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MOVIE REVIEWS : Dangerous Games for Power and Fame : Griffith Fits Glass Slipper as ‘Working Girl’ Cinderella

Times Film Critic

The credits list her third, the ads show her peeking from behind co-stars Harrison Ford and Sigourney Weaver, but don’t be fooled for a minute. “Working Girl” (citywide) is the sparkling success that it is because of the sheer irresistibility of Melanie Griffith.

For audiences already on the Griffith wavelength after “Something Wild” and “Stormy Monday,” her role as the tenacious Tess McGill seems tailor-made. But for those who somehow missed the special Griffith blend of moxie and down-to-earth sensuality, this is a chance to meet her in the very best company: romantically entangled with Ford, directed by Mike Nichols and in a savagely funny screenplay by ex-playwright and actor Kevin Wade (“Key Exchange”), no small movie discovery himself.

It’s a working-Cinderella story in which Griffith plays a more-than-bright Staten Islander with a fierce yen to climb out of the secretarial pool at her Wall Street brokerage job. Tess McGill is a compendium of all those sharp young girls on the subway or the Staten Island ferry every morning, sneakers on their feet, hopes on their sleeves and disaster in their accents.

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But Griffith’s McGill is different. Even after she’s been graduated from night school with honors, she keeps pushing; burrowing through the Wall Street Journal as avidly as she keeps up with “W,” taking late-night speech classes even when it means seeing less of her Staten Island fisherman-boyfriend Mick Dugan (he’s Alec Baldwin, Michelle Pfeiffer’s gangster husband in “Married to the Mob”).

In a way, Tess McGill is like Billie Dawn in “Born Yesterday,” and Griffith’s radiant performance is as much of a personal triumph as Judy Holliday’s was in 1950. But back then, Billie Dawn needed a mentor, a man who’d bring her innate smarts to the attention of the world--and to Billie herself. Griffith’s McGill, a woman of the ‘80s, already knows what she’s got: “A head for business and a bod for sin.” But just for once, she’d like to have the business half of her taken seriously.

The chance to be secretary to elegant WASP MBA Katharine Parker (Sigourney Weaver) seems the break she’s been waiting for. And sure enough, Weaver, welcoming Griffith on board with a pep talk about “input, ideas” and how “hard work gets rewarded,” sounds almost too good a boss to be true. She is.

Weaver is actually a one-woman brain-drain, quick to pick up on Griffith’s innovative suggestions, slow to give credit and incapable of sharing the spotlight. Leaving Griffith to do the menial work at a party, she says airily: “You can’t busy the quarterback with passing out the Gatorade.” (With impregnable self-confidence, actress Weaver slips deliciously into the role, playing the shrewd corporate shrew as though the role had been molded on her.)

In short order, however, the “quarterback” is sidelined after an out-of-state skiing accident, leaving the office untended and the plot boiling. With one of her own canny business ideas at stake, Griffith takes a deep, panicky breath and then poses as Weaver in a proposed deal, bringing her on a collision course with Jack Trainer (Ford), investment broker from another firm.

None of the plot twists will astonish you, but they don’t have a single boring patch to them either, thanks to Wade’s pungent dialogue and Nichols’ adroit direction. Best, the film is compassionate, not snide, toward Griffith and her appalled best friend, Cyn (Joan Cusack, remembered most vividly as the harried young assistant producer in “Broadcast News”). Another beautiful home girl with a heroic explosion of teased hair, Cusack is only afraid Griffith is dreaming above her station: “Sometimes I sing and dance around in my underwear,” she warns Tess. “It doesn’t make me Madonna.”

The tacit recognition of the barriers that hold the Cyns and the Tesses back and the lack of condescension to them in the direction and in Wade’s script makes “Working Girl” one of the warmest films that Nichols has touched recently, including “Silkwood” and “Heartburn.”

The film makers may overestimate, marginally, our need to know about Harrison Ford shirtless, however. Once is nice and apparently considered a requirement in his every movie. Twice is pleasant--if you worried that he’d been pigging out on Mars Bars since the first half-dressed scene. But three shirtless scenes . . . one shot with a background of secretaries ogling him. Really! It is possible to appreciate the man for something other than his body, you know.

You might consider his timing, his intelligence or his comic sensibilities, for example. They’re Ford hallmarks, employed to the fullest as he and Griffith begin trying to resist one another and to keep things on a reasonably business basis.

“Working Girl"(rated an astonishing R, for extremely brief nudity and sex) is one of those gorgeous packages where the film makers count on us to keep up--always a flattering attitude. So we notice the difference between Weaver’s office, overflowing with baskets of roses and tulips and orchid plants at her birthday time, and Griffith’s “surprise” birthday party at home.

Producer Douglas Wick and executive producers Robert Greenhut and Laurence Mark put together a fine team. Every one of the film’s production details is scrumptious: Michael Ballhaus’ camera work (again), Ann Roth’s costumes and Patrizia Von Brandenstein’s production design, Sam O’Steen’s customarily succinct editing; the use that Rob Mounsey has made of Carly Simon’s music, and especially Alan D’Angerios’s witty hair styles and J. Roy Helland’s hair and makeup.

Sure, the film bends credibility a bit when Griffith has Cusack cut her trendy mane, to give Griffith sufficiently “serious” hair to face the business world. We all know you don’t get serious hair from your best girlfriend and the game shears, but it’s part of the ineffable charm of the Cinderella fable, isn’t it?

‘WORKING GIRL’

A 20th Century Fox Film release. Producer Douglas Wick. Executive producers Robert Greenhut, Laurence Mark. Director Mike Nichols. Screenplay Kevin Wade. Camera Michael Ballhaus. Editor Sam O’Steen. Music Carly Simon, scored by Rob Mounsey. Production design Patrizia Von Brandenstein. Costumes Ann Roth. Art director Doug Kraner, set decorator George DeTitta. Sound Les Lazarowitz. Hair/makeup J. Roy Helland, hair stylist Alan D’Angerio. With Melanie Griffith, Harrison Ford, Sigourney Weaver, Joan Cusack, Alec Baldwin, Olympia Dukakis, Philip Bosco, Elizabeth Whitcraft.

Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes.

MPAA-rated: R (under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian).


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