Many movie and TV characters lack any visible means of support and seem to never eat, sleep, seek medical care, pay bills, do laundry, or perform the other mundane chores that burden the rest of us. However, some movie characters have jobs, and a few are temporary employees.
Most Hollywood depictions of temporaries are negative. This is ironic, considering Hollywood itself has moved away from the “studio system” of long-term, captive star contracts toward a more independent, free-agent, gig-oriented approach that resembles and uses temporary staffing.
In the 1993 film The Temp, Lara Flynn Boyle plays a temporary assigned as administrative assistant to a cookie executive (Timothy Hutton). Initially very productive, creative, and loyal, Boyle’s character gradually becomes the “Temporary From Hell,” seducing the executive and committing murder and other crimes to advance her boss’s career and then her own. When the executive calls her staffing firm to complain, the clueless inside staff employee asks only whether there are hygiene issues. Released in 1993, this is not a very positive depiction.
The plot of Obsessed is similar to The Temp in that it includes a beautiful temporary’s shameless stalking and framing of her reluctant and happily married client supervisor. Beyoncé plays the supervisor’s tiger wife who ultimately dispatches the interloper. Regrettably, despite tepid and negative reviews, this 2009 movie shows up regularly on cable TV.
Haiku Tunnel is a monologue by a neurotic and incompetent male temporary secretary who wants to “go perm” with his tax lawyer client supervisor. It presents a skeptical view of office life, and the temporary steals time on his assignment by writing his novel at work. It is good that this 2001 movie did not get much exposure.
Perhaps the most subtly negative presentation of the industry was the 1997 downer Clockwatchers, which involves four temporaries’ alleged theft, lying, connivance and conflict with the permanent staff. Lisa Kudrow and Parker Posey might have lent this film some comic relief, but their comedic talents go completely untapped. Another unflattering portrayal of the temporary workforce.
Some readers will fondly remember Debbie Flett, the superannuated “Friedman Fill-in Girl” occasionally assigned to replace psychologist Bob Hartley’s receptionist Carol Kester on the original Bob Newhart Show in the 1970s. The absent-minded Debbie continually called Dr. Hartley “Dr. Riley” and committed other mindless blunders. Her work was not a credit to temporaries, but the kind and patient reactions of Drs. Hartley, Robinson, and Tupperman were good examples for staffing clients.
The most positive depiction of staffing in film is Kevin Kline’s 1993 portrayal, in Dave, of the owner of a temporary help service who is asked to stand in for the stroke-disabled president of the United States by the evil White House chief of staff (Frank Langella). Dave learns to wield power for good, wins over the first lady (Sigourney Weaver), and almost goes temp-to-perm in the presidency. His best industry-related speech is:
“If you’ve ever seen the look on somebody’s face the day they finally get a job — I’ve had some experience with this — they look like they could fly. And it’s not about the paycheck. It’s about respect. It’s about looking in the mirror and knowing that you’ve done something valuable with your day.”
In a similar vein, though no commercial staffing firm is involved, Richard Dreyfuss plays an actor hired to impersonate and replace the secretly deceased dictator of a fictitious South American country in Moon Over Parador. Made five years before Dave, its plot elements (wooing the mate, doing good works with the power, struggling with an evil handler) are remarkably similar and may have been an inspiration for the later film, but there is more outright comedy in Parador.
Movies about powerful temporary imposters have a long history. In 1958’s Imitation General, Glenn Ford plays a WWII master sergeant who, for a few days, assumes the role of a general who was killed in combat. After leading his troops to victories, he ends the “assignment” and reassumes his real identity. And Paul Newman’s character in the 1968 film The Secret War of Harry Frigg temporarily serves as a two-star general, breaks a leadership deadlock among five captive one-star generals, and leads their escape.
Here are some other movies that are “near-misses” for the temporary employee theme:
- Airplane! (passenger replaces sick pilots), 1980
- All About Eve (understudy supplants theatrical star), 1950
- Analyze This (psychiatrist fakes it as a mob boss), 1999
- Anne of the Thousand Days (Mrs. Henry VIII as a temporary assignment), 1969
- Dead Ringer (identical twin takes over sister’s life), 1964
- Have Gun Will Travel (independent contractor gunslinger), 1957
- King Ralph (American prole temporarily ascends British throne), 1991
- Support Your Local Sheriff (drifter hired as wild town’s sheriff), 1969
- Things Change (doppleganger hired to serve a mobster’s prison time), 1988
- Trading Places (homeless guy replaces stuck-up executive), 1983
A Different Image
Researchers have sometimes reported the staffing industry’s poor net promoter scores, a key indicator of how the public feels. Given how movies influence public opinion — for example, military recruitment surged at the 1986 release of Top Gun — imagine how movies could inspire a more positive image for temporary employees.
Association public relations campaigns rely on true but, frankly, dull economic factors and have a very limited audience. Perhaps the industry’s aspiring screenwriters could spin some new yarns that feature the highly varied backgrounds of temporary employees, the multitude of assignments in which they work, the freedom of choice that they enjoy, and the prominent role of women in the staffing industry. The underlying parallel message would be that temporary employees, portrayed by leading actors, are extremely qualified and caring people.
George Reardon is a movie-loving attorney whose practice is focused on the staffing industry.