Hollywood, on the job: 15 favorite work-themed films, for Labor Day Weekend

by STEPHEN WHITTY
labor day movies

Meryl Streep in “Silkwood.”

Hollywood has a labor problem.

But then, so do its movies.

The first problem, of course, is obvious, on the street and on your screens. Actors and writers are on strike, demanding better wages and conditions, as well as some measure of job security. Studios are refusing to budge, saying they can’t afford it.

It will all be settled, eventually, and probably in the strikers’ favor. After all, actors and writers are used to being unemployed. The networks and studios aren’t used to not being able to sell millions of dollars of advertising on late-night talk shows, or getting new movies into theaters.

There will be a settlement, eventually. (The money is there.) And afterward people, on both sides, will probably go back to not thinking about labor and capital, unions and strikes.

And that’s too bad.

Because of all the subjects that Hollywood avoids, perhaps the biggest one is working people. We called them “essential” during the pandemic — the folks who stocked our supermarket shelves, ran our commuter trains, cleaned our streets. But when was the last time you saw a movie about a truck driver? A sitcom about a plumber?

It didn’t used to be like that. Once upon a time, movie stars like James Cagney, Spencer Tracy and Ginger Rogers regularly played cabbies, fishermen and sales clerks. Television used to be a blue-collar parade of sewer workers, waitresses and shoe salesmen.

Now, on TV, everybody seems to be a doctor or a cop. In movies? Everyone’s a superhero.

That’s a joke — sort of. But it goes to a real disconnect between popular culture and the populace. Everyone likes a bit of escapism. But can’t we occasionally escape into the lives of people we can also sort of recognize? People having the same everyday trials — and occasional triumphs — that we do? 

This may be one time where the complaint, “they don’t make ‘em like that anymore,” really does apply. 

Ellen Burstyn in “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.”

So, in honor of Labor Day Weekend, here are 15 older films — dramas, comedies, a documentary and even a musical — about workday heroes, in alphabetical order.

“Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” (1974). Martin Scorsese directed this lovely, loving portrait of single motherhood, with Ellen Burstyn brilliant as a would-be-singer-turned-struggling-waitress, unlucky with men but devoted to her son. Look for a not-quite-12 but already extraordinary Jodie Foster as a delinquent tween.

“Blue Collar” (1978) If you thought Paul Schrader’s latest film, “Master Gardener,” was taking on taboos, you need to see this, his directorial debut, an uncompromising look at racial conflict, working-class struggles and union corruption. As a desperate auto worker, Richard Pryor is firing on all cylinders.

“The Grapes of Wrath” (1940). John Ford’s dustbowl epic captured the grim lives of Depression-era farmers as the dispossessed Joads set out on Route 66, and a trip into the dark heart of poverty. Henry Fonda is inspiring — his final monologue is absolutely messianic — but it’s Jane Darwell’s Ma who is the picture’s heart.

“Harlan County, USA” (1976). The bloody “Brookside Strike” of 1973 comes alive as Barbara Kopple’s documentary puts us right in the middle of a fight for lives and livelihoods in rural Kentucky. It’s a brutal, no-holds-barred battle, but it turns out the miners have a secret weapon: Their wives.

James Earl Jones in “Matewan.”

“Matewan” (1987). The films of Hoboken icon John Sayles often focus on workers, but none more than this, his story of a coal miners’ strike in 1920 West Virginia. The soundtrack — all period Appalachian music — and a cast headed by James Earl Jones and Chris Cooper make it a gritty standout.

“Modern Times” (1936). Charlie Chaplin said farewell to his “Little Tramp” character — and, really, to silent cinema — in this satire of soul-deadening factory work and our revolving-door justice system. Look for a sly joke about cocaine, and Paulette Goddard’s career-making turn as Chaplin’s leading lady.

“9 to 5” (1980). An over-the-top workplace comedy from Colin Higgins that sometimes tips into farce, but is kept afloat by stars Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin (and their “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot” of a boss, played by Dabney Coleman). And Dolly’s theme song is infectious.

“Norma Rae” (1979) Martin Ritt’s movie is a warm, fully felt look at labor organizing in the Deep South, anchored by Sally Field’s standout job as the millworker who starts a movement. Her deeply respectful, platonic relationship with Ron Leibman only adds to the film’s feminist bona fides.

“North Country” (2005). With a based-on-fact story about sexual harassment, a Bob Dylan soundtrack and vital performances by  Charlize Theron and Frances McDormand, director Niki Caro brought fresh appeal to another down-in-the-mines drama. Audiences shrugged then, but it’s worth a reappraisal.

“Office Space” (1999). They also labor, who slave away in cubicles. And Mike Judge’s edgy dot-comedy captures their lives of daily, deadening horror, including malfunctioning printers, stolen staplers and a micromanaging boss who keeps demanding those damn TPS reports.  A cult classic.

Carol Haney and John Raitt in “The Pajama Game.”

“The Pajama Game” (1957) Corporate corruption and labor strife get a surprisingly sunny, musical-comedy treatment in this collaboration between Broadway veteran George Abbott and Hollywood’s Stanley Donen. Doris Day and John Raitt topline, but it’s Carol Haney’s “Steam Heat” that steals the show.

“Salt of the Earth” (1954). Blacklisted in Hollywood, a small group of filmmakers, led by director Herbert J. Biberman and screenwriter Michael Wilson, decided to work outside it; the result was this stirring, and fiercely feminist, story of a strike. Suppressed at the time, and well-worth seeking out today.

“Silkwood” (1983). Mike Nichols’ biopic of the nuclear-plant activist also works as a conspiracy thriller, a showcase for Meryl Streep, and a dramatic turning point for Cher. But it succeeds best at something much more human: A lived-in look at small-town life and on-the-job friendships.

“Support the Girls” (2018). What do you call a sports bar so sexist it makes your local Hooters look classy? A surprisingly perfect setting for this Andrew Bujalski film starring Regina Hall as the tirelessly protective den mother of a crew of overworked and often harassed waitresses. Sometimes funny, always unflinching.

“Up in the Air” (2009). Jason Reitman’s comedy looks at corporate layoffs from the other side of the HR desk and musters some sympathy, partly due to charismatic stars George Clooney, Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick. But the real heart comes from the people being fired — largely played by real, recently let go workers.

We need your help!

CONTRIBUTE TO NJARTS.NET

Since launching in September 2014, NJArts.net, a 501(c)(3) organization, has become one of the most important media outlets for the Garden State arts scene. And it has always offered its content without a subscription fee, or a paywall. Its continued existence depends on support from members of that scene, and the state’s arts lovers. Please consider making a contribution of any amount to NJArts.net via PayPal, or by sending a check made out to NJArts.net to 11 Skytop Terrace, Montclair, NJ 07043.

$

Custom Amount

Personal Info

Donation Total: $20.00

Explore more articles:

Leave a Comment

Sign up for our Newsletter