Moment By Moment (1978) (part 1 of 9)
Since it’s Valentine’s Day, I thought it would be a good idea to journey outside of the realm of B-movie and genre pictures for this, the Agony Booth’s very first chick flick. While I generally avoid chick flicks, I can at least admit there are a handful that work on some level (When Harry Met Sally, The Tao of Steve) and are thus mildly tolerable. This film, however, doesn’t work on any level, and upon release it quickly found its way onto many critics’ lists of all-time worst movies. And the vast majority of the blame for this lies squarely on the shoulders of its two stars, Lily Tomlin and John Travolta.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a famous actor with as much of a schizophrenic career as John Travolta. After bit parts in horror films like Carrie and The Devil’s Rain, he eventually shot to fame as Vinnie Barbarino on the sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter. Being the only actor on that show who didn’t look like he walked straight out of an R. Crumb comic strip, Travolta was the natural choice to become a breakout star and Tiger Beat pinup.
It wasn’t long before Paramount, the studio that produced Kotter, was eager to put their budding young star in his first starring role in a major motion picture. The role they originally had in mind was that of Danny Zuko in their big budget adaptation of the Broadway musical Grease. When that picture was temporarily sidelined, Travolta was instead rushed into a seemingly tiny picture about the New York disco nightclub scene.
To Paramount’s surprise, Saturday Night Fever grossed tons of money and even spawned the biggest-selling movie soundtrack of all time. And when Grease was finally released, it too achieved blockbuster success and a chart-topping soundtrack. In less than two years’ time, Travolta went from ensemble player on a sitcom to a superstar with two huge movies, a hit single (“You’re the One that I Want”), and even an Oscar nomination for his performance as Tony Manero in Fever.
After this much success, selecting a follow-up project would be a daunting task for any actor. It’s likely that any project Travolta signed onto would have been looked at as something of a failure by comparison. Unfortunately, he signed onto a movie that looks like a failure compared to nearly anything you’ve ever seen in your life. He decided to star in Moment by Moment.
The tarnish would never really come off of Travolta’s career after this movie. Though he made some respectable films in the 80’s, his superstar status quickly deteriorated. Before long, he would end up playing second fiddle to a baby and a Bruce Willis voiceover in the brain-dead Look Who’s Talking series. While these films may have allowed him to continue to pay the bills, Travolta was all but written off in the minds of critics and audiences alike.
Amazingly, however, Travolta pulled off one of the most inspiring comebacks in Hollywood history. He took a salary cut and appeared in Quentin Tarantino’s low budget independent film Pulp Fiction in 1994, and the gamble paid off in spades. Travolta’s career was revitalized, Hollywood welcomed him back with open arms, and he ended up securing his second Oscar nomination.
Since then, Travolta’s gone on to make some good films (Primary Colors, Get Shorty), but mostly blah films (A Civil Action, The General’s Daughter, Michael, et al, ad nausea), but what most defines his post-Pulp career was his decision to harness all the goodwill audiences had granted him during his comeback and parlay that into making a movie that nobody other than John Travolta ever wanted to see: A disastrous adaptation of a godwaful sci-fi novel by Church of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.
It’s been just three scant years since Battlefield Earth: A Saga of the Year 3000 was released, and already it’s secured a place as one of the biggest artistic, critical and financial disasters in motion picture history, ranking right up there with megabombs like Heaven’s Gate, Ishtar, and Waterworld.
The world may never know exactly why Travolta continually sabotages his own career at key moments. One thing we do know is that Battlefield Earth was made primarily because of Travolta’s allegiance to the cult known as the Church of Scientology. And as it so happens, one can also assume that Scientology played a major role in him signing on to do Moment by Moment back in 1978. But more on that later.
The most Travolta has ever admitted publicly about why he wanted to make this movie is that he wanted to work with Lily Tomlin. Tomlin is a gifted comic actress who first made her mark on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In with famous characters like Ernestine the switchboard operator and Edith Ann the precocious six year old. After garnering her own Oscar nomination for Nashville (she’s been a regular player in Robert Altman films ever since), she went on to box-office smashes like All of Me and Nine to Five. And certainly not least, she would later win a Tony award for her one-woman Broadway show The Search for Signs of Inteligent Life in the Universe.
