7 things you never knew about Working Girl

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Hannah-Rose Yee
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Let’s celebrate the 30th anniversary of the release of the movie with some of the behind-the-scenes happenings from the film.

It’s been 30 years since Melanie Griffith strapped on her sneakers and strode off the Staten Island Ferry in Working Girl.

The iconic 1988 movie about Tess McGill, a smart and ambitious receptionist who exacts revenge on her idea-stealing boss Katharine (Sigourney Weaver) and climbs the career ladder in the brutal world of Wall Street was the ne plus ultra of workplace comedies, speaking directly to a generation of women who weren’t going to let themselves be downtrodden or gaslighted in the office.

A huge success, it was nominated for five Oscars, including three acting nominations for its stars Griffith, Weaver and Joan Cusack, who played Tess’ wise-cracking best friend Cynthia. It also featured a young Harrison Ford as a dashing investment banker, a cinematic turn we remain eternally grateful for. 

To celebrate the 30th anniversary of the release of the movie, The Hollywood Reporter spoke to the key castmembers and filmmakers about the secrets from behind-the-scenes of the groundbreaking film. Here are some of our favourite revelations:

1. The topless vacuuming scene was Griffith’s idea

There’s a moment in Working Girl when Tess quickly runs a vaccum over her carpets before dashing out the door. She does so completely topless, clad only in underwear and a pair of high heels.

“That was my idea,” Griffith told The Hollywood Reporter. “I remember when I went to Mike [Nicholls, the director] and I asked, ‘What about if I vacuum wearing just high heels and my panties, like would that be OK?’ His face was like, ‘Of course it would be f*cking OK! Would you do that?’” 

The original script called for Tess to do her cleaning in a slip, bra and underwear, but Griffith protested. “That’s not how it would be if you’re in a rush,” she said. “That’s how I lived – I wouldn’t get dressed to vacuum.” 

2. Griffith had to fight to get the role

When production on Working Girl was announced, the role of Tess became the hottest part in town. This was partly due to the involvement of the film’s director Mike Nichols, the man behind The Graduate and Heartburn, the film adaptation of Nora Ephron’s novel of the same name starring Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson.

But it was also because the role of Tess was so rare at the time: a fully-realised, nuanced working woman who wasn’t just a wife or a girlfriend. Big names like Madonna and Michelle Pfeiffer were all in the mix for the part of Tess. 

Griffith, Ford and Weaver on the set of Working Girl

Griffith wasn’t. The filmmakers told Griffith’s agent that they didn’t want to audition her for the role but Griffith persevered. Finally, she auditioned in front of the director and blew the team away. “She was the girl,” Juliet Taylor, Working Girl’s casting director told The Hollywood Reporter. “It was almost a visceral reaction. She was adorable, funny, vulnerable, sexy – everything. And real.” 

3. There was a case of musical chairs when it came to the men in the movie

The producers wanted Harrison Ford for the role of Jack, the investment banker to whom Tess pitches behind her boss’ back, and for whom she eventually falls head over heels in love with. 

But in 1988, with Star Wars and Indiana Jones under his belt, Ford was the biggest movie star in the world. When he eventually said yes, the studio originally refused to pay for him. 

So instead, they cast a then-unknown for the role instead: Alec Baldwin. Everything was all set for Baldwin to play the investment banker opposite Griffith’s Tess until the film studio baulked at the idea of two lesser-known actors in lead roles and decided to pony up the cash for Ford after all. All that was left was to tell Baldwin the bad news and offer him a consolation prize: the part of Tess’ disappointing potential love interest. Awkward. 

4. Cusack almost got underpaid

Griffith and Cusack in Working Girl

In a bid to be a truly method actress, Cusack thought that it might be a good idea for her to receive the same pay cheque that a secretary on Wall Street might receive for her work.

“I came up with this idea that I should get paid what real secretaries get paid,” Cusack told The Hollywood Reporter. “My dad was like, ‘You’re crazy. No-one is even going to know that.’” 

5. Griffith’s wardrobe was pieced together from different locations

Some of Tess’ outfits were purchased by costume designer Ann Roth from shops located around Wall Street and the Staten Island Ferry, based on the idea that Tess might be dashing out and shopping on her lunch hour. All of Tess’ lingerie in the movie was purchased in Monaco while Roth was on a vacation during filming.

Tess’ memorable sneakers, worn with her sensible skirt suit, were based off the legions of women in New York in the eighties doing their commute in tennis shoes and keeping a pair of high heels stashed under their desk. 

6. There was plenty of romance going on off-camera

Power pose in action

“Alec Baldwin is handsome and charming and I just had such a crush on him,” Griffith told The Hollywood Reporter. “But he wouldn’t go there with me.” According to Griffith, she asked him to “have a romance with me” but Baldwin demurred, adding that he didn’t have relationships with co-stars.

Griffith, who was newly single after the breakdown of her marriage to actor Steven Bauer, ended up dating an investment banker who was wheeled onto the set to teach the cast about mergers and acquisitions.

“I was like ‘Oh great, I have to work with some dork from Wall Street,’” Griffith recalled. “And then this guy walked in and he was so gorgeous, so sexy. I was like ‘Yeah, tell me about mergers and acquisitions all you want.’ We had an incredible romance. He was my love for a long time after that, too.” 

7. Weaver got to keep the Andy Warhol art in her character’s apartment

This might be the best present a director has ever given a cast member at the end of a movie: a set of Andy Warhol paintings.

The “ridiculous” pictures lined the staircase in Weaver’s character Katherine’s apartment and Nichols gifted them all to Weaver after the film was completed. “Mike gave those to me and I still have them,” Weaver told The Hollywood Reporter. “I think they’re in storage. I hope they’re alright.”

Happy 30th birthday, Working Girl

Images: Getty


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Hannah-Rose Yee

Hannah-Rose Yee is a writer based in London. You can find her on the internet talking about movies, television and Chris Pine.

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