Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, Rob Hunter punches the clock for the masterful 9 to 5!
Workplace comedies are a constant presence in both film and television because nearly everyone can relate. Crazy co-workers, horrible bosses, frustrating working conditions — the best comedies find the funny in our daily miseries. Colin Higgins’ 9 to 5 (1980) remains not only one of the best workplace comedies but one of the best comedies, period. It arrived in a perfect storm of social timing, sharp writing, and an absolutely perfect cast.
The film’s nearly forty years old now but continues to earn laughs on re-watch, and after discovering who was on the 25th-anniversary commentary track I decided to give it a listen. Unsurprisingly, it’s also pretty damn entertaining.
Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary for…
9 to 5 (1980)
Commentators: Jane Fonda (actor), Dolly Parton (actor), Lily Tomlin (actor), Bruce Gilbert (producer)
1. It’s unclear if Jane Fonda knows the term “commentary” as she opens by saying “I’m so glad you’re watching this, what should I call it, this gabfest! This conversation, this voice-over.”
2. This was a first-time commentary for all three of the actors.
3. Gilbert recalls the first time Parton arrived with the title song “and played it on her fingernails.” She sang it ‘a capella’ and played the beat on her nails. “You gotta have falsies to do this,” adds Parton, “and the nails have to be artificial as well.”
4. Tomlin ad-libbed the line about Judy’s (Fonda) big hat needing its own locker at work. She claims it was her only ad-lib, but the reaction of the others suggests that may not have been the case.
5. Fonda loved working with Dabney Coleman so much that she got him cast as her husband in On Golden Pond (1981).
6. This was Parton’s first film, and she thought she was supposed to memorize the entire script — not just her own lines. She arrived on day one of shooting having memorized it all. “I thought a movie was like a play,” she says and was surprised to see scenes being filmed out of order.
7. Tomlin suggested Coleman for the role of Mr. Hart after seeing him on Fernwood 2 Night (1977). “There’s something sexy about him.”
8. Tomlin was nervous as this was an early film of hers, and she used to exit her trailer each day pretending she actually was Violet and had been hired to make a movie about secretaries.
9. They seem pretty confident they’ll make a sequel, but this was recorded in 2005 so I’m thinking it won’t be happening.
10. Fonda says she once worked in an office and was fired because she wouldn’t sleep with the boss. She adds that they know the person and therefore isn’t naming names. Parton adds “well I slept with the boss and I still got fired!” She’s probably joking.
11. Parton recalls being told by Fonda to slow down on her eating because filming out of sequence means she’d be wearing the same costume later in the shoot. She recalls entering a scene one size and exiting it bigger. “I look like a little fat canary,” says Parton regarding the scene at 1:12:00 where she’s in a yellow outfit.
12. An earlier version of the script saw the trio intentionally try to kill their boss. Director/co-writer Colin Higgins is the one who shifted it all into fantasy sequences.
13. Parton wonders aloud what’s happened to the boy playing Violet’s (Tomlin) teenage son. “Dealing pot,” answers Tomlin before adding “I shouldn’t have said that about that kid.” Gilbert agrees saying “otherwise it’s a lawsuit.”
14. Tomlin stole the porch swing from her character’s house — the one she’s sitting on while she tells her fantasy about offing the boss — and hung it up in her yard. She didn’t protect it, though, and it rotted over the years. Fonda stole the Rid-O-Rat box of rat poison.
15. Parton, meanwhile, “bought” nearly her entire wardrobe from the film and has them all displayed in her museum at Dollywood.
16. The group goes quiet more than a few times as they grow engrossed in the film itself, but Parton breaks the quiet during the hospital scene. “I bet everybody in the control room is in there saying ‘You people are supposed to be talking and telling about these scenes!’ But it’s just so much fun.”
17. The nurse at 58:33 is played by Florence Henderson’s daughter.
18. Coleman was a top-seeded tennis player?!
19. The house where they store their captive boss is the “Chandler House” — home for many years to the family that owned the Los Angeles Times. It changed hands a few times since and was often rented out to film and TV productions.
20. Tinsworthy (Sterling Hayden) looks around a lot during his scene at 1:42:00 because Hayden needed cue cards to remember his lines.
21. They wonder if the little girl in Tinsworthy’s arms at 1:44:22 continued acting, and Tomlin suggests it might very well be Laura Linney. It is not.
Best in Context-Free Commentary
“Look how I look at her boobs.”
“I still haven’t learned to type.”
“We were awfully cute.”
“Look at that little Fonda face.”
“Have you noticed those new screens make everyone look fat?”
“I don’t think we should be shooting the cops.”
“He could have hit me on the head, but I’d of never felt it with all the hair.”
“Oh I ain’t reading the credits, I’m outta here!”
This isn’t the kind of commentary you listen to for insight into the filmmaking process or technical details on your favorite scenes. It’s one you throw on when you want to hear three old friends share laughs and memories while watching their greatest collective accomplishment. Tomlin shares accolades, Fonda naps through part of it and yells through the rest, and Parton is so giggly that it reaches near infectious levels. If you enjoy these women you’ll enjoy their commentary for 9 to 5.
Read more Commentary Commentary from the archives.