BOOTLEG FILES 153: “Moment by Moment” (1978 stinker starring John Travolta and Lily Tomlin).

LAST SEEN: Recently broadcast on the Universal HD cable channel.


REASON FOR DISAPPEARANCE: One of the most lethal career-killing flops of all time.

CHANCES OF SEEING A DVD RELEASE: Not likely in the near future.

One of the most dramatic comebacks in movie history took place in 1994 with John Travolta’s performance in “Pulp Fiction.” Travolta had been considered a washed-up icon of the late 1970s, yet his hipster star-turn as the Zen gangster offered an extraordinary second chance at A-list stardom.

But why was Travolta in need of a comeback? The answer can be traced back to “Moment by Moment,” a 1978 romantic drama that single-handedly killed his career.

Now, it is very rare for one movie to permanently knockout a star. After all, some stars like Dennis Quaid, Jennifer Lopez and Colin Farrell have built careers on an endless number of flops and have no problem getting cast in major productions. But Travolta, who was riding an unprecedented tide of popularity following the one-two punch of “Saturday Night Fever” and “Grease,” proved to be the exception to the rule when lightning failed to strike for a third time in “Moment by Moment.”

“Moment by Moment” was a peculiar vehicle for Travolta to hop into. The film was actually rooted in the collaborative force of Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner. Wagner was responsible for writing most of Tomlin’s classic comedy material – and she was (and still is) her lesbian life partner. Together, the women envisioned a weepie melodrama closer in spirit to the old Douglas Sirk soapers than to Tomlin’s trademark brand of sharp humor. Wagner wrote the screenplay and directed the film (her first time behind a camera) and Tomlin took on the role of a rich Beverly Hills divorcee who becomes infatuated by a young hustler.

However, the women overlooked a couple of fundamental flaws with this concept. Tomlin’s versatility as a performer was not in question, and she already proved her big screen cred with “Nashville” (earning an Oscar nomination) and “The Late Show” (for which she deserved an Oscar nomination for a wonderfully off-beat role). In both roles, she proved she was capable of doing more than the zany “Laugh-In” shtick that made her famous.

Yet in “Moment by Moment,” Tomlin was literally adrift as Trish, the emotionally frigid 38-year-old with an overstuffed bank account but an empty love life. Tomlin was weirdly indifferent to her surroundings, walking about in a haze that drifted between mild irritation and the proverbial blank stare. Even her “big” emotional moments, such as stifling a crying jag while talking on the telephone with her ex-husband, seemed like Non-Acting 101.

“Moment by Moment” is pretty much a two-person movie, with Tomlin’s rich Trish being pursued by Travolta’s gabby hustler. That character’s name is Strip, which is inane since Tomlin often calls out to him: “Oh, Strip! Strip!” It gets embarrassing very quickly.

The characters meet cute at Schwab’s Pharmacy, when Trish is unable to renew a prescription for sleeping pills. Strip tracks her back to her palatial beach house, where he gives her a vial of “reds” to help her get a good night’s snooze. Strip doesn’t really go away – he keeps coming back to make stupid small talk, mostly regarding the mishaps of his jailed pal Greg. Trish, who would’ve called the cops had she been a real person, indulges the handsome but verbose Strip with lunch and attention, and she even shows a rare charitable side by offering to finance the repairs on Greg’s dilapidated automobile, where Strip is living.

Needless to say, things get hot and heavy one rainy night when Trish takes Strip inside and makes him take off his wet clothing. She lays him down on a day bed – then lays down next to him, giving him a hand job. The expression on Travolta’s face while his ding-a-ling gets a workout (his bovine eyes blinking with initial incomprehension) is among the most unintentionally hilarious moments captured on screen.

For the remainder of the film, Trish and Strip talk, make love, talk some more, make love again, fight a bit, separate and then reunite. None of the talk is worth repeating (the vapidity of the dialogue will cause you toothaches triggered by disgusted jaw grinding), but the lovemaking is even more astonishing. Overlooking the basic problem that Travolta and Tomlin look like twin siblings, the level of emotional attachment deposited into their celluloid copulation is nil. Tomlin does a terrible imitation of a heterosexual woman rediscovering her sex drive through a young stud, while Travolta just lays there like a slice of uncooked beef. You could find more eroticism in a stop-motion animated film using mannequins than in watching these two real people bang each other.