So Travolta wasn’t way off-base for wanting to work with Tomlin in 1978, and I’m sure a solid comedy would have worked in both their favors. Unbelievably, what they made instead was a drippy, mawkish, supposedly romantic drama where the two played a bizarrely role-reversed May-December couple. For some reason, Travolta took on the role that would usually be reserved for a young starlet, and Tomlin even ended up lying on top of him in the movie’s poster.
Moment by Moment was written and directed by Jane Wagner, who also scripted Lily Tomlin’s other big disaster, The Incredible Shrinking Woman (best known as Joel Schumacher’s directorial debut). Recently, it’s become known that Wagner is actually Tomlin’s lesbian partner, and has been for over thirty years. You could take this revelation on its own to explain the utter lack of chemistry between Tomlin and Travolta in this movie, but then you’d be missing out on half the story.
It’s long been rumored that Travolta himself had a succession of homosexual relationships before he joined the Church of Scientology. Apparently, part of the fun activities of the cult is using various brainwashing techniques to “re-orient” the sexuality of its followers. One might wonder if Moment was deliberately selected by Travolta’s “handlers” as a way of reaffirming his hetero status. If so, they couldn’t have picked a worse film, as it ends up having almost the exact opposite effect.
But even if you forget the stuff people couldn’t have known about when this movie was made, it’s still the ideal recipient for something I like to call the What The Hell Were They Thinking Award, which it proudly shares with fellow Agony Booth subject Night of the Lepus.
There are some terrible films which could have possibly ended up good, or at least entertaining if things had been done right. But just like the makers of Lepus should have realized that there was no earthly way to make a genuinely scary film about giant killer bunny rabbits, someone, somewhere, should have realized that a romance between Lily Tomlin and John Travolta could have never worked, in any way, under any circumstances. Forget the utter lack of chemistry: The two could have just as easily been playing mother and son, with their identical dark hair and shaggy hairdos.
To be honest, the whole thing feels like we’re watching an incestuous relationship, so in this review, we’re definitely in for a rough ride that will separate the strong of stomach from the weak of heart. Remember, you have been warned.
The movie opens on Lily Tomlin in the role of Trisha Rawlings, as she strolls down Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, California. We know it’s Rodeo Drive because the “Rodeo Drive” street sign is momentarily superimposed over her. Several other images fade in over Trisha, revealing the storefront signs of several upscale retailers like “Gucci”, “bijan”, “Hermes Paris”, “Rei”, etc. This is all accompanied by cheesy sax-heavy music left over from later seasons of The Love Boat.
She continues to walk and it becomes increasingly obvious that Lily Tomlin’s not wearing a bra. Well, you gotta admire this movie’s chutzpah to start repulsing us from the very first frame.
Then John Travolta walks into view, playing a character by the name of “Strip”, and yes, you read that right. Strip sees a sign flashing “Don’t Walk” and sprints across the street. Perhaps this is an allegory for his entire film career, only in that version, the sign would be flashing “Don’t Act”.
He runs into a Schwab’s pharmacy, and inside, he finds Trisha there, standing at the counter. She’s telling the pharmacist that she really needs sleeping pills because she’s going to be out at the beach for “a while”. Strip comes up behind her, barges right into their conversation, and asks the pharmacist if somebody named “Greg” is there. The pharmacist just gives him a snooty look, because that’s what people in Beverly Hills do, but Strip keeps going. He explains that he was supposed to meet up with Greg “last night, and he didn’t show up!”
Trish gets all indignant that Strip’s horning in on her private sleeping pill discussion, and reminds the pharmacist that she was there first. So the pharmacist just brushes Strip off, and tells Trish to call her doctor if she wants more sleeping pills. Amazingly, he says this with Strip still standing there within earshot [!]. Don’t they have costumer confidentiality policies at pharmacies? Anyway, here we get our first close-up of Tomlin, revealing the first of many blank, expressionless looks she’ll be wearing throughout the film. In addition, we quickly realize that she’s made up like an embalmed corpse.
Meanwhile, Strip is looking all sad and doe-eyed. Trish takes off, and the pharmacist finally acknowledges Strip’s existence. The pharmacist yells that his friend Greg was fired, adding, “I don’t suppose it’ll come as a surprise if I tell you that we caught him with his hands in the cookie jar!” Because, I guess, Greg is a guy who really loves cookies.
