Performances in comedies have always been appallingly underrated at the Oscars. Maybe I should be more specific and say ‘Leading performances in comedy have always been appallingly underrated at the Oscars’. The supporting category seems to be where the Academy likes to see the funny guys and girls but for the leading category, they want their tears and drama. The complaints about the disregard for comedic performances have always been loud and clear. But, of course, this does not automatically mean that every comedic performance that does manage to receive a nomination should be praised to heavens. Because comedy is very hard to do successfully and not every actor and actress can pull all the tricks off. And it gets even harder when the comedy they star in is a movie that is hardly a real comedy because it offers almost nothing funny or even slightly amusing – like Working Girl.
It’s a badly aged story that actually tackles some timeless themes like success, morals and how far one is willing to go to get ahead but at the same time it’s presented in a very dull, unlikable and simply unfunny way with a screenplay that has some clever ideas but fails to implement them into witty dialogue or plot. So, all that could safe Working Girl at the end of the day is the acting.
The main tasks are given to Melanie Griffith, strangely billed third behind Harrison Ford and Sigourney Weaver despite being the central character, who received her only nomination for playing Tess McGill, an ambitious secretary who dreams of getting ahead in the business world. The introduction of her character takes place on a ferry on which she, together with hundreds of other women, is on her way to work. Considering the haircuts and the cloths that all the women display, the movie could also be called ‘Voyage of the Damned’ but this pain for the eyes (and good taste) shall not distract from the performance by Miss Griffith.
Tess McGill combines a lot of different aspects but it is never clear if she is a complicated or simply badly written character. The screenplay establishes very soon that she possesses a golden gift for the business world: instincts. These instincts tell her on the one hand what would be a good business idea but they also tell her that a career is not something that will happen to her – she has to make it happen. So she takes speech classes and does her best to make sure that everybody else will notice her talents, too. So, her instincts tell her on the one hand what she can do and on the other hand what she has to do. But for some strange reason, her instincts don’t tell her how to behave in her work space and when it would be better to be silent – it is told that she had to change her job three times in a short space of time because of her big mouth and too often unacceptable behaviour. The movie takes the side of Tess, though, because it wants to make clear that Tess is actually always right because all she wants is to be taken seriously and treated with respect. So, Tess is a character with a lot of aspects – she wants to get ahead and knows how but at the same time doesn’t, she lives in a world of business and should know how to be taken seriously (for example by changing her hairstyle and her outfits) but at the same time doesn’t, she seems intelligent but at the same time she doesn’t. Ultimately and unfortunately, everything that Tess does and says doesn’t come from being an actual person but is simply written in a way that it fits the ideas of the plot. This brings us back to the aforementioned opinion that Tess is either complicated or badly written. Actually, it is both – she is badly written and this makes it very hard for an actress to turn her into a believable character. So the question is: was Melanie Griffith up to the challenge? Could she combine Tess’s intelligence, ambitions, instincts with her naivety and stupidity?
Let’s put it this way: the constant clearing of her throat that Tess demonstrates is actually the most inspired acting choice of Melanie Griffith in Working Girl because it shows her insecurity, her shyness and nervousness before she speaks – but considering that she does this clearing also at basically every other moment, even when she is in bed with Harrison Ford, makes it questionable how thought through this concept really was.
Right in her first scenes Melanie Griffith demonstrates something that she will keep for the rest of the entire movie: a complete lack of ability for comedic acting mixed with unappealing deliveries of her dialogue. This results in a shockingly monotonous and flat performance that is not only a victim of the bad writing but ultimately becomes also a failure in its own.
One can say that she possesses the right acting style for a light, romantic comedy but she lacks any sort of charm or genuine likeability and after a while of watching Working Girl it becomes clear that her acting is not really light but she simply lacks the talent to go beyond the surface of her character. All this makes Melanie Griffith a surprisingly huge bore and forgettable in her own star-vehicle. Sigourney Weaver acts her off the screen without even trying – her screen presence and talent to infuse a good deal of comedy into her interpretation of Katharine makes her a wonderful commanding character and, despite all the signs of furtiveness, one that is much more likable than Griffith’s Tess. Sigourney Weaver knows how to expand her fake friendliness to a level where her character seems to be genuine friendly while Griffith’s lacks the presence, the charm, the humour and basically, the talent to compete with her on any level. Sigourney Weaver isn’t the only one in the cast to outshine her easily – Joan Cusack is more memorable and funny in what feels like 3 minutes of screen time while Harrison Ford, despite giving a goofy performance of a goofy character, has more appeal in his left foot than Melanie Griffith in her whole performance.
