Sunday, May 5, 2013

Now Hold On for a "Moment!"

Sweet holy Jesus.... I cover a lot of bad, strange, misguided, campy and unintentionally funny movies around here, but this one is almost in a class by itself! Picture it. 1978. John Travolta is not only the the breakout star of the hit TV sitcom Welcome Back Kotter, but has starred in two consecutive blockbuster movies, Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Grease (1978.) Lily Tomlin, zany costar of Laugh-In from 1969-1973, has copped an Oscar nomination for her role in Nashville (1975), become the first woman ever to appear solo in a Broadway show (Appearing Nightly) and made the cover of Time magazine, heralded as the "Queen of Comedy." Somehow, it was deemed a smart idea to place these two people, each on the threshold of mega-success, in a feature film love story together called Moment by Moment.
Not only does Moment not play in any way, shape or form to the strengths of its leading lady (which include piercing, detailed comedic creations and snarky repartee), but it features as her love interest (of fourteen years her junior) a man who looks startlingly similar to her! The couple is continually put before the viewer with matching hair and matching deep-plunging necklines. Did it cross no one's mind that Travolta often resembles Tomlin in male drag or that Tomlin looks more than a bit like Travolta in female drag?!
But for some body hair, a difference in eyebrow thickness and a penis clanking around, there ain't a whole lot to differentiate the two, especially during murky love scenes. This is, of course, entirely apart from the heavy speculation (then and now, in his case - hers has since been settled) regarding the sexual orientation of Tomlin and Travolta. It starts to seem like either narcissism at its zenith or some type of sick joke!

The film opens with Beverly Hills housewife (!) Tomlin tottering rather uncomfortably down Rodeo Drive in a pair of high heels. Gloomily, she goes through the motions of picking up various items she feels she will need for a stay at her and her estranged husband's beach house. Chief on her list of desirables is a bottle of sleeping pills, the sounds of the sea and surf apparently not expected to be soothing enough to help her nod off at night.
Unfortunately, the pharmacist won't let her have any at this time, but a young man in line next to her (Travolta) overhears. He's there to touch base with a friend of his named "Greg," but it seems Greg has been let go from the drug store for sampling the wares behind the counter! Travolta proceeds to follow Tomlin through the rest of her errands, accosting her as she's about to enter her Mercedes (which, it must be said, she drives as if she's never been behind the wheel of a car in her life!) He tells her he was a valet parking attendant at one of her recent soirees, during which her husband accused him of denting the car. She was kind enough to fess up about it and so he's been dreaming about her ever since.
She is more than reticent and drives off rather coolly. Later, at her beach house, she is accosted by him again (stalk much?!) This time, he has a small bottle of "reds" for her that he has scored, hoping to ingratiate himself to her further. They exchange some brief words and she eventually takes off into the house, but not before grudgingly accepting the pills.

Tomlin is at the beach house to recover from finding out that her husband Bert Kramer has been carrying on with a young bimbo behind her back. They have a teen son who is off at school and who will eventually have to be told of his parents' marital crisis. Tomlin, who wafts around throughout Moment by Moment braless in barely there tops cut down to there, suffers a mini-breakdown on the phone and manages to contort her already unusual face into a variety of amusing expressions, though most often covers her face with her hands.

She makes an acting choice that even Karen Black would marvel at. She repeatedly tugs on her tongue in order to remove a hair or something that's caught on it (and she hasn't even done it with Travolta yet!) Yet, this snafu was left in! Too hard to retake this Bernhardt-esque sequence?  Then she bookends it by smearing her face back and revealing her choppers to where a stream of slobber pours out and she has to wipe it away.  This is all a little graphic for just a glossy soap opera if you ask me... but hysterically funny in the bargain.

Before she can say "Keep off my sand!" Travolta is back again! This time he idiotically strips down to a Speedo and a wife-beater and sashays (and I do mean sashays!) out into the water, then parades in front of her while she's sitting on the beach having a chicken leg and some wine. He proceeds to tug his wet t-shirt off and plop down in the sand with his package aimed her way.

He then asks for a towel (after having already lain his wet carcass directly onto the sand!), which she tosses to him. Ever the annoyance, he next asks if he can have some of her chicken (is there a joke there somewhere?) and the remainder of her wine.

Speaking of Travolta's little strip, have I mentioned that his character name is "Strip??" He's nicknamed for the Sunset Strip! We begin to learn that he is a bit of a bum, sleeping on the beach because his unreliable friends aren't around and eating whatever he can find.