Strip acts all surprised, and the pharmacist tells him it’s “in the hands of the Law now!” Strip yells at him, outraged, and the pharmacist begs him to quiet down. “People are beginning to stare, please!” Because, you know, this is the uptight, snooty section of town, and manners are incredibly important. Strip replies, “Well, that’s what happens when… when you have guilt, you feel like people are staring at you!” Ouch! That’s gonna leave a mark.
Strip goes to leave, but stands at the door and shouts, “Well, you know what? They are staring at you!” That’s the way to stick it to the Man, Strip! The clerk just looks around nervously and bugs his eyes out. Everyone else looks around bug-eyed, too as Strip, Impulsive Man of Action, storms out of Schwab’s. Strip continues strutting down the sidewalk, and you can tell by the way he uses his walk, he’s a woman’s man, no time to talk.
Strip spots Trish across the street and bolts across traffic to catch up with her. She enters a swanky housewares store to pick up a “wine chiller” that she ordered, since she’s all hoity-toity and everything. The clerk asks her if she needs any more blades for her Cuisinart, and she responds that she has “so many blades now, I don’t know what to do with them…”
She trails off when she sports Strip standing by the door. He walks over, saying that he saw her in Schwab’s and just now remembered exactly where he knows her from. Since icily brushing him off worked so well before, Trish gives it another try, but he soldiers on. He says he did valet parking for her at a party she had at her beach house. In response, Trish simply thanks the clerk and leaves. Hey, have you’ve gotten what a haughty, rich Ice Princess she’s supposed to be? If not, there’s going to be about three dozen more Icy Stares over the course of this movie to help you out.
The clerk says some things to Strip to prove that he’s also a member of the Beverly Hills Snooty Business Owners Association. Strip just leaves and chases after Trish. He catches up to her and says he’s only being friendly because of some unspecified act of kindness she did for him at the beach party. He even compliments her on being “so mellow that night” and not “all standoffish like you are now”. Trish, true to form, remains completely silent until they reach her car.
She gets in and Strip says he just wants to thank her for “coming to my rescue that night”. She, of course, has no idea what he’s talking about. He points out the dent in her car, saying that it’s supposedly rare to see a dented Mercedes in Beverly Hills. He exclaims, “There must be a law or somethin’!” He explains how Trish’s husband accused Strip of making the dent that night, right before accusing Strip of being stoned. “To be honest,” he adds. “I was.” [!] Actually, come to think of it, are there any parking valets who aren’t stoned when they’re on the job?
Trish doesn’t remember any of this, but regardless, Strip thanks her for taking responsibility for the dent. He says she could have blamed it on him, considering he was stoned and everything, but according to her, “That never occurred to me.” Strip replies, “I know. That’s what knocked me out about you.” [??]
Trish insists she was just telling her husband the truth about the dent, but Strip’s convinced she was doing it out of some kind of personal concern for him. Unfortunately, she shoots down this idea, too. Next, she’ll probably ask him what he wanted to be when he was ten years old so she can stomp all over that dream, too.
Strip gets all pouty, so Trish asks his name. “Think Sunset,” he says. “Strip.” [!!!] Trish apologizes, saying it’s a bad time, but Strip insists he’ll just remember her the way she was that night. “‘Cause I dig thinking about it,” [?] he adds with a grin. Um, okay, well I guess it’s good to have a hobby in life.
Strip then adds that “it’s unlikely I’ll stop thinking about it, just ’cause of what happened today!” The way he’s talking, you’d think they actually had sex that night or something. I can say with 100% certainty that this is the first time I’ve ever seen a guy get all moony about a woman taking the blame for a dent in her car.
Frustrated, Trish asks what he wants, and he asks for a ride to a different part of the city. She says she’s headed in the opposite direction, specifically to her beach house. Lesson one about getting harassed by strangers: Do not tell them where to find you later. Strip then claims that his friends have a place on the beach, too, and he might just see her there.
They then proceed to silently stare at each other for so long, I began to wonder if my VCR had put itself on pause as a self-defense mechanism. Strip finally sighs and quips, “Well, don’t get arrested for that dent, huh?” See, earlier he said it was some kind of law, and he was throwing in a reference to that earlier comment, thus producing humor. He bids farewell to Trish and wanders off. The cheesy Love Boat music returns as Trish watches him run across the street and almost get hit by a car. Nothing’s quite as romantic as a hit and run accident.