It is a white-collar comedy about a secretary who stages a Wall Street coup. But it could easily be a fable of career politics in Hollywood. Working Girl, a new movie from veteran director Mike Nichols, offers some of the most ingenious casting in years. Harrison Ford, the larger-than-life gladiator of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies, breaks out of his heroic mold to portray a painfully insecure brokerage dealer. Sigourney Weaver, fresh from playing queen of the apes in Gorillas in the Mist, is reduced to a small supporting role as a foil for Working Girl’s heroine, a less famous actress named Melanie Griffith. A success story about a working girl’s struggle to become a career woman, the movie also represents Griffith’s own transition from working actress to Hollywood star.
Casting is a highly political business. At first, studio executives at 20th Century-Fox insisted on hiring a big name for the lead of Working Girl. And Griffith did not qualify. She is the daughter of a star: Tippi Hedren, the icy blonde in such Alfred Hitchcock classics as The Birds (1963) and Mamie (1964). And she is the exwife of a star: Don Johnson of TV’s Miami Vice. But until now, Griffith was just an interesting actress, best known as the quirky heroine who handcuffed a man to a motel bed in 1986’s stylish comedy Something Wild. Still, with the help of Nichols, Griffith snared the Working Girl lead—displaying a perseverance typical of the character she ended up playing.
Macho: The role of Tess, a spunky secretary who infiltrates the executive ranks of the brokerage business, is an enviable one for any actress. She has hunky Harrison Ford tagging along as her love interest, a character who is neither as smart nor as bold as she is. She also gets to humiliate a boss played by the imposing Sigourney Weaver. Ford’s macho credentials are strong enough that he can allow himself to be brought down a peg or two. But Weaver’s part was especially unflattering, and she initially rejected it, only to be coaxed into the movie by Nichols. Griffith, Weaver and Ford are three very different products of the star-making machine. During separate interviews last month, they talked to Maclean’s about how their careers intersected in Working Girl.
Wearing striped tights and a loose-necked sweater, Griffith lounged on a sofá, a crosslegged tangle of thighs and high heels. She wore diamond earrings and a large, square-cut diamond ring—“Diamonds, they’re my fávorite gem,” she said in a smoky voice. “I don’t think of myself as wanting to be a star,” declared Griffith. But she begged to play the lead in Working Girl after first seeing the script three years ago. A year and a half later, when Nichols was hired to direct it, she tried to get in to see him. “He didn’t think I was right or didn’t know who I was or something,” she said. According to producer Douglas Wick, the studio was unable to find a major movie star who would be “both believable as a secretary and drop-dead beautiful for later in the story.” After seeing Something Wild, Nichols finally asked Griffith to audition for Working Girl. Her reading quickly won him over, but studio executives agreed to hire her only after seeing the results of a screen test.
Stardom: In past roles, Griffith has played such sexually uninhibited women that she was in danger of being typecast. But there were always hints of a serious actress trying to break through, investing her characters with a creative sense of style. As the platinum-blond porno star, Holly Body, in director Brian DePalma’s 1984 thriller Body Double, she projected a disarming innocence. In Something Wild, it was her idea to begin the movie in a black wig, which added another level of intrigue to the script. And in Working Girl, a long shot showing her vacuuming in the nude was also her suggestion—“I thought it would be typical,” she said. “You do that when you’re in a hurry and you don’t want to put on the clothes you’re going out in.” But Griffith’s most remarkable quality is the way she seems to invent her character as the camera rolls. Nichols calls her “that rare creature that is made for the camera.” He added:“Her eyes are transparent; you can see right into her feelings. She doesn’t act—she just arrives alive.”
As a youngster, Griffith recalls, she had no aspirations to follow in her mother’s footsteps. “I always saw her being made up in front of the mirror and I thought acting was just hair and clothes,” she said. “I had no concept that it was a real art.” At 14, she made her screen debut in Night Moves with Gene Hackman and began a turbulent romance with Johnson, then an unknown actor. It ended four years later, shortly after they were married. (Now divorced from her second husband, actor Steven Bauer, Griffith lives with their three-year-old daughter; she recently reunited with Johnson, who ended his liaison with singer Barbra Streisand.) Griffith, who never finished high school, spent nearly two decades acting in movies and television. But she did not win serious acclaim until Body Double. Finally, with director Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild, she became a contender for stardom.