He's been dozing on the beach at night with no blanket or shelter and appears to be getting sick. This brings out Tomlin's mother instinct as she feels his forehead, grabs him a glass of orange juice and provides him with a cover to use at night (while she's snugly inside her luxurious bedroom!)

He's also been driving Greg's beat-up car in order to try to sell it. The car breaks down completely and Tomlin just happens to be going by. She pulls over and asks this beach bum with no wallet, no money and about the same number of clothes as Bruce Willis had in The Sixth Sense if he belongs to the automobile club! Of course he doesn't so she winds up footing the bill for repairs and lunch, her resolve to avoid him beginning to falter somewhat.

Tomlin has a society friend played by Andra Akers who is introduced in a hilarious scene in which she is having her legs waxed as she languidly reclines, her blonde hair arranged like Cathy from Wuthering Heights. They chat on the phone with Tomlin protesting that she is all right out at the beach house "alone." Thing is, she rarely IS alone!

Travolta always has some excuse for dropping by day and night. Tomlin has a dog named Scamp and before long Travolta has dredged up a pal for him named Corky. (Mirroring the leads, we're never 100% sure if these dogs, who are thereafter glued to one another, even intertwined, are a romantic couple or what! What sex are they??)
Oh, and take note of this scene in which they build an elaborate sand castle together and then decorate it with blossoms. In one picture, Travolta's hair looks a bit longer and Tomlin's outfit is completely different! Rehearsals? Retakes? I suspect the latter.
Before Travolta can sell (the ever unseen) Greg's car and bail him out of jail, he is released and swiftly killed by an organized crime boss. We next see Travolta distressingly headed "home," which, in his case appears to be a sizeable closet in a seedy building with a bed and little else!

He heads back to Tomlin's pad, distraught and wet, where she proceeds to provide him with a robe and a warm fire as he strips out of his clothes. Her aforementioned maternal instincts really begin to take over now as she allows him to sleep on her living room chaise while she holds his hand.

Cut to the morning and she's fallen asleep next to him on the chaise with her arm caught under his neck somehow. Now other instincts of hers kick in as she opens his robe, briefly stokes his chest and then directs her hand to his crotch! All this before their first kiss.
Now the movie turns into a near horror film as these look-alikes begin doing it all over the place, always with their private parts being coyly covered or cropped out of the frame, but with as close to nudity as it can get. Tomlin has performed the entire first 45 minutes of the movie in a dazed, stagnant monotone, rarely speaking above a stage whisper and only occasionally varying her facial expression. Now, she starts in with an endless series of sensual moans - ALWAYS in the exact same pitch! It's lunacy (though I am told that sometimes porno actors do this, too... moan over and over the same way instead of offering the viewer a little variety!)
She also calls Travolta "Strip" over and over and over and sometimes we aren't sure if it's a greeting or a command. They make love in their filmic, staged way until Tomlin takes a hooty dip in her heretofore unseen hot tub, complete with more of her crazed, high-looking facial expressions. Travolta saunters over and - you guessed it - strips to enter and we wonder again who is who as they make out amongst the bubbles.

Care is taken here to avoid showing any real naughty bits.  Tomlin is in flesh-tone panties and the camera does stuntwork to avoid showing any more of Travolta than the odd bit of pubic hair.  The R-rated film never once grants the viewer a shot of his bare behind.

Anyway, this time during their foreplay, Travolta gets miffed because Tomlin won't say that she loves him. She only wants him, which is different. Her facial expressions and reactions reach new heights of idiocy here. He storms away and eventually confronts her with this howler: "I've had it with cheap sex. It leaves me feeling cheap." Her retort is one of the few genuinely amusing moments in the movie as she reveals that she was "looking forward to it" for the first time.
Once they've managed to leap this latest hurdle, she is suddenly visited by Akers, who's come out to the beach to check on Tomlin. The perceptive pal doesn't fail to notice the well-worn pair of men's black Speedos, which are draped on Tomlin's furniture! Akers, in the apparent fashion of the day, also goes around braless in a barely-there dress that is semi-closed in front by a hapless pair of long strings, even though she has far more significant breasts than Tomlin.

Over a Bloody Mary, the two discuss the social goings on and Tomlin's marriage until Travolta lumbers in with a bag of groceries. On a panic-striken whim, Tomlin pretends that he is a store delivery boy and pretends she doesn't know him, even going to a nearby drawer to get change for a tip!

