A Moment’s Reflection on “Moment by Moment” (1978)

Most colossal flops are the types of bad movies you can’t wait to take down. You can’t fathom the chutzpah of the filmmakers. So misguided was the script, acting and/or storyline, you wonder what the hell they were thinking, how it got the “go” from anyone in any sort of power. Whole books have been written about these duds. Web pages deconstruct them, blow-by-blow, with much snarky commentary included. Full-time movie reviewers break their professionalism, reveal their inner high school bully (“Ha ha, this actor who is supposed to be macho is a wimp; ha ha, this actress who is supposed to be pretty has a big nose!”)

The 1978 megabomb “Moment by Moment” is still widely known for torpedoing the careers of John Travolta and Lily Tomlin, until they reverberated, respectively, with “Urban Cowboy” and “9 to 5” two years later. I have now watched it, and it certainly is a failure, but–in my opinion–it’s not all that egregious or stupefying or even memorable. It’s too soporific to induce unintentional laughter, and it’s too gentle in execution for its ideas, however ill-conceived, to yield the sort of outrage that other fiascos bring out in viewers. I have to wonder why it was met with such vitriol upon its release, and why, thirty-plus years after its own participants have publicly acknowledged their mistakes, it’s still trashed so vehemently on cult movie sites. (One such site, The Agony Booth, features a nine-page single-spaced mockery, spoiling the whole movie for you).

The main reason “Moment by Moment” doesn’t work can be surmised merely by its description: “romantic melodrama starring John Travolta and Lily Tomlin.” At 23, Travolta was a sex symbol, hot off “Grease” and “Saturday Night Fever.” At 38, Tomlin, hailed for her eccentric, multi-character one-woman shows, was not a sex symbol. So the movie, to put it nicely, isn’t erotic. (The sex scenes are chaste and clipped, the kissing looks forced, the duo spend more time sobbing and consoling than getting it on, and generally lack chemistry).

But to be fair, Tomlin had never aimed to be a screen vixen. To be even more fair, her longtime collaborator and romantic partner, Jane Wagner (who wrote and directed “Moment by Moment”), didn’t set out to depict Tomlin’s character as a Mrs. Robinson-esque vamp.

Tomlin plays a rich, aloof, depressed Malibu divorcee, with one vapid blonde friend, a shallow, materialistic ex, and a college-aged son we never see. Travolta plays a would-be street hustler named Strip (“Think Sunset,” he explains upon introduction, but he should say “Think Speedos,” since he is indeed seen “stripping” out of the same black pair throughout the film). He walks and grins with the same gusto he exudes in “Saturday Night Fever,” when he was actually playing a stud, but Strip is no stud. He’s pathetic. He talks a lot but has no gift for the gab; he’s a bumbler. And for a rebellious kid who ran away from home and is now drifting around Los Angeles, consorting with dangerous drug dealers (none of whom we ever see, but whom he always seems to be hiding out from), he sure is needy. After weeks of wearing the initially uninterested Tomlin down with his wheedling and self-pity, she eventually (and rather inexplicably) can’t resist him, but even upon her acceptance, he resents being seen as a mere sex symbol. This jaded but soft-hearted kid wants love, which warms the cockles of her once-icy heart. And so the affair takes on a somewhat sudsy, somewhat creepy, mostly just improbable mother-son type of dynamic. (Still, it’s puzzling that no one commended the two stars for–at the very least–trying something new, offsetting their image. And kudos to the advertisers who also tried something new, at the time: a love story movie poster with the woman placed strategically on topand tastefully at that).

Tomlin’s character is a bizarre concoction: the worrywart cougar. And this mixture of tender concern and pity, crossed with muted lust, doesn’t make for the most exciting entertainment, at least not to mainstream audiences. Travolta’s heart-on-sleeve character didn’t sit well with people, either. David Denby, then writing for New York Magazine, took a borderline cruel delight in excoriating the film’s confidence that this version of Travolta would register with female audiences. After chortling at the concept of the sensitive male as screen icon, he writes, “I’ve never met a woman who wanted a self-pitying boy as a lover, so I would guess that most women will be baffled.” (He might as well have written “Sissy! Sissy! Sissy!” over and over again; I’ve seen Denby in person and he’s no macho/lothario type, so this condescension towards male vulnerability is a bit off-putting).

But I wouldn’t be surprised if a roleplaying fetish along those lines exists–an older woman expressing desire through caretaking of a rootless but delicate younger man. One of “Moment by Moment’s” more recent and nicer reviews, by the filmmaker and writer Bruce LaBruce, states that the movie, intentionally or not, has a homosexual subtext. He draws parallels to the now-rampant rumors about Travolta’s homosexuality and the fact that Tomlin, who married Wagner in 2013, never came out as gay beforehand, despite most in the industry knowing about their relationship (hence why the gay themes are so understated). “As the feminized hustler, Strip is coded as a gay male (retroactively reinforced by Travolta’s later homosexual scandals), and refigured as the lesbian lover,” LaBruce writes. This viewpoint can be somewhat backed up by–among other motifs–Tomlin’s character clothing a distraught, soaked Strip in her pink bathrobe just prior to consummation; her bathrobe has a manlier gray shade.

But I digress. Yes, “Moment by Moment’s” romantic chemistry (heterosexual or otherwise) is weak to non-existent (despite a much-maligned jacuzzi scene that aims for steaminess). Yes, the dialogue and staging are wan. Yes, the film is eerily underpopulated (there’s only about four characters in it, and many of its plot points happen off-camera). Yes, the whole thing is sort of woozy and sedated and pointless. But why was “Moment by Moment” deemed worthy of such soul-crushing derision, forever and forever? All I can do is pontificate. Let’s start at the beginning.

