The film features a notable opening sequence following Manhattan-bound commuters on the Staten Island Ferry accompanied by Carly Simon’s song “Let the River Run”, for which she received the Academy Award for Best Song. The film was a box office success, grossing a worldwide total of $103 million.
Griffith was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress, while both Weaver and Joan Cusack were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. The film was also nominated for Academy Award for Best Picture.
Tess McGill is a working-class girl from Staten Island with a bachelor’s degree in Business from evening classes. She works as a stockbroker’s secretary in the mergers and acquisitions department of a Wall Street investment bank. Tess aspires to reach an executive position. Tricked by her boss into a date with his lascivious, cocaine-snorting colleague, she gets into trouble by using the office ticker to insult him and is reassigned as secretary to a new executive, Katharine Parker. Seemingly supportive, Katharine encourages Tess to share ideas. Tess suggests that a client, Trask Industries, should invest in radio to gain a foothold in media. Katharine listens to the idea and says she will pass it through some people. Later, she says the idea was not well received. When Katharine breaks her leg skiing in Europe, she asks Tess to house-sit. While at Katharine’s place, Tess discovers some meeting notes where Katharine plans to pass off the merger idea as her own. At home, Tess finds her boyfriend Mick Dugan in bed with another woman. Disillusioned, she returns to Katharine’s apartment and begins her transformation.
Tess decides to use her boss’s absence and connections, including Katharine’s fellow executive, Jack Trainer, to put forward her own idea for a merger deal. She uses Katharine’s name to set up a meeting with Trainer. She wants to see who Trainer is by attending a party the evening before the meeting, wearing one of Katharine’s expensive designer dresses. Before the party, when Tess suffers a panic attack, her friend Cynthia gives her a Valium from Katharine’s bathroom. At the party, Tess unknowingly meets Jack, who is fascinated by her. They have a couple of drinks, and the combined effect of Valium and alcohol lead to her waking next morning in Jack’s bed. She leaves before he wakes and, entering the meeting, realizes Jack Trainer is the man she had spent the night with. She thinks the pitch goes badly. Back at “her” desk, she is mortified about the night before, but Jack comes in and says her idea has potential. Days later, Tess and Jack gatecrash Trask’s daughter’s wedding and pitch their plan. Trask is interested, and a meeting is scheduled. When Tess and Jack end up in bed again, Tess wants to explain the truth, but keeps quiet after learning Jack has been in a relationship with Katharine, which he assures is all but over.
Katharine comes home on the day of the meeting with Trask. Tess overhears Katharine asking Jack to confirm his love for her, but he avoids answering. Tess rushes off, leaving her appointment book, which Katharine reads. The meeting goes well until Katharine storms in, accusing Tess, a “mere” secretary, of having stolen her idea. Tess protests but leaves, apologizing. Days later, Tess clears out her desk and then bumps into Jack, Katharine, and Trask at the lobby elevators. Tess confronts Katharine and starts to tell everyone her side of the story. Katharine tries to lead the group away, but Jack says he believes Tess. When Trask hears a convincing tidbit, he hops off the closing elevator, leaving Katharine still in the lift. Trask gets on another elevator with Jack and Tess, where Tess then gives her elevator pitch to Trask, telling him the roundabout way in which she came up with the idea for the merger. When they get to their floor, Trask confronts Katharine, asking her how she came up with the idea. She stumbles and balks and is unable to explain the idea’s origin. Katharine is fired on the spot for her fraud, and Trask offers Tess an “entry-level” job with his company.
Tess starts her new job, armed with a lunchbox prepared by Jack. Directed to an office, she sees a woman on the phone, assumes she is her new boss, and seats herself at the secretary station. The woman identifies herself as Alice and reveals that she is, in fact, Tess’s secretary and that Tess is the new junior executive for whom she is working. Tess insists they work together as colleagues, showing she will be very different from Katharine. She then calls Cynthia from her office overlooking Manhattan to say she has landed her dream job.
- Harrison Ford as Jack Trainer
- Sigourney Weaver as Katharine Parker
- Melanie Griffith as Tess McGill
- Alec Baldwin as Mick Dugan
- Joan Cusack as Cynthia
- Philip Bosco as Oren Trask
- Nora Dunn as Ginny, a colleague of Katharine’s
- Oliver Platt as Lutz, Tess’ sleazoid first boss
- James Lally as Turkel
- Kevin Spacey as Bob Speck, a cokehead arbitrager
- Robert Easton as Armbrister
- Amy Aquino as Alice Baxter, Tess’ Secretary
Other notable performers appearing in minor roles in the film include Olympia Dukakis as a Personnel Director, David Duchovny as one of Tess’ birthday party friends and Ricki Lake as a bridesmaid.
Many scenes were shot in the New Brighton section of Staten Island in New York City.
Tess’s office building lobby scenes were shot in the lobby of 7 World Trade Center (one of the buildings destroyed in the September 11 attacks). The scenes of Tess’s secretarial pool and Katharine Parker’s office were filmed at One State Street Plaza at the corner of Whitehall and State Street. One Chase Manhattan Plaza was featured at the end as the Trask Industries building.
The film’s main theme “Let the River Run” was written and performed by American singer-songwriter Carly Simon, and won her an Academy Award, a Golden Globe Award and a Grammy Award for Best Song. The song reached number 49 on the Billboard Hot 100 and number 11 on the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart in early 1989.
The credits for the film read “music by Carly Simon, scored by Rob Mounsey”. A soundtrack album was released on August 29, 1989, by Arista Records, and it peaked at number 45 on the Billboard 200.
The film was released on December 23, 1988, in 1,051 theaters and grossed $4.7 million on its opening weekend. It went on to make $63.8 million in North America and $39.2 million in the rest of the world for a worldwide total of $103 million.
The film received generally positive reviews from critics with an 85% rating at Rotten Tomatoes and a 73 metascore at Metacritic. Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and wrote, “The plot of Working Girl is put together like clockwork. It carries you along while you’re watching it, but reconstruct it later and you’ll see the craftsmanship”. In her review for the Washington Post, Rita Kempley described Melanie Griffith as “luminous as Marilyn Monroe, as adorable as one of Disney’s singing mice. She clearly has the stuff of a megastar, and the movie glows from her”. Janet Maslin, in her review for The New York Times, wrote, “Mike Nichols, who directed Working Girl, also displays an uncharacteristically blunt touch, and in its later stages the story remains lively but seldom has the perceptiveness or acuity of Mr. Nichols’s best work”. In his review for Time, Richard Corliss wrote, “Kevin Wade shows this in his smart screenplay, which is full of the atmospheric pressures that allow stars to collide. Director Mike Nichols knows this in his bones. He encourages Weaver to play (brilliantly) an airy shrew. He gives Ford a boyish buoyancy and Griffith the chance to be a grownup mesmerizer”.