This send Travolta careening off the deep end and Tomlin finally confesses to Akers (who clearly knew all along anyway what was happening.) The ladies, in an extended sequence, go off to hunt for Travolta in every conceivable run-down pool hall, dive bar and hellhole along the Strip.

Even though Akers is in stiletto heels with her tits hanging out for all the world to see, she has the nerve to look other women up and down as if they are sleazy or trashy in comparison to herself! This enterprise goes on far longer than necessary, but does afford a time capsule glimpse of the area when it was close to its height of seediness.

When Tomlin has finally given up, Travolta meanders back to her beach house again and the two make up and make out. (Don't miss the moment when she goes to give him his second hand job of the film and - perhaps not used to this sort of thing yet - inadvertently tucks the belt of her own robe down into his pants!)
In order to solidify her commitment to him, she decides to take their affair public and attend a photographic art showing staged by another one of her society friends (this one played, briefly, by Shelley R. Bonus, better known, perhaps, as the ex-wife of Richard Pryor and mother of Rain Pryor.) Of course on this one big night out together, her husband Kramer (with bimbette Debra Feuer in tow, seen here with Bonus) has to be there as well.
People begin to whisper about Tomlin's younger man, Kramer starts to (hypocritically) move in to confront Tomlin, Travolta spies the mob boss who has supposedly killed his best friend (seen at left, played by Dan Santini in yet another wordless role for a person in this film!) and soon Travolta flees again.
The next time he comes back, he sees and overhears Tomlin and Akers discussing the pros and cons of this tortured, May-December relationship and determines that Tomlin isn't going to stick it out. Thus another confrontation occurs between the lovers before we reach the end of this film. Even still, we have to watch another altogether too lengthy driving scene before the credits finally roll. Moment by Moment cries out in vain for a judicious editor to streamline the story - such as it is - and make it more cohesive.

But, hey, check out these gas prices!! In 1978 L.A.!
The answer to many of this film's issues can be found in part at the feet of the movie's writer and director. For the person at the helm of this mega-misfire was Jane Wagner, the life partner (since 1971) of star Tomlin. Wagner, a Peabody winner for the 1969 telefilm J.T., had written some successful TV specials with and for Tomlin and went on to create Tomlin's Broadway success The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe.

 However, this movie project was far outside her comfort zone as a writer and (first time) director. Plot threads go unfinished, several characters are fuzzily designed and the story structure was weak. And with her lover as the star, who was going to say, "CUT! That's plenty!" or have a truly objective eye when it came to the aesthetics and acting of the leading lady?
I've already covered the somnambulistic acting of Tomlin and the extreme awkwardness of her presence throughout the film. While it must be said that she was clearly trying to give an appropriate performance, Moment by Moment is a failure on nearly every level and was hopeless from the start. This type of story needed an actress of the Susan Hayward, Joan Crawford, Lana Turner or even Jennifer Jones mold to put it across and those ladies were long out of the limelight by 1978. One can almost see the Ross Hunter-ish trappings of the beach house and the Beverly Hills milieu and picture it with a glamorous actress, well at home with tortured romance, but it's a great deal more difficult to swallow with Ernestine/Edith Ann going through the paces, even with a deliberately dour expression pasted on.
Thankfully, for her, the incredible success Nine to Five (1980) was on the horizon, as were the more appropriate The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1981) and All of Me (1984.) In the ensuing years, Tomlin has grown as an actress and tried her hand at drama again, with better success. Now seventy-three, she and Wagner are still together, a rather impressive example of same-sex partnership over the long haul. Incidentally, her Nashville Oscar nomination was lost to Lee Grant in Shampoo, but Tomlin has several Emmys on her mantle and won a Golden Globe as part of the massive ensemble of Short Cuts (1993.)

Though Moment represented a low point for Travolta at this stage in his career, he was still able to bounce back with Urban Cowboy (1980) and Blow Out (1981) until Staying Alive (1983), Two of a Kind (1983) and Perfect (1985) sent him careening into career trauma. His career (and life, to be truthful!) has been marked with tremendous highs and considerable lows. Regardless of how idiotic Moment is and how unplayable his character is, he actually manages to create some decent moments here and there amidst the wreckage (and fans of his from this time might appreciate how often he is shirtless in the film.) Still an active leading man in feature films today, he is currently fifty-nine.
One of the most bizarre aspects of Moment by Moment, which will only be identifiable to those who are familiar with the Travolta family, is the fact that Travolta has an older sister, Ellen, an actress in her own right, who is only two years younger than Tomlin and who looks VERY MUCH like her! So the whole time Travolta is canoodling and carrying on with Tomlin, it looks uncomfortably as if he's making it with his own older sister! Again, I ask, did no one look at this and think it wasn't more than just a little "off??"
Akers was a TV guest actress on such well known shows as Police Woman, Charlie's Angels, Baretta, Taxi and Hart to Hart. Moment represents a rare film role for her during that period, though she later had a considerable role in the lesbian-themed Desert Hearts (1986), which starred Helen Shaver. Reportedly a philanthropic and deep-thinking individual, she died during surgery in 2002 at only age fifty-eight.