According to Stephen Dando-Collins‘ just-published biography of the late producer Robert Stigwood, Mr. Showbiz, Stigwood’s RSO Records signed Travolta, in 1976, to a three-picture, $1.5 million contract. This fee was unheard of at the time, especially for an actor mostly known for a television show (“Welcome Back, Kotter”). The first two movies were “Saturday Night Fever” and “Grease”; due to their smash success, Travolta was allowed to select the third film. After two dance extravaganzas, he didn’t want to make another music-oriented film. He also wanted to work with Tomlin and Wagner because he admired their kooky stage show, “Appearing Nitely.” He was probably anticipating a quirky comedy. Instead, Wagner wanted to shoot a sweet-natured love story. Stigwood had his doubts but let the principals roll with it.

According to an August 1978 Indianapolis Star article, the film shoot (which had just wrapped) was mostly positive, though Wagner expressed some trepidation about the gig, her first–and to date, only–feature directing job.

“Making a movie is so mechanical,” she said. “It bothers me that aesthetics are the last thing you have time to think of. It’s an overwhelming task to just to get it done. Writing is so subjective. It’s just you and your typewriter. But directing is so aggressive. It’s so hard to keep your writer’s sensibility from surfacing. The very thing that makes a writer valuable as director is the very thing that’s in danger of being crushed. There’s no time for introspection.” She added that she prioritized her stars’ comfort levels: “If John and Lily aren’t secure with something, then I feel I must make them feel psychologically comfortable.”

An Australian TV promo for the film, featuring a strained but cordial conversation/interview with Tomlin and Travolta, also revealed that the stars, on the surface, believed in the project.

But in interviews throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Wagner and Tomlin expressed, in hindsight, more feelings of doom they had felt, even during the production phase.

“I made the wrong choice,” Tomlin bluntly told the Los Angeles Times in October 1986. “I felt terrible. I didn’t know myself. I didn’t know what to do. I thought I’d go to Stigwood and ask him to let me go. It was amazing to me that you could pick up a magazine three or four years later and still hear about it. I felt for John too–he’s so sensitive.”

“I’m responsible for the fact that it was a bad movie,” Wagner said in the same article. “It isn’t enough to know the aesthetics of movie-making. You have to know the mechanics, too. I didn’t. I couldn’t handle the crew. I had to cut 30 pages out of the script. When Lily chose to play the character depressed, I went with her, even though playing depression is not interesting. Panic began to set in when I saw the rushes at night and knew they were not good, but that I’d have to go on with the next day’s shooting anyway. I felt increasingly helpless. I’m not good at dealing with people. I’m much too subjective. I’m always surprised when writers become good directors.” (The massive script editing explains why the film often plays as if several subplots, particularly about Strip’s drug-dealing friend–who is heavily discussed but never shown–were cut entirely).

Wagner has admitted in interview after interview that the critical drubbing hurt her deeply–so deeply, in fact, that she never attempted another movie (though she wrote “The Incredible Shrinking Woman” for Tomlin a few years later, and the two have continued to team up on comedy performances). In November 1985, she told Erica Abeel (my family friend!), then writing for Newsday, “I have enough self-doubts even with good reviews. In Hollywood, when you’re not hot, it’s hard to get work, especially for women. If I had been Lily, at that point I would have worked with anyone but me.”

Critics didn’t merely underscore the film’s aforementioned flaws. They picked mercilessly on how the actors look, particularly Tomlin. Vincent Canby of The New York Times and others pointed out in their reviews that the two stars looked alike; others stressed that they even sport the same feathery brown coiffures. David Denby, no stranger to trashing actresses he deemed unsexy, focused most of his disdain on Travolta, calling him “stupid, petulant and piteously naked.”

So, I repeat: why the wrath? Why are even today’s bloggers taking it upon themselves to highlight the many ways this film sucks, even after its own director and star have spoken unfavorably about it?

I think a big reason is that Tomlin doesn’t get to act funny in the movie. Not only that: her character is mopey, standoffish, low on energy, doped out on downers, hard to sympathize with. I think a bigger reason, sadly, is that, as Denby noted, audiences found it hard to swallow Travolta as a wounded little boy dressed up as a pretty gigolo. (Travolta may have found it hard to swallow as well; following the film’s nightmarish reception, he decided to turn down the lead role in Paul Schrader’s “American Gigolo.”)

The industry turned on the stars for, I would imagine, more obvious reasons: because it was a major-studio release, executed on a somewhat grand scale (the budget was reportedly around $8 million), and the third starring vehicle for Travolta, who had yet to experience a failure. A lot was riding on it and it ended up grossing shy of $11 million. The executives may also have balked at Travolta’s high salary, at least for that time period.

As for me, I derive no pleasure from verbally bashing this movie. Even if the stars and director weren’t openly remorseful about making it, even if they were pompous, its infamy would still baffle me. At worst, it’s a failed attempt at puppy love that looks–unintentionally–like a warped erotic experiment. The most jarring impression I’m left with is how hermetic it is. It’s closed-off from any sort of reality. Characters express feelings that seem real, and seem to stem from real situations, but with so few people in the picture, there’s no tension, no one bouncing off anybody, and the dialogue isn’t colorful enough for it to work as a virtual filmed play. And there’s no depth to the characters’ connection: when Tomlin and Travolta find a world view they agree on, it is expressed via the sentiment, “What a world!” That’s a groaner line, indeed, but it isn’t the sort of groaner line that spurs throngs of heckling moviegoers to line up for their favorite midnight masterpiece, a la “The Room.” “Moment by Moment” is a lethargic groaner picture. It’s faint trash, not–as Denby put it–“trash heaven.”

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