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Have you heard the one about the sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot?

I have a terrible terrible just awful confession to make, dear readers. I hope you'll find forgiveness in your hearts as it will surely sound like blasphemy. My favorite performance in the classic lady comedy Nine to Five (1980) belongs to Dabney Coleman. Yes, the sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot himself. "The Man," in Nine to Five in both the symbolic and the literal sense. But he's superbly funny in this beloved comedy, completely committed to his grossly entitled and just awful boss person whose demise his underlings fantasize about. Can you blame them?

Coleman is even better when his characterization morphs into Looney Tunes caricature in the fantasy sequences, when he gets personality transplants, sweating and terrified, humbled and guilty, or shy and objectified. If haven't thrown your internet device aside in total disgust at my betrayal, you should click to continue so that we may pick a Best Shot...

We're Judy/the Camera and we need settle down (from the laughing)

Despite my love for Coleman's performance, which I honestly feel should have been nominated for Best Supporting Actor of 1980 (but Oscar rarely knows what to do with comedy), I shan't give him the honor of Best Shot though if I did it would be one of these two images below, either the beautiful switcheroo of abject terror in Dolly Parton's previously lusted after bosom (in an atypical extreme closeup) or the totally bizarre tableau where he's put a trash can on his head (camouflage!) and runs back and forth by the desks hoping to avoid shotgun blasts.

No seriously. Best Shots from the Fantasy Sequences - but too atypical to choose

At this point we've entered a completely different movie, one that takes place in a disorienting corporate surreality that is half Brazil and half Looney Tunes and half Twisted Fairy Tale. (That's three halves, shut up.) 

To the movie's visual credit (which is not something you can say too often as its a fairly standard movie visually speaking) this disorienting blank dehumanized world of interchangeable cubicles and empty hallways and paper slot walls and noisy machines with a mind of their own gets a bit of foreshadowing in Judy's (Jane Fonda) xerox machine slapstick sequence with papers in various colors flying all around her, their meaning and purpose lost in the chaos - and never important to begin with. 

I wanted to choose an image of the trio of workers in solidarity together for my best shot but could never settle on the perfect one. It's amazing how those round 80s helmet hairdos actually block out entire movie star faces at times!  And the movie isn't always carefully shot though there are beautifully lit moments by cinematographer Reynaldo Villalobos most notably the bar sequence when the women become friends and their nighttime hijinx with the dead body. The best thing about Judy (Jane Fonda) and Violet (Lily Tomlin) separately and in tandem (and to a lesser extent Dolly Parton's Doralee, though she's much less "busy" a performer) is all the fussy / funny physical mannerisms in their performances and the enviably natural chemistry. But it's rare to see all of that happening in the same frame. The best example of their combined performances isn't in a single image but in a great continuous shot where they first realize that their boss is alive as he strolls by Judy (cue book drop, backwards teetering), Violet (hands and papers go flying in the air) and finally passes Doralee, open-mouthed, into his lair. But that's not a single image even if it ends in this lovely way, with Doralee so beautifully framed in orange. 

Colin Higgins best moment as a director is this uncut office walk shot of the ladies realizing their boss is alive and well.

So while this will surely read as anti-climactic (must be less longwinded - especially when dealing with comedy which is always better when it's tighter) I think my best shot selection is Violet alone. Lily Tomlin is super in the movie as the most capable and most frustrated of the trampled-on workers. And while she's very winky funny in her Snow White sequence, she's best in her harried or impulsive moments, like accepting a doobie from her son, or that A+ line reading.

I'm no fool. I killed the boss you don't think they're going to fire me for a thing like that?"

...or that ridiculous corpse-pushing through the hospital.

Best Shot

Though a few of the movie's jokes haven't aged well -- firearms at work? Yikes --  most of it still plays beautifully. The director misses a great sight gag opportunity when Violet takes the corpse outside past a window where Judy & Doralee haven't yet realized what's happening (pairing them in a frame would've been hilarious but instead we get a shot / reverse shot) but sometimes the gags are just right. Note that this moment is shot from just a low enough angle that it reads visually like those comedy routines where two people are playing different halves of the same body. The shot is funny but it's also emblematic of the movies sometimes grim humor which is easy to stomach because it's married so enthusiastically with utter silliness. The matchmaker between the two is the momentum of perpetual panic from endearingly game actresses.

Continue on to - The Best Shot Party with Nine To Five choices from other blogs
Next Week - Jane Campion's Bright Star (2009) 

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Reader Comments (9)

He was also really good in Tootsie as the dismissive husband. He was kind of a popular face in the 80s, but then he faded away. A couple of years ago I rediscovered him in Boardwalk Empire and he was as good as usual. He hasn't work since then, which is too bad because I think he's a great character actor.

April 22, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

I LOVE the shot of Coleman being squeezed toward Dolly's bossom. I almost picked it as my best shot myself.

April 22, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterCoco

Oh man oh man oh man I love this movie SO VERY MUCH. I'm so excited for best shot tonight!!

April 22, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMargaret

Seriously one of the greatest comedies ever and a true feminist film that appeals to everyone.

April 22, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSteven

Good choice, Lily is so focused and yet unhinged in that sequence and her line readings are flawless.

Jane Fonda's fantasy sequence is my favorite of the three. Love when he's running back and forth like a duck in a shooting gallery! The way it's shot with the posse carrying torches hunting him down reminded me of the mob in old films like Frankenstein. Jane's smart hunting outfit is also a great touch.

And Dabney Coleman is comic gold in the film.

April 22, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

This movie is just the greatest. Put it on a double bill with DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN and I'd be in heaven.

April 22, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

All great choices. Every week that I have participated in this Best Shot business I have read everyone's posts wondering why I didn't pick THEIR shot instead of mine. I think the tense and hilarious hospital sequence may actually be the movie's best.

April 22, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterDusty

@Peggy Sue: Dabney was the director/boyfriend to Jessica Lange in Toosie, and he was also downright terrible and misogynistic in that movie.

I have never watched this movie! oh the shame

April 23, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterfadhil

This is just a fun time at the movies. The actresses are an exhilarating trio. And it's a pretty darn great inside joke--Jane playing the mousy victim finding her feminist voice.

Elizabeth Wilson is wonderfully vile.

April 23, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

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