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How NYC Commuters Inspired “Working Girl” Screenwriter

WorkinggirlpicWorking Girl was Kevin Wade’s debut as a screenwriter. The idea for the script came to him in Manhattan’s Battery Park one morning in 1984. "People were pouring out of holes in the ground [the NY subways] and off the ferry," said Wade. "If you looked right a little bit, you could see Ellis Island, where boats brought immigrants years ago. I wondered, ‘What is that immigrant story today?’"

Producer Douglas Wick happened to be with Wade at the time and recalled, "Everywhere we looked, Kevin and I noticed smart-looking, pretty young women rushing to work in tennis shoes and carrying high heels. We started talking about them and realized that they all must have a story."

So Wade decided to represent his heroine as "an immigrant every day." He fashioned his script as a "contemporary equivalent to the story of the little immigrant called Giuseppe who sells umbrellas, and then 20 years later becomes the head of Macy’s."

"But this is a little more than that," Wade explained. "It’s a story about the American Dream’s implicit promise that the door is open to anybody who has the smarts, and how America has evolved into a class system where white Anglo-Saxons run the country, and how hard it would be for someone like Tess to break through that."

To ground his script in realism, Wade spent months interviewing Wall Street secretaries, brokers, and female mergers-and-acquisitions execs. "I read a lot of books, read the financial pages of The New York Times, and managed to come up with something that sort of holds water," Wade said. Although he heard legend of a Brooklyn secretary who fought her way to the top of a brokerage, Wade admitted regretfully, "I never met her." He added, "I sort of made Tess up out of the whole cloth."

The project rattled around the studio for a couple of years, until Mike Nichols read it in 1987 then agreed to direct.  Nichols could relate to the script’s central metaphor since he was an immigrant himself. (In 1939, his family fled from Nazi Germany to the United States.) "When I started working on the script of Working Girl, the most important thing to me was the combination of immigrant and slave ship image," Nichols said. "The slaves, as usual, are imported from somewhere else–because nobody can afford to live in Manhattan–and then there’s the idea of the underground railroad, when Tess’ friend at the end leaps up in joy, because ‘one of us’ made it out."

A DVD TV enhanced version of Working Girl will screen Friday, January 4 at 8 p.m. EST | 7C.

Working Girl Production Information, 20th Century Fox Press Release
Nikki Finke, "What Do the Real Secretaries Think?," Los Angeles Times, 12/17/88
Alison Leigh Cowan, "How Three Plum Movie Roles Took Shape," New York Times, 12/18/88
Jane Applegate, "Working Girl Hits Home With Wall Streeters," Los Angeles Times, 1/8/89
Rose-Marie Turk, "Real Workers Spark Working Girl Wardrobe," Chicago Sun-Times, 1/25/89
Richard Combs, "Slaves of Manhattan," Sight & Sound, Spring 1989

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