In '9 to 5,' Parton, Fonda And Tomlin Spoke To Workers Everywhere

Entertainment | July 2, 2021

The stars of "9 to 5" Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton. (MuseumoftheCityofNewYork)

The film “9 to 5” starring Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton became a massive hit in 1980 thanks to its headliners and its forward-thinking ideas. Before women truly gained the respect they richly deserved, “9 to 5” poked fun at the misogynistic, sexist, and buffoonish male character that, unfortunately, was all too real in 1980 and still around today. Without Fonda, who helmed the production company that made “9 to 5,” the motion picture would likely have never seen the light of day. In fact, Fonda was the central reason why the film morphed into a broad comedy rather than a feminist drama. Here’s everything you wanted to know about the second most successful film of 1980!

Women everywhere related to the plight of these women in the workplace. (amazon)

“9 to 5’s” Original Conceit

The original idea for the film came from a real all-female organization from Boston. As Fonda tells it, “My ideas for films always come from things that I hear and perceive in my daily life. In that case, a very old friend of mine had started an organization in Boston called 'Nine To Five,’ which was an association of women office workers. I heard them talking about their work and they had some great stories. And I've always been attracted to those 1940s films with three female stars.” However, the broad comedy as we know went through many changes before it matured into box office gold.

"9 to 5" presaged "Horrible Bosses" by 30 years! (deadline)

Jane Fonda’s Key Decision

With Fonda running the show, she made the savvy decision to change the tone of the film. "At first we were going to make a drama,” said the powerful actress. “But any way we did it, it seemed too preachy, too much of a feminist line. We took out a lot of stuff that was filmed, even stuff the director, Colin Higgins, thought worked but which I asked to have taken out. I'm just super-sensitive to anything that smacks of the soapbox or lecturing the audience.”

"9 to 5" became a massive hit behind the strength of its stars. (slashfilm)

“9 to 5’s” Evolution

Still, before it turned into a mainstream comedy, screenwriter Patricia Resnick went dark. “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.” To give Fonda a sense of what she was going for, Resnick screened an old Charlie Chaplin film called Monsieur Verdoux.

As Resnick remembered, “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—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.”

One of the first "women in the workplace" films. (getty)

It Takes Luck

Like any wildly successful project, you need some luck. Fonda and the producers knew they wanted Tomlin and Parton but weren’t sure they could secure them. As Resnick tells it, “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.”

Tomlin actually turned down the role before getting some advice from her wife, Jane Wagner. “I'd worked for seven months on (another) movie, so I was ready to just shut my eyes to anything else. My partner Jane said to me, ‘This is the biggest mistake of your life.’ She said, ‘You've got to get on the phone and tell Jane Fonda you want to take back the resignation… And I am grateful that I did it. They became two of my good friends, you know.”

"9 to 5" became one of the first female empowerment movies. (youtube)

Fun Facts

Dolly Parton on the other hand, agreed to do the film only if she could write the theme song. The savvy country music star eventually earned an Oscar nomination for her “9 to 5” tune. The inexperienced Parton also learned every part’s dialogue because that’s how she thought it worked. “I memorized it,” said Parton. “I just assumed that you had to. My part and [Lily’s] part and [Jane’s] part and Dabney’s part. But I just knew the script back and forth and every week I would read it … I would practice.”

That dedication paid off as “9 to 5” ranked as the second highest-grossing film of 1980 behind only “The Empire Strikes Back!” Women came out and supported the movie in droves and undoubtedly empathized with many of the characters’ plights and perhaps, revealed in the fantasies involving torturing their own bosses. The studio tried for years to make a sequel but as Parton told them, “It's 9 to 5, not 95!”

Tags: 1980s Movies | Dolly Parton | Jane Fonda | Lily Tomlin | Movies In The 1980s

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Kellar Ellsworth


Kellar Ellsworth was born and raised in Hawaii. He is an avid traveler, surfer and lover of NBA basketball. He wishes he could have grown up in the free love era!