before the amendment can pass. "We would love to see that ERA pass because women should be in the Constitution. It shouldn't even be an argument," Lane continues.

And in the meantime? Hardman says there's a lesson anyone can take from 9 to 5. If you're experiencing injustice in the workplace, she says, there's a good chance one or more of your colleagues is going through something similar. "You can create change. You can unify and stand up for yourselves and say, 'We're not going to take this anymore.'"