'9 to 5' Turns 35, and It's Still Radical Today

A generation after '9 to 5,' screenwriter Patricia Resnick reflects on sexism in Hollywood and how most Americans would kill to work 9-to-5 today

'9 to 5,' starring Lily Tomlin, Dolly Parton and Jane Fonda, was released December 19, 1980. Credit: Photofest

December 19th marks 35 years since the release of 9 to 5, the cult comedy that brought together Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin with Dolly Parton in her film debut as Miss Doralee Rhodes, a kind-hearted secretary who fantasizes about lassoing her "sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot" boss and roasting him on a spit.

Tomlin stars as Violet Newstead, a working widow and mother of four who's passed over for promotions despite her obvious qualifications. The project was conceived of by Jane Fonda, who was inspired by the work of Karen Nussbaum, an old friend from the anti-war movement and founder of 9to5, an organization still in the business of advocating for working women. Fonda cast herself as the uncharacteristically mousy Judy Bernly, a nervous divorcee who can't figure out who she is, never mind how to run the copy machine. Sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot boss Franklin Hart Jr. is played to smarmy mustachioed perfection by Dabney Coleman.

The plot of 9 to 5 feels nothing short of radical, even (and perhaps especially) today. Mr. Hart spends his days harassing Doralee by telling her she's much more to him than "just a dumb secretary." He lies about sleeping with her, and purposefully knocks pencils on the floor so she'll lean over and pick them up. He insults Judy, and bullies Violet by demanding she fix his coffee. After learning she lost out on a promotion to a man she trained, Violet confronts Mr. Hart. "Spare me the women's lib crap," he replies.

Mr. Hart is soon made to pay. After a coworker gets canned for comparing salaries — technically a protected activity since the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 — Violet, Judy and Dolly head to the bar to drown their sorrows in birdbath-sized martinis, smoke a joint and spin revenge fantasies about their boss. The next day, Violet accidentally stirs rat poison into Mr. Hart's coffee. Hijinks ensue, and eventually they kidnap him.

In order to hide the fact that they're holding their boss hostage, the women have to run the business as best they can, which, it turns out, is much better than Mr. Hart. They implement flexible schedules and a job-sharing program, set up a daycare center and ensure equal pay.

These themes were all very timely in 1980, the same year the EEOC issued guidelines clarifying that sexual harassment is unlawful under Title VII (though it didn't become a nationally discussed issue until the Anita Hill hearings a decade later). But the thing about watching 9 to 5 today is that you realize the American workplace of 2015 is nowhere near as progressive as Miss Doralee Rhodes and company were way back in 1980.

The gender pay gap was nearly the same in 1980 as it was in 1960. The gap narrowed in the Nineties, then stalled. If progress continues at the current rate, American women won't achieve pay equity until 2059. This is the only advanced nation in the world that doesn't provide paid parental leave. The annual cost of putting a baby in daycare typically costs more than a year's tuition in state college, one of many factors driving women out of the workforce.

With movements like Fight for $15 and Raise the Wage, these workplace equality issues are part of the national political conversation. Recently there's been a focus not just on sexism in U.S. workplaces, but also in Hollywood, as actresses speak out about equal pay and advocates point to the opportunity gap for women working behind the lens.

With all that in mind, Rolling Stone spoke to Patricia Resnick, who wrote 9 to 5's original screenplay – it was subsequently revised by the film's late director, Colin Higgins – about her original plans for the female characters in the film, being a woman in Hollywood, and clueless male journalists.

You did background research for 9 to 5 by spending time with office workers at Fox Studios' insurance company. Do you recall any specific people who inspired the stories in the film?
This is actually the genesis of Doralee, the Dolly Parton character. There was the head guy's secretary. I had spent some time with some of the other secretaries first before talking to her, and nobody liked her. Everybody had a bunch of awful things to say about her, and they said she got to be his secretary because she was sleeping with him, and on and on. I finally went out to lunch with her one day, and she had a couple of martinis and her tongue got pretty loose and she started telling me about her life, and she started crying. She was a really nice woman, she was living with her mom and taking care of her, and she knew everybody thought she was sleeping with the boss, and she said she wasn't. That gave me the idea for that character.

Did you already know that role would be played by Dolly Parton?
We had Jane for sure, because it was her idea to do the film and it was her production company. It was written for Dolly and Lily, but we did not have them under contract. We really wanted them, but we did have some backup ideas in case they turned us down.

For Lily, it was Carol Burnett, and for Dolly, it was Ann-Margret. But I had Dolly, Lily and Jane in my head the whole time, and we were really hoping that's who it was going to be.

