“BIG BUSINESS” (1988) Review


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“BIG BUSINESS” (1988) ReviewBetween the mid 1980s and the early 1990s, Bette Midler was something of a box office power house for the Disney Studios. The latter released a good deal of her movies through one of its distribution labels, Touchstone Pictures. And one of those movie was the 1988 comedy that she co-starred with Lily Tomlin called “BIG BUSINESS”

Loosely based upon William Shakespeare’s 1594-95 play, “The Comedy of Errors”“BIG BUSINESS” is a comedy of errors with a financial twist that involves two sets of identical twins who were mismatched at birth. The movie begins in 1940s with a wealthy New York couple, Hunt and a very pregnant Binky Shelton being driven through the West Virginia countryside, searching for the summer house of a friend. When Mrs. Shelton goes into labor, a local worker named Garth Raliff direct them to the local hospital in the nearby town of Jupiter Hollow. After the Sheltons drive away, Mr. Ratliff’s wife Iona informs him that he is in labor. Mr. Shelton has to purchase a furniture producing store called Hollowmade in order to get medical attention for his wife, since the hospital is only for the company’s employees. The Ratcliffs arrive at the hospital and the doctor is forced to deliver a pair of twin girls from both of his patients. The hospital’s elderly nurse mixes up the twins, placing a Shelton and Ratliff twin in one bed for the Sheltons . . . and a second pair in another bed for the Ratliffs. Mr. Ratliff overhears the Sheltons deciding to name their daughters Rose and Sadie, and suggests the same names to his wife.

Some forty years later, the Shelton sisters are now co-chairwomen of the family’s conglomerate called Moramax. Sadie Shelton, a ruthless businesswoman, plans off-load Hollowmade to an Italian business raider with the approval of the conglomerate’s board of stockholders. Meanwhile, Rose Ratliff, now the ambitious forewoman of Hollowmade Factory and a union representative, learns about Moramax’s plans. She sets out to travel to New York City and stop the sale, dragging her sister Sadie along. When the West Virginia sisters arrive in New York, they are mistaken for the Sheltons and find themselves checked into the city’s famous Plaza Hotel, where the Moramax stockholders’ meeting is being held. Sadie Shelton learns of the Ratliffs’ intention to travel to New York and orders her more passive sister Rose and two Moramax executives, Graham Sherbourne and Chuck, to find the West Virginians and make sure they stay away from the stockholders’ meeting. With two sets of twins at the Plaza Hotel, a great deal of chaos ensues before the big showdown at the meeting.

I might as well lay my cards on the table. “BIG BUSINESS” is a silly movie. There is no doubt about it. Some of the humor written by Dori Pierson and Marc Reid Rubel struck me as so broad that it required a good deal of mugging from some of the cast. The two leads – Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin – certainly did their share of mugging. But silly movie or not, I also found it very entertaining. I cannot deny that “BIG BUSINESS” is a funny movie. It is not perfect. It certainly has its flaws. But dammit, it is funny! Every time I see the movie, it brings back memories of the excessive style of the 1980s. More importantly, aside from a narrative flaw or two, it is a good solid story about mistaken identity, family and high finance.

“BIG BUSINESS” featured some really funny scenes. One of my favorites is the movie’s prologue set in the 1940s. Thanks to some stellar performances – especially from Deborah Rush, who portrayed the Shelton family’s sharp-tongued matriarch – and cracker-jack pacing by director Jim Abrahams, the prologue is not only funny, but provided clear details on what led to the infant mix-up between the two families. Other first-rate scenes featured the Ratliffs’ arrival in New York City and their meeting with Italian businessman Fabio Alberici, Sadie Shelton’s encounter with her minions Graham and Chuck during her dinner with Signor Alberici, Graham and Chuck’s evening with Rose Shelton and Roone Dimmick (who happened to be Rose Ratliff’s boyfriend), Roone bunking with Graham and Chuck, and the four women’s first encounter with each other in one of the Plaza Hotel’s restroom. However, another first-rate scene that really benefited from Abrahams’ direction and pacing was the breakfast sequence, which occurred just before the restroom scene. I was amazed at how Abrahams’ direction, along with Pierson and Rubel’s script, allowed the Sheltons and Ratliffs interchange at one restaurant table without anyone realizing they were speaking to the wrong twin.

