Though she was only granted third billing due to her lack of fame, Melanie Griffith went on to deliver an indelible and Academy Award-nominated performance as Tess McGill in 1988’s Working Girl. The film, directed by Mike Nichols and also starring Sigourney Weaver and Harrison Ford, was a breakthrough role for Griffith and is hailed as one of the first believable representations of working women in the decade of excess.
The making of the film would also mark the first time Griffith would seriously face her ongoing substance abuse issues, due largely in part to a day on set which she would later recall as a “humbling, embarrassing experience,” and would result in her checking into rehab three weeks after the shoot.
Griffith struggled with alcohol and drug addiction since she was a teenager
Alcohol and drug abuse was an issue that Griffith has battled since her teenage years in Hollywood. Griffith is the daughter of Tippi Hedren, once a muse of director Alfred Hitchcock and star of his 1963 hit, The Birds. At age 14, Griffith — reportedly with the permission of her mother — began dating Don Johnson, eight years her senior. The relationship lasted four years, with the couple marrying in January 1976 and divorcing six months later.
Even before her hard-partying teenage years with Johnson, Griffith reportedly remembers drinking wine as early as age 10, and told Vanity Fair in 1994 she was not apologetic about the years when her days would begin with vodka and end with cocaine. “I didn’t get something I needed that I needed when I was little. I was never loved unconditionally. Coke, booze, give you a feeling, a physical sensation … a buzz inside your body that takes the place of something you should have had as a child.”
The relatively-unknown Griffith struggled to get cast in the movie
Before filming began, studio execs wanted a well-known name to play Tess. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Demi Moore was originally signed on for the role but later left the project. Cheers star Shelley Long was also considered for the role, as was Michelle Pfeiffer, but she was eventually deemed too sexy to play Tess.
"They didn't even want to see me for the movie," Griffith told THR in 2018. "The studio wanted a bigger name. I mean, I wasn't very much of a name, but I loved this role, and I knew I could do it. My story is Tess' story."
Eventually, Griffith got a chance to read for the role and won over casting director Juliet Taylor and the film's director Nichols.
"She was the girl. It was almost a visceral reaction," Taylor told THR of Griffith's audition. "She was adorable, funny, vulnerable, sexy — everything. And real."
However, although Griffith had landed her dream role, her substance abuse issues made the filming process a difficult one.
“There were a lot of things that happened on Working Girl that I did that were not right,” Griffith recalled in Life Isn’t Everything: Mike Nichols as remembered by 150 of his closest friends. “It was the late ‘80s. There was a lot going on party-wise in New York. There was a lot of cocaine. There was a lot of temptation.”
Nichols fined Griffith for showing up to set under the influence
Others involved in the production recall Griffith being unreliable, and the crew was often worried she would not be able to perform. Towards the end of the shoot, their fears were realized when Griffith got drunk while playing pool with costar Alec Baldwin, who was not drinking.
“Then we got back to the set, I had vodka in my motor home, so I had a slug of vodka, and it mixed and made me so drunk, which I thought was really funny,” Griffith said in Life Isn’t Everything. “But it wasn’t, and it was cold, and I had to walk down the stairs with Alec, and I couldn’t do it.”
Working Girl producer Douglas Wick remembered getting a call from Nichols that “Melanie was clearly high” on set. Wick reportedly learned later that Griffith was having drugs delivered to her on the set.
“Mike got so mad at me, he wouldn’t talk to me,” Griffith recalled in the book. “Mike Haley, the first [Assistant Director], just came up and said, ‘We’re shutting down. Go home,’ and I knew I was in so much trouble. … The next morning he (Nichols) took me to breakfast and said, ‘Here’s what’s going to happen. You’re going to pay for last night out of your pocket. We’re not going to report you to the studio, but you have to pay for what it cost,’ and it was $80,000. They wanted to get my attention and they really did. It was a very humbling, embarrassing experience, but I learned a lot from it.”
Griffith entered rehab shortly after the movie wrapped
Three weeks after the movie wrapped, Griffith entered a treatment facility and credits the help of ex-husband Johnson, who had been sober since 1983, in championing her own sobriety. “Don was actually waiting for me when I got out of rehab,” Griffith told Porter magazine in 2014. “We got back together; it was the most natural, perfect, loving thing.” The couple would marry for the second time in 1989, the same year their daughter, Fifty Shades of Grey star Dakota Johnson, was born. However, the marriage ended four years later when Johnson began abusing alcohol and drugs again.
Griffith would also continue to struggle with sobriety, returning to rehab in 2000 and 2009, both while married to actor Antonio Banderas, but always made sure she was there for her children. “I was a totally functioning mom. I wasn’t like a drunk-on-the-floor, out-of-it person,” the mother of three explained to Porter. “I didn’t do some things I probably should have done but, mostly, I was there for my kids.”