Kramer had enjoyed a busy career on TV and occasional movies from the mid-'60s on. He was typically a guest star in small roles (as on Mission: Impossible, Mannix, Police Story and The Six-Million Dollar Man) but did play the father in a short-lived family series called The Fitzpatricks (1977-1978.) Though only five years Tomlin's senior, he too seems completely mismatched as her husband in the movie, with the bulk of their interaction taking place over the telephone rather than in person. Kramer died of cancer in 2001 at the age of sixty-six and worked up until nearly the end of his life.

This almost covers every actor and actress in the movie! Rarely before has a romantic melodrama been so stingy with its supporting cast. Only the leads receive credits in the film's opening and several characters are either shown only briefly, with no lines, or are merely referred to, but never seen!  "Greg," a key part of Travolta's storyline, is glimpsed only in this snapshot.  In fact, if not for a background voiceover referring to his death, I might have thought Greg was imaginary or even Strip's real name. In fact, I'm still not sure that wasn't the intention, but later changed to make him seem less crazy. It would also account for some choppiness in the storyline.

Prolific Haitian-born composer Lee Holdrige had been creating music for movies and TV since 1970. A particular favorite of mine is the theme he did for the 1981 miniseries East of Eden and, of course, his orchestrations for Mahogany are terrific, but this represents a low point for him. Moment has a jazz-influenced score that is often inappropriate and often sounds like terrible elevator music.

He still works today, sometimes still on crappy projects like the deadening Lifetime TV-movie Liz & Dick (2012.) There was a title song for Moment by Moment, sung by Yvonne Elliman and released as a semi-successful single apart from its inclusion on the soundtrack album (an opus that also included Dan Hill's "Sometimes When We Touch," a song that, like this film, is appropriately reviled by many people!) I may be alone in my thinking, but I found some of the melody of the song "Moment by Moment" to be similar to the opening theme music from A Patch of Blue (1965!)

Moment by Moment (which accurately describes the feeling one has when sitting through it, though the instances feel longer than "moments!") has never been issued on any form of home video, be it laser disc, Betamax, VHS, DVD or anything else. It is currently making the rounds on high-def movie channels, though, which is where I finally caught it (and catching it is only slightly more desirable than catching a cold, though the unintentional laughs are worth something!!)

If you are fortunate enough to stumble upon it, be sure to fix a long, stiff drink before settling in to watch. You'll need something to help get it down!

Oh, and check out the ludicrous alternate poster to the right in which it looks at first glance as if the movie stars Parker Stevenson and Kristy McNichol! And even the poor sap who drew these renditions of the actors involved wasn't able to escape the fact that it looks like twins about to get it on together in the hot tub...  Christ!

Finally, you'll recall I mentioned above that this sort of story might have worked better in Hollywood's hey day for a more melodramatically attuned actress.  For evidence that it doesn't work here, I give you Ms. Tomlin, draped in a robe and stepping into her "Joan Crawford" lighting.  Miss Crawford made a 50-year career out of letting such light cast its magic on her astonishing face. Tomlin looks like she was coal mining with a pair of safety goggles on and just came up for her coffee break!


FelixInHollywood said...

As agonizing and soul shredding a picture as was ever made. Your coverage was so much more entertaining than the movie could ever be!

joel65913 said...

I have to admit I willing saw this cinematic car crash in the theatre opening weekend when it first came out because of my adoration of Lily Tomlin. Having not read the reviews I was unprepared for hellacious pile of slop that was projected and forced on an unsuspecting audience. It was not a large group to start but by the time the credits rolled only a few souls had soldiered through the whole horrendous mess! I am glad to say I have only the vaguest memories of it but those are not tinged with the distance of nostalgia, what I remember is a numbing train wreck with Lily repeating Strip! Strip! endlessly.