The main problem, though is Tomlin. Her odd performance is not helped when she is put in Travolta’s presence. This was the young, slender, long-haired Travolta of “Welcome Back Kotter” fame and he spends much of the film walking about in his underwear. Travolta might be a bit scrawny and hirsute by contemporary standards, but he was hot stuff for 1978 and many a tween girl in that era would’ve sold their souls to pull down his underwear. Tomlin, either through her own poor instincts or through Wagner’s incompetent direction, never emotionally bonded with the barely-dressed Barbarino. Either she spoke past him, as if he was standing in between her and a third party, or she reverted to benign vulgarity (when Travolta disrobes for a hot tub sequence, Tomlin’s eyes zoom in on his manhood with the same intensity of a glutton spotting an unclaimed sandwich).

As for Travolta, all he has to do is flash his baby-blues, take off his shirt, and feign sincerity about his love for Trish and his concern about his jailed pal Greg (remember him?). It’s a nothing performance and, in retrospect, it should not have created damage for his career. But coming off the hurricane force of “Saturday Night Fever” and “Grease,” Travolta was being hyped endlessly as the next major movie superstar. His bad-boy antihero performances in those films fit perfectly in the mood of the 1970s, but his near-naked talkative hustler in “Moment by Moment” didn’t fit the popular perception of him at all. Travolta’s fans were aghast at how deeply removed this role was from his other films, and seeing him manipulated as an older woman’s boy toy was not the way his fan base envisioned him.

“Moment by Moment” also suffered the mistake of being Universal Pictures’ big Christmas release for 1978. The fury of the critics and the refusal of audiences to accept this film made it one of biggest cinema bombs ever dropped over the holiday season.

Incredibly, Tomlin was spared the full-brunt of the wrath aimed at “Moment by Moment” and she had no trouble continuing her film work (her next movie, “9 to 5,” put her back in the good graces of moviegoers). She also stayed faithful to Wagner as a writer and life partner, although the latter was never again trusted to direct a movie. Yet Travolta was literally sliced by the film’s failure. Although his next film “Urban Cowboy” was a commercial success, much of that film’s attention was centered on the country music soundtrack and the scene-stealing performance by newcomer Debra Winger. Into the 1980s, a series of poor film choices further eroded Travolta’s commercial viability, and by the end of that decade he was considered a has-been. Ironically, he turned down another male hustler part that could’ve put him back in the groove: “American Gigolo” went to Richard Gere, who was able to launch his career thanks to Travolta’s rejection of the project. (Two decades later, history repeated itself when Travolta’s rejection of the Billy Flynn role in “Chicago” went to Gere, earning the actor his biggest hit.)

After “Pulp Fiction” resurrected his career, Travolta was able to ride out the 1990s with wiser film choices that kept him on the A-list. In the late 1990s, he confided in an interview with about the near-fatal effects of “Moment by Moment” on his psyche and self-confidence:

“I think I learned 20 years ago when I did ‘Saturday Night Fever’ and ‘Grease,’ and was touted the biggest star in the world; then I did a movie called ‘Moment by Moment’ and you’d have thought I’d have sunk the Titanic. I was so mistreated as a result of that film that I can never again take any of it seriously. So I guess I learned that you’ve got to be tough and expect the worst, but nothing could be worse than that.”

“Moment by Moment” turned up briefly on cable TV in the early 1980s and then was mothballed. There was never a home video release and bootleg videos can be traced to its cable TV broadcasts. Recently, the film returned quietly as part of the line-up on Universal HD, a high-definition cable channel. High-definition doesn’t make the movie better, but at least you have the opportunity to see the astonishing awfulness of “Moment by Moment” with a new pristine clarity.

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  1. Also, Tomlin/Wagner DID do another film together just a few years after this: The Incredible Shrinking Woman! “Galaxy Glue, Galaxy Glue, what would we do without our Galaxy Glue” lol, it wasnt nearly as bad as Moment, but it’s not a film that people often cite as a favorite either. Im surprised that the Film Threat reviewer missed that one in his research. 🙂

  2. A couple of corrections: Travolta’s character in Pulp Fiction wasnt “zen” by any stretch, that was his partner Jules (Samuel Jackson). Also, this film didnt “kill” his career, it only killed off the vapid teenybopper idol stage of it (as the audience for those films grew up and entered the 80s, while the next generation cleaved to Breakfast Club and the “Brat Pack”). He went on after this to do the surprisingly entertaining Urban Cowboy, and then Blow-Out with DePalma. Tomlin did Nine to Five, and then … she pretty much faded into obscurity. Where was her Tarantino moment? It never happened. So while this is a very good review of the film overall, I think you got some of your history wrong.