Travoltography: MOMENT BY MOMENT (1978)
by Michael Wayne
Synopsis: The story of a romance between a young drifter named Strip Harrison and an older wealthy woman, Trish Rawlings.
I’d like it known at this stage that I ain’t writing these synopses, I’m getting them from themoviedb.org, but believe me when I tell you that the above is all this movie is about. No subtext, no hidden meanings, to veiled allusions to the current affairs of 1978. It’s just Trish and Strip.
When impresario Robert Stigwood signed Travolta up to a three-picture contract, I doubt either of them imagined it could turn out like this. After the scorching one-two megahit double punch of Saturday Night Fever and Grease, all I can imagine is that they thought they were invincible, and that the public, salivating for anything Travoltish, would literally pay to see anything. That’s the only explanation I can think of for Moment by Moment…I mean, what did we ever do to them?
You know something’s up purely based on the poster. Not only are Travolta and Lily Tomlin victims of the worst cut-and-pasting this side of Photoshop, take a closer look – Travolta’s the one lying down! John’s gone from two iconic posters that existed purely to showcase him to this. You can barely tell them apart! In fact, they look as though they’re in the midst of some ghastly fusion, nearly ready to come out the other end as…Johnlin.
But onto the movie. The intro is like a perverse parody of Fever’s, with Tomlin, as the well-to-do socialite Trish, strutting down Rodeo Drive to David Jones-esque muzak. That’s…that’s not how it works, folks. Eventually, she and Travolta “meet cute” in a pharmacy of all places. Gee, we need a romantic backdrop to really sell the idea of our two mismatched leads hitting it off. Any thoughts?
In fact, it’s not even really a meeting in the traditional sense. John rudely interrupts Lily’s attempt to purchase sleeping pills, and his presence brings with it a special brand of irritation that seems to transcend the screen. I don’t know if it’s by Travolta’s design, or it’s just a by-product of his ubiquity in the late 1970s, but there’s no denying he’s annoying as hell throughout this movie in a way he never was previously, even when Danny was singing about dem summa nightz.
There’s a strange feeling that permeates this movie that something’s amiss. Even in the most insignificant exchanges or details, something seems off. When Travolta interrupts at the pharmacy, it’s to ask why his friend isn’t working there that day. When the pharmacist tells him that the friend was caught stealing and that the matter was referred to the police, Travolta can’t accept it. He literally can’t believe the pharmacist would do that. It’s almost as if he was looking for an excuse to pull his most incredulous expression, perhaps to give the audience something to model theirs after. After all, there’s, still 140 mins to go.
It’s hard to know whether Travolta spends the first third of the movie trying to be charming or creepy and annoying, and even harder to know what the filmmakers thought he was doing. Just when you kinda get a sense that he’s trying to charm his way into Tomlin’s life, he does something so irritating that it must be intentional. And then she falls for him anyway. Nothing adds up, and it leaves you questioning your own life and everything in it once it’s over.
I feel like it’s impossible to consider this movie without considering its context; it’s 1978, the end of Travolta’s three picture deal, he’s coming off two massive hits and he has an incredibly high profile. Here he is making