Good Intentions Gone Bad

1 Dec

Menacing eyes, evil grins and whispers of world domination readily identify villains in the world of Hollywood. But in reality, spotting a ne’er-do-well is a much murkier task; the dividing line between heroes and villains, saviors and victims often weaves, twists, and turns, blurring the distance between the two. Those heralded as heroes sometimes engage in questionable acts to meet their goals. In such instances, good intentions  justify the unsavory behaviors. But do good intentions conquer all?

This question is posed in one of my all-time favorite films, Mike Nichol’s Working Girl.  It features Melanie Griffith as Tess, a pretty secretary with dreams of becoming more, who is pitted against the Ivy League Kathryn (Sigourney Weaver), who is everything Tess wishes to be: beautiful, confident, smart and yes, successful. Tess naively views Kathryn as the much-awaited mentor who can groom her full potential — until she learns of Kathryn’s scheme to steal Tess’ idea and present it as her own.

For Tess, something snaps.  For the sweetest revenge ever, Tess decides to walk in Kathryn shoes, literally.  She raids her closet, chops off her big 80s hair for a more sophisticated air, mimics Kathryn’s social graces to glide into the right circles, fully embracing an alter-ego that will ruthlessly stop at nothing to climb the corporate ladder.

By the end of the film, Kathryn’s career and boyfriend have fallen into Tess’ grasp as I, along with most other viewers, gleefully celebrate Tess’ rise. Only later, when my favorite teacher pointed out Tess’ unsavory road to success did I question my alliance. Was I wrong to turn a blind eye to Tess’ way of blatantly lying her way into success and then hypocritically hold Kathryn accountable for her acts of deceit?

Are they both not guilty of the same indiscretions?

Tess’ best friend, Cyn (Joan Cusack), is the film’s only moral compass. Throughout the movie, through teased hair and heavy make-up, Cyn cautions Tess to come clean before she gets caught. She tries to get Tess to stop fooling herself and come back to reality with the rest of the working poor. Tess merely waves away her unsolicited warnings.

At the end, when Tess has landed the job of her dream, her own office, while Cyn is yet a lowly secretary answering phone calls through her heavy Jersey accent, the audience is left to ponder who was right. The film seems to glorify Tess’ tenacity and makes a fool out of people like Cyn, who try to play by the rules.  

Could Tess have risen to success without lying and scheming her way to the top? Can she be blamed for adapting to the ways of the corporate environment that had so callously constantly rejected the honest her?

But the final shot of the movie reveals just how little Tess’ victory really means as it zooms out of her luscious new office to show millions of others just like her working like little bees in a corporate honeycomb, leaving one to wonder who is truly the villain?

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