Drugs: The vulnerability that helps make her a good actress has also taken a personal toll. She has weathered dark trials with drugs and alcohol. While shooting Working Girl, she rejoined and quit Alcoholics Anonymous, and spent some time at a Minnesota clinic specializing in chemical dependency. Asked if she had conquered her addictions, she replied: “Today I have—it’s one day at a time.” Interviews appear to unnerve her even more than auditions, especially questions about acting technique. Said Griffith: “It’s like exposing your insides. I feel like saying, ‘Lookit, I don’t know how I do it, and it’s none of your f—ing business.’ ”
In contrast to Griffith, Weaver is focused and forthcoming. Wearing a black-and-white houndstooth jacket, she looks every bit as elegant as the upper-class viper she portrays in Working Girl, all clear lines and contours: thin scarlet lips, dark eyes and waves of auburn hair framing her face in the style of a 1940s screen siren. Weaver grew up in an affluent showbusiness family, the daughter of former NBC president Sylvester Weaver and British actress Elizabeth Inglis. But unlike Griffith, the Hollywood dropout, Weaver, the diligent New Yorker, laid the foundation for her career at Stanford University and Yale drama schools.
In creating Katharine, her character in Working Girl, Weaver was able to make satirical comments on her own upper-class background. “I certainly had the same excellent schooling as her,” she said. “It was fun doing it—we all want to see rich people behave horribly.” Although friends advised her that it was unbecoming for a star of her stature to play a supporting role as a scheming executive, Weaver says that she has no regrets. Added Weaver: “It was a delightful part, not unlike those Rosalind Russell heroines.”
Sexism: In researching the role, she said, she was shocked to discover that sexism was so rampant on Wall Street. “Women still have to fight to be equals with men,” Weaver declared. “They have to be aggressive but not too aggressive, feminine but not too feminine.” But she added that sexism still exists in Hollywood as well, especially in the area of salaries. Although Weaver earned more than $1 million for starring in the 1986 box-office hit Aliens, male stars earn considerably more. Said Weaver: “Harrison Ford gets paid four times what I get paid.”
Later, Ford almost choked on his drink when told about Weaver’s complaint. “She said that?” he asked. “I’m slightly embarrassed. It’s not within my control, but I’m certainly sympathetic to her point of view—she’s right.” Plainly dressed in corduroy slacks and a sports jacket, Ford looks surprisingly ordinary for an actor who has starred in five of the 10 most successful films of all time. A no-nonsense family man and former carpenter, he lives in rural Wyoming and claims that wealth has not prevented him from enjoying simple pleasures. “Money is really only important if you don’t have any,” he said. “I don’t have a room where I go like Uncle Scrooge and roll around in it.”
Onscreen, as in life, Ford has tried to avoid typecasting. “I always look for parts that contrast with whatever I’ve last done,” he said. “I’ve wanted to do an all-out comedy, but I’d never seen one with enough ambition or humanity that I’d want to invest the energy.” He said that he appreciated the fact that Working Girl presents a positive portrait of women, reversing Hollywood’s sexual stereotypes so effectively that when he first read the script he realized that his role would be “the girl’s part” in most movies. “Casting Melanie was a terrific idea, it really sealed the deal for me,” he said. “She’s a really significant talent. It’s very hard to withhold sympathy from Melanie.” Mocking: It was Nichols who engineered the
intriguing chemistry of Working Girl’s casting. While raising Griffith to stardom, he toyed with the reputations of her costars. Mocking the swashbuckling image of Indiana Jones, he made the scar on Ford’s chin the object of a joke. “Some guy pulled a knife in Detroit,” Jack tells Tess, then sheepishly admits that he fell and banged his jaw on the toilet. (In fact, the actor got the scar as a teenager by driving into a telephone pole while trying to fasten the seat belt in his Volvo.) Meanwhile, when Weaver read the script, she said that she was horrified to see that both Tess and Jack, on separate occasions, accuse her character of having “a bony ass.” Said Weaver: “I objected to it and my husband objected to it. What really cut me to the quick was that Harrison said it as well as Melanie. I said, ‘Harrison, if you say it, they’ll believe it.’ ” But “bony ass” stayed in the movie. And, in defiance of Hollywood’s conventional wisdom, comedy triumphed over vanity.
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