I've never been a huge fan of Travolta, when he was young he seemed too aware of his looks and now that he looks like Count Dracula and is surrounded by so much strangeness he just seems sad, but there were times, the first Look Who's Talking comes to mind, where he could be charming. However in this he went right down with the ship.

As for Lily I try and forget she was ever involved in this. I have seen her live and she is magical and so much of her other work is divine that this excursion into disaster should be ignored.

I agree with FelixinHollywood your write up was far more enjoyable than this waste of celluloid will ever be.

NotFelixUnger said...

I remember being dragged by my mother and her then best friend to see this movie in the theater. Nothing made sense to my naïve brain but the sight of a shirtless John Travolta did create stirrings and urges. Of course I remember my mother and her friend trashing the movie. JT would "never" be interested in LT in real life.

Over the years I've tried talking to people about this movie and most people did not even know it existed. Sometimes ignorance is bliss! The guys are right, it's more fun and entertaining to read your thoughts on the disaster than to have to live through it again.

One last note regarding Tomlin, though I've always been a fan, her turn opposite Meryl Streep in "A Prairie Home Companion" is one of my favorite, quirky, modern movies.

Narciso Duran said...

NotFelix, Joel, and FelixinH'wood are all correct: this post is much, much more fun than the movie itself. I was 19 when it was released, and I can still recall what my lesbian co-worker (a rabid Tomlin fan) called it: Bowel Movement by Bowel Movement...leave it to a dyke to cut to the chase...

And Joel, what a superb summing up of contemporary John Travolta: "... now that he looks like Count Dracula and is surrounded by so much strangeness he just seems sad."

Poseidon3 said...

Hi, friends! So glad you liked my post about "Moment by Moment" even if the movie itself dredges up such horrible memories! LOL I can't believe at least two of you saw this upon release in the theaters. I was 11 and, thus, allegedly and thankfully, too young. Rated R and the language is so tame and there is practically no nudity nor violence. Odd. I guess Lily's two trips down Travolta's trousers counted enough to earn that rating.

For reasons unknown, all through writing this post, working on the pictures and each time I've revisited it, I keep getting the aural earwig of The Doobie Brothers' "Minute By Minute" in my head even though there is NO correlation between the two to speak of. Odd, and annoying!

FelixInHollywood, I'm happy to see that you still wade through The Underworld. Take care!

Narciso Duran said...

I know this is all so very silly, but please indulge me as I correct my personal record... For some dumb reason, I have now become obsessed with this film as the full horror of my younger years flooded back to me...

The more I thought about it, I realize I was in high school when this came out, and that it was I, and not the dyke I later worked with (as I described above) who called the film "Bowel Movement by Bowel Movement."

As the details came back into focus, I realize I must have been impressed by my teenage wit, for I later repeated myself and drove my dyke co-worker into full protective mode of Lily Tomlin as I slammed the earlier film from memory.

In retrospect, I was only vaguely aware she was a dyke and I guess I had touched a nerve and she took it personally. This must have been around the time when "Urban Cowboy" came out and I called it "Urban Cocksucker" or something or other. What can I say...

Again, if I didn't correct the record, I would feel dishonest. Granted, who would know. Like David O. Selznick explaining to his GWTW when asked why they were wearing unseen bloomers underneath hoop skirts in a medium shot, "It matters."

Also, considering Poseidon's thoughts about Lana Turner or Susan Hayward in the Tomlin role, I have the perfect re-casting for this film had they thought harder about it: Natalie Wood and John Travolta.

Ken Anderson said...

I deeply love certain kinds of bad films, but it really says something when a film with so much camp potential is so boring that it bypasses cult and lands somewhere near unwatchable. Like some others, I too saw this when it first came out. Being a Tomlin fan I was sooo disappointed. I haven't seen the film since then, but your terrific write up really makes me want to revisit it and see if it really is as bad as I recall. Very happy that you covered this...curiosity!

Poseidon3 said...

Narciso, thank you for clearing up your memories about it (and the historical record!) :-) I have enjoyed reading everyone's memories about this movie. It seems like people know where they were when it opened, like the Kennedy assassination or the Challenger explosion! I positively LOVE your notion that Natalie Wood should have been the star of Moment by Moment! That is genius. I don't know that I like Travolta with her, though. I would have used either Mark Hamill (in a bid to avoid SW typecasting) or Dennis Quaid, both of who could have pulled off a tow-headed, beach bum, runaway look at the time...

Ken, I would LOVE to know what your current reaction to this film is. If you ever see it again, you must report back.