But this doesn’t change the fact that in her performance in the early scenes Melanie Griffith concentrates solely on showing Tess’s insecurity and rebellious attitude against everyone who doesn’t take her seriously. It was already mentioned that the character of Tess doesn’t make a lot of sense and in the hands of Melanie Griffith, she makes even less because she lacks one substantial element in her performance – plausibility. Tess is actually an intelligent women because she knows her own faults but at the same time also her talents but Melanie Griffith simply fails in showing this. Because she possesses zero energy, she completely fails to show any ambition and, yes, intelligence in Tess. Because of Melanie Griffiths’s performance it is just unbelievable that Tess is a woman with even a single idea in her head, much alone a business idea. When she suggests a different kind of food for Katharine’s party it has a deeper meaning because Tess has read about it, showing how she keeps herself informed about everything, even down to things like finger food. But she is so drowsy in these scenes and simply fails to make the actions and thoughts of Tess believable. It again seems hard to judge Melanie Griffith for doing what seems to make sense at this moment (because, as mentioned, Tess is too insecure to talk in a different way in front of Katharine) but considering the things that Tess will do later, this total lack of confidence just doesn’t feel right. Even if Melanie tries to show Tess’s inexperience, it’s all so frustrating because she simply must show a certain sense of comedy, a likeable charm and an aspiring personality to create also a woman who can carry the story and be the centre of attention but it seems that Melanie Griffith is too determined to walk monotonously and almost bored from scene to scene.
When she makes her first real business idea to Katharine, it’s certainly obvious that she has a great idea but doesn’t quite know to bring it best across. While Melanie Griffith plays these reluctant parts well, one can’t help but feeling that she simply couldn’t do it any better – apart from this monotonous reluctance, there is nothing else in her performance. The script certainly wants to express that Tess has a brilliant idea but Melanie Griffith fails to make it believable that Tess is able to come up with brilliant ideas.
After the first negative impressions in her performance, Melanie Griffith starts to get a little more tolerable in her part – probably because one gets used to her after a while. It becomes now clearer that Tess has dreams and wishes but she misses experience and self assurance and so shows her character as the complete opposite of Katharine. She’s very naïve and doesn’t have yet what it takes. Later it becomes clear that she is also the exact opposite of Katharine when it comes to values and morals. Early on, Tess thinks it would be the best thing to copy Katharine as much as possible but soon she finds out about the true nature of her boss. Working Girl seems to want to make a point of showing that it isn’t necessary to throw your values overboard to get to the top – and that’s why at the end of the story, Tess is basically still the same woman as at the beginning. This means, that Melanie Griffith still plays her in the same monotonous, bored way. Yes, but isn’t this the point? Tess got ahead without denying who she is! Yes, but isn’t this what actually happened – Tess lied, she stole Katharine’s boyfriend, she manipulated people around her. So she actually did do a lot of things that Katharine would have done. It’s just not believable that none of her actions would have affected her character. Is it really believable that in the end, Tess goes to her new job without even knowing what it is? The ending of Working Girl creates only more contradictions in Tess and Melanie Griffith simply decided to ignore all of them and not create any controversy by simply running the gamut of emotions from A to B. All this makes it sadly clear that also in the early scenes, Melanie Griffith didn’t really act in character but simply did as well as she could – which, unfortunately, is not much.
When Tess begins her journey into the upper business world, Melanie Griffith again makes it never believable that she could really hold her own in any of those scenes or impress even a single person. That’s why it made sense to give her Harrison Ford as a screen partner who basically plays her key to this business world. He gives her guidance and expertise – but since Jack thinks that Tess is an experienced business woman herself he doesn’t do too much which brings us back to the question how she could convince even one single person. And this includes Jack. While Harrison Ford and Melanie Griffith have…some chemistry together, it’s not nearly enough to make his fascination of her believable and when he tells her he loves her it’s easily the most alive moment in the movie simple because the viewer suddenly wakes up and asks “What? Why?”
Basically, Melanie Griffith always seems like a deer caught in the headlight – not knowing why she is there or what she has to do next. From her bored way of talking to a bride at a wedding to her incredibility as a romantic interest or a business woman she simply makes an unbelievable character even more unbelievable.
Even at Tess’s hour of glory, when the truth is revealed and Katharine exposed as a liar, Melanie Griffith keeps the same face the entire time and it again makes absolutely no sense that any of the business people would believe her instead of the strong and believable Katharine. And the fact that Jack at this moment decides to basically put his whole career into her hands is an even bigger mystery.
Tess could have been a great character if the writers hadn’t bended her too many times to fit into the story and that way robbed her of any credibility. Combined with Melanie Griffith’s uninspired acting which only emphasizes the problems of the character by being surprisingly monotonous and dull, Tess McGill becomes one of the most frustrating and disappointing creations in the history of the Best Actress category. While she finds some ways of entertaining the viewer, Melanie Griffith never goes any further and so can’t get more than