Welcome to Movie DNA, a column that recognizes the direct and indirect cinematic roots of new movies. Learn some film history, become a more well-rounded viewer, and enjoy likeminded works of the past. This entry recommends movies to watch after The Assistant.
There is an obvious real-life inspiration for Kitty Green‘s The Assistant. While its main character is not actually based on any employee who worked for Harvey Weinstein, the movie mogul and convicted rapist’s story was an influence on the setting for the film. The Assistant (one of our favorite flms of 2020) is more broadly about all survivors of workplace abuses, but especially the kind of subtle offenses we see done to the titular protagonist, Jane (Julia Garner), in this day-in-the-life portrayal.
The Assistant is definitely a film for its time, representing not only sexual harassment in the office but also the general mistreatment and underappreciation of women workers that has been going on forever (I recommend also pairing the film with the latest season of the podcast You Must Remember This about the invaluable but largely unknown Polly Platt). However, The Assistant is also timelessly informed by history as well as traditional depictions of assistant roles in fiction.
Green (whose previous films Ukraine is Not a Brothel and Casting JonBenet are must-see documentaries) has named some of the classic movies and filmmakers that influenced The Assistant, none of which have to do with stories of assistants, receptionists, or secretaries. So the curation below of movies to watch after you see The Assistant (which is now streaming on Hulu) consists of a mix of direct and indirect precursors. And yes, a film actually about Weinstein is among them.
Behind Office Doors (1931) and Beauty and the Boss (1932)
Encouraged by films and television series of the first half of the 20th century, the stereotype of the assistant/receptionist/secretary was a young woman who hoped to land a husband while on the job, preferably her unmarried boss. Countless romantic comedies, especially those of the 1930s, focus on an office romance of this sort, and while the reality of the situation wasn’t uncommon, it also wasn’t likely as uncomplicated (or as happily ever after) as it appeared on the screen.
The first of these recommendations, Behind Closed Doors, stars Mary Astor as a receptionist who is in love with a man whom she helps become her boss. But he’s oblivious to her feelings and hires another young woman he does fancy to work in the office alongside the receptionist, which is similar to the situation with Kristine Froseth’s character in The Assistant. Astor’s character is also, like Jane in The Assistant, possibly the hardest worker at the company, which falls apart without her. Unlike The Assistant, this film ends with the woman winning her boss’s heart.
The second movie here comes to mind with the HR guy’s comment in The Assistant about Jane not being her boss’s type. Had the film been made last century, the situation would be the challenge of the main character. In Beauty and the Boss, the boss hires a secretary whom he doesn’t find attractive so he’s not distracted from his work, but she does everything she can to attract him anyway. This makeover idea also served the premise of an earlier silent rom-com from 1925 titled His Secretary, but that film, which starred Norma Shearer, is lost.
The Women (1939)
This classic film from director George Cukor also stars Shearer, this time as a married woman who learns her husband is having an affair. What’s notable about The Women is that the husband is never seen. In fact, there are no male characters in the film at all. They don’t deserve to be onscreen, same as how and why the boss character in The Assistant is never seen. The “happy” ending of The Women is unfortunate given the man’s actions, but it’s interesting to consider compared to The Assistant, where Jane likely stays at her job despite the abuses she suffers.
Phantom Lady (1944)
Employees in The Assistant are expected to let their boss get away with murder. Well, not literally, but they do have to cover for him a lot when he’s committing adultery and probable criminal offenses. What if the job did call for someone to literally deal with a boss’s murder charge, though? Phantom Lady is a film noir starring Ella Raines as a secretary who goes the extra mile in proving her boss’s innocence. In this case, the boss isn’t actually the bad guy he’s set up as, and yes, of course, Raines’ character is in love with the guy, too.
The Best of Everything (1959) and The Apartment (1960)
By the late 1950s, the subject of office romance was being portrayed as less of a fairytale. Sexual harassment in the workplace was still decades away from being addressed on a grand scale in the real world, but a drama such as The Best of Everything would depict bosses more as lecherous abusers of their assistants than a working girl’s true love’s prize.
Even better, though, is Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, released a year later. The film stars Jack Lemmon as not an assistant but a lower-tier employee taken advantage of by bosses because he has the perfect home for hosting the men’s adulterous inter-office affairs. Like Jane in The Assistant, Lemmon’s C.C. Baxter begins to feel awful about what he’s allowing the higher-ups to do to the young women they’re preying on and stringing along. It’s mainly due to him having a crush on one of those women, but still.
Magnet of Doom (1963) and Mouchette (1967)
Kitty Green credits filmmakers Jean-Pierre Melville and Robert Bresson as major influences on The Assistant, though she doesn’t name any specific works. I admit I don’t know precisely what fits best since it’s their overall minimalist aesthetic that she’s likely citing, but I’ve chosen one film from each that seems relevant enough.
Melville’s Magnet of Doom (a.k.a. L’aîné des Ferchaux) stars Jean-Paul Belmondo as a broke boxer who is hired as an assistant/bodyguard to a former banker and winds up an accomplice to his new boss’s crimes, albeit far from unwillingly. Bresson’s Mouchette concerns the life of its titular protagonist, the school-aged daughter of an alcoholic who is overworked and exploited and abused from all sides of her dreary existence.
Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)
This landmark feminist film by Chantal Akerman is specifically noted by Green as the biggest influence on The Assistant. She’s mentioned it enough that I honestly thought Green’s film would take a similarly dark turn at the end. I was also surprised The Assistant is as short as it is, but there aren’t many other films that could get away with being over three hours of austere portraiture of a woman going about her daily life.
The titular Jeanne Dielman is a single mother and prostitute, and we watch her in such menial routine tasks as peeling potatoes and ordinary-for-her sex work. While Akerman’s film takes place over a few days and The Assistant is just one day-in-the-life, there’s a similar examination of the routine, which here includes the cycle of abuse and apologies and promises that Jane and many women endure as part of their daily job experience.
9 to 5 (1980)
Forty years before the downfall of Harvey Weinstein and the progress his arrest has inspired in the world, a popular office comedy offered a fantasy for all women working for lecherous and misogynistic bosses: absolute queens Dolly Parton, Lily Tomlin, and Jane Fonda kidnap and shame their boss, played by a first-rate Dabney Coleman. Interestingly enough, 9 to 5 was originally conceived as a drama, but Fonda, who’d first proposed the film, decided that idea was “too preachy, too much of a feminist line.” So, instead, it’s quite cartoonish, but it’s still an appreciably feminist product of its time.