As much as I enjoyed “BIG BUSINESS”, it does have its flaws. There were times when the mugging got out of control. This was especially apparent in the bathroom scene. Speaking of that particular scene, although it seemed to start well, I thought it ended on a clumsy note when some of the hotel’s employees, along with the men in the four women’s lives spotted both sets of twins together. Even worse, the end of the scene featured too much mugging for my tastes. I had no problems with how Pierson and Rubel handled at least three of the four women’s love lives. New York Sadie developed a nice, lustful relationship with Signor Alberici. Jupiter Hollow Sadie developed a warm relationship with the ex-husband of her New York counterpart. New York Rose fell in love with Jupiter Hollow Rose’s boyfriend, Roone. But the one problematic relationship turned out to be the one between Jupiter Hollow Rose and the rejected fiancé of New York Rose, one Dr. Jay Marshall. The script allowed them to briefly meet outside of the hotel, with Dr. Marshall believing he had encountered New York Rose. They did not meet again until near the end of the movie. And I never understood why the script allowed them to hook up in the end, when their relationship was never explored in the first place. Talk about a badly written relationship.

I wonder how difficult it is for actors and actresses to portray twins. Both Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin did a fantastic job in this movie. Midler portrayed the two sisters born to the Shelton family – Sadie Shelton and Sadie Ratliff. As much as I enjoyed her warm portrayal of the good-hearted and slightly self-centered Sadie Ratliff, I really . . . really loved her portrayal of the ruthless and intimidating Sadie Shelton. Especially when she is allowed to shoot off sharp insults at the other characters. And Tomlin was not only marvelous as the warm and romantic Rose Shelton, who was both a homebody and slightly clumsy, she was a hoot as the sharp-tongued and suspicious Rose Ratliff, who was determined to protect the interests of her fellow workers and the citizens of Jupiter Hollow.

“BIG BUSINESS” also featured Fred Ward, who gave one of my favorite performances in his career. He was warm and sexy as the lovestruck and slightly dim Roone Dimmick. Edward Herrmann and Daniel Gerroll formed a hilarious screen team as New York Sadie’s Miramax minions, Graham and Chuck. It is a pity those two never worked with each other again. Although his appearances were brief, Michael Gross gave a funny performance as New York Rose’s frustrated fiancé, Dr. Jay Marshall. I read somewhere that Michele Placido had developed a reputation for action drama – either on television or in movies. It is a pity that his filmography did not include more comedies, because the man had a talent for subtle comedy – especially in reacting to madness around his character, Fabio Alberici. John Hancock, whom I have seen in both television and movies over the years, gave a funny performance as the Sheltons’ sarcastic chauffeur, Harlan. But my favorite supporting performance came from Deborah Rush, who was hilarious as Sadie and Rose Shelton’s sardonic and manipulative mother, Binky. Aside from Midler and Tomlin, Rush had some of the best lines in the movie. Sadie may have inherited her father’s name, but thanks to Rush’s witty performance, it is easily to see from whom she had inherited her personality.

Yes, “BIG BUSINESS” has its flaws, which included too much mugging, a badly written romance and some clumsy pacing in one major scene. But . . . it is still a very funny movie that handled mistaken identities and high finance rather well. Dori Pierson and Marc Reid Rubel wrote a very solid script. Jim Abrahams did justice to it, with the help of a very funny cast led by the always marvelous Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin. After twenty to thirty years, I feel it still holds up very well.

“ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN” (1976) Review

 

“ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN” (1976) Review

Last May and June marked the fortieth anniversary of a well-known historical event – namely the Watergate burlaries. The ensuing scandal were investigated by two Washington Post reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. The pair’s investigations were eventually chronicled in a best-selling book and later, a 1976 movie based upon the book. 

As many know, five men were arrested by the police for breaking and entering the Democratic National Committee office at the Watergate Hotel during the early hours of June 17, 1972. At least two other break-ins had occurred. But the arrests of Bernard Barker, Vergilio Gonzales, Eugenio Martínez, Frank Sturgis, and James McCord caught the attention ofPost reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Their investigations – along with those from Time Magazine and The New York Times – of a series of crimes committed on behalf of the Nixon Administration led to the resignation ofPresident Richard Nixon in August 1974 and a best-selling book that chronicled Woodward and Bernstein’s Watergate investigations.

Robert Redford bought the rights to Woodward and Bernstein’s book for $450,000 with the notion to adapt it into a film, with him serving as producer. Redford had no intention of acting in “ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN”. But someone at Warner Brothers agreed to release the film only if he co-starred in it. Redford agreed to portray Bob Woodward. He also brought aboard Alan J. Pakula as the film’s director and William Goldman as screenwriter. Redford, Pakula and producer Walter Coblenz hired Dustin Hoffman to portray Carl Bernstein. When Post executive editor Ben Bradlee realized that the film was going to be made with or without his approval; he, Woodward and Bernstein made a great effort to serve as the film’s technical advisers. Bradlee hoped that the movie would have a positive impact upon the public’s view on journalism.

After viewing “ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN” (for the umpteenth time), it occurred to me Bradlee’s hope may have come true. At least for a while. The movie was very effective in conveying the dogged investigation that Woodward and Bernstein underwent to uncover the Watergate scandal. Mind you, “ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN” only chronicled Woodward and Bernstein’s investigation from the arrest of the men involved, to their discovery of Nixon Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman‘s involvement, and finally to January 20, 1973; the day of Nixon’s second inauguration. In other words, it covered only the first seven months of the scandal, unlike Woodward and Bernstein’s book. And the phrase – “Follow the money” – had been invented for the movie. It was never featured in the book.

But who cares about these minor differences? “ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN” still managed to be a superb look into both the investigative process for journalists (something that today’s journalists need to study). It also provided great character studies of both Woodward and Bernstein, their interaction as a team, and also those whom they worked for at theWashington Post – especially Ben Bradlee, Harry M. Rosenfeld, and Howard Simmons. One of the more positive aspects of Woodward and Bernstein’s investigation in the movie dealt with the journalists’ handling of the various people they interviewed. I really found it fascinating – especially the scenes that featured the team’s interactions with Judy Hoback , Hugh Sloan Jr.Donald Segretti and W. Mark Felt aka “Deep Throat”.

Even though Pakula and Goldman went through a great deal on focusing upon the movie’s portrayals of the characters – major and minor, it never eluded the fact that Woodward and Bernstein’s investigation was all about the Watergate break-in and the Nixon Administration. What I found amazing about the movie’s plotting was that it did not focus on Nixon and his men right away. To emphasize the pair’s dogged investigation – especially from their point of view – the movie slowly but firmly widened the spotlight from that final break-in in June 1972 to the array of tricks, plots and crimes that members of the Nixon Administration planned to ensure the President’s re-election in November.

David Shire’s score for “ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN” struck me as subtle and very fitting for the movie’s themes of subterfuge, paranoia and secrets, while I was watching the film. But I have to be honest . . . it did not strike me as particularly memorable. On the other hand, I was more than impressed by Gordon Willis’ photography. I enjoyed his use of shadows, especially in the scenes that featured Woodward’s meetings with “Deep Throat”. I also enjoyed his use of deep focus photography. I found them very effective in the Washington Post scenes. More than anything, I enjoyed how Willis gave the movie, especially the exterior shots of Washington D.C. a natural look that was the hallmark of 1970s cinema.

But I cannot talk about “ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN” without discussing the movie’s performances. I tried to think of one performance that seemed out of step or simply bad. And I realized that I could not. The movie featured some truly outstanding performances. One, “ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN” featured cameo performances from those who were known at the time or future stars. First-rate performances came from the likes of Polly Holliday, Ned Beatty, Penny Fuller, Carl Franklin, Valerie Curtin, John McMartin, Lindsay Crouse, Allyn Ann McLerie and Meredith Baxter. But there were supporting performances that I found exceptional. Stephen Collins gave a wonderfully subtle performance as Hugh Sloan Jr., the Republican aide who was disgusted by the illegal activities of the Nixon Administration. Martin Balsam was great as Post editor Howard Simmons, one of those who had nurtured the careers of younger journalists like Woodward and Bernstein. And I especially enjoyed Jack Warden’s colorful portrayal of Harry Rosenfeld, the Post editor that oversaw the Watergate coverage. Jane Alexander received a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her performance as Judy Hoback, a bookeeper for CRP. She deserved the attention, thanks to her ability to convey Hoback’s jittery personality in such a subtle manner. And Jason Robards won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his spot-on portrayal of Ben Bradlee. I thought his portrayal of Bradlee would be all over the map. Much to my delight, he managed to keep it tight and entertaining at the same time.

Aside from director Alan J. Pakula, the two men who really held this movie together like glue were Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman. They were superb as Woodward and Bernstein. It seemed a pity that neither was nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award. Then again, if that had happened, their nominations would have guaranteed the victory of a third party. If I had my way, I would have allowed them to share the award. Both Redford and Hoffman were like a well-oiled team. The actors not only delved into the individual personalities of their characters, but also made it easy for moviegoers to see how two such men disparate men became such an effective journalistic team. They made one of the best on-screen acting team I have ever seen . . . period. And it is a pity that people rarely acknowledge this.

I am not saying that “ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN” is a flawless film. There is no such thing as a movie that is flawless in my eyes. However, the only flaws that come to mind is that the movie only covered the first seven months of Woodward and Bernstein’s investigation and it utilized a phrase that was never used in real life or featured in the 1974 book. Otherwise, I feel that “ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN” is one of the best movies to be released in the 1970s. And to this day, I find it hard to believe that of all movies, it turned out to be “ROCKY” that beat it for the Best Picture Oscar.