You wrote the screenplay, and then when Colin Higgins was signed on to direct, he reworked it. How did it change?
I had written a very dark comedy in which the secretaries actually tried to kill the boss, although they tried to kill him in sort of funny ways. Originally, Jane had been concerned that would be too dark. I screened an old Charlie Chaplin film called Monsieur Verdoux for her. In it, Chaplin's wife is blind and he has a child. He's kind of a Blackbeard, he romances a series of woman through the course of the movie and murders them in order to get money and support his family. It is a comedy, but at the end they hang him. I turned to Jane at the end of the movie and tears were rolling down her cheeks – but she was concerned the women wouldn't be sympathetic enough. I said, "He really killed all these women and you're crying. I just want them to try! They won't be successful." And she said OK. But then when Colin came in, he was very influenced by Warner Bros. cartoons and things like that, and so their attempts to kill him became the fantasy scenes, and he made it a much broader comedy.

Did you spend time on set?
When I worked with Altman, he had the writers on set through the entire production and I thought that's the way that Hollywood worked. When Colin Higgins came in on 9 to 5, I had one meeting with him, and he basically said, "I write by myself. I'm not going to write with you. I believe there's one captain on set and that's the director. I don't want the actors going to you instead of me, so if you want to visit on set once and have lunch, that's fine."

That was the way he worked, and it was really heartbreaking. I think I cried every night for a couple of weeks. When I went to the first screening I felt like I had a kid, and the kid was sent off to military school and came back two years later, and I was squinting and going, "I guess it's kind of my kid." It was really very painful, but that's, unfortunately, how it goes with writers in features: you don't own copyright, they can fire you, they can replace you they can change the director. That was a very hard lesson to learn.

Hilariously, the New York Times review called it "a militant cry for freedom." I can't imagine the response if they had actually attempted to kill the boss, or if it was a serious movie about workers' rights.
Jane had piles and piles of documentation about clerical workers, but she knew she wanted a comedy because it would make the social message more palatable. 

It's an interesting question, what kinds of media can affect social change. We're having a big feminist pop culture moment, but I often wonder if it translates beyond "raising awareness."

It's hard to know what to do. In some ways we've definitely moved forward a little bit, but there does seem to be a lot of sentiment in this country, in one of our political parties, that seems to be trying to undo what little we've been able to do. The other thing that makes it difficult is that so many people think that this is all been settled. We did a musical of 9 to 5 on Broadway in 2009, and it was really frustrating because a lot of the interviews that I did with male journalists, the first thing they said was, "Well, none of those issues are a problem in contemporary life, so how are women of today going to be able to relate to it?" I thought, yeah, you can't sexually harass someone as obviously. We don't call people "secretaries." Other than that, what has changed? People would kill to work from 9 to 5.

What was it like being a female screenwriter in the late Seventies?
I don't know what it's like to be a male screenwriter, so it's hard for me to know in what way my career would have been different. I do know that I very much wanted [writing and directing feature films] to be part of my career trajectory, but even after the tremendous success of 9 to 5, that was not going to happen. I think a lot of that, if not all of it, had to do with being female. I know a lot of the conversation right now is primarily about the lack of female directors, but female writers are not doing that much better. In terms of screenwriting, the last two years I believe the small percentage has gotten even smaller. In terms of television, which is somewhat better for women, [the percentage of women] is still quite small.

Do you have particular war stories, or was it more of a silent bias?
It just wasn't going to happen. I would say, "I'd like to direct," and everybody would sort of smile, and that was kind of that. The one anecdote I do have is I was seven months pregnant with my first child when I directed a short film, and I won an Award for Cable Excellence (ACE) Award. Then a powerful female producer said to me, "Well, you can't plan on directing with a baby," and I said, "I can direct with a baby." And then I realized soon after that, particularly because I was a single parent, I really couldn't. I mean, I could have, but it wasn't something I was going to pursue at that time. My career changed, and I had to think about things I don't think men have to think about. I ended up having two kids on my own, and by that time features had really kind of dried up for me, I think it was combination of age and gender. I just couldn't get work. I started by reluctantly doing television, which I actually came to love.

I appreciated how the recent New York Times Magazine's article about this issue began with a story about a young man in Hollywood reminding an older man of himself.
That comes down to mentoring, men helping bring along other men. There weren't that many powerful women who could bring along younger women, and I know possibly it's getting better now, but certainly when I was doing features, women producers, especially executives, it's almost like they were afraid to push for a woman writer. If it didn't go well, it would be on them for pushing for a woman, whereas if they got a guy and it didn't go well, oh well, it just didn't go well. It wasn't because it was a guy writer.

Now it seems like women are more willing to work with women. I'm going in projects where there seems to be more than one woman in the room, and seeing female producers bringing in female writers and partnering with other women. I was really fortunate to be mentored by Robert Altman, and yet he didn't let me write until Lily Tomlin let me write.

There's buzz about a sort of 9 to 5 reunion by way of Dolly Parton appearing in a guest spot on Grace and Frankie. Any inside scoop?
None! People would love to see the three of them together again. For years there was talk of a sequel or a remake, but as Dolly always says, "It's 9 to 5, not 95!" Doing a remake with them, that ship has probably sailed. There's certainly enormous goodwill and affection toward that movie. It's amazing that this many years later it's as known and as loved as it is, and that's a wonderful thing. I only wish that it was more antique and vintage in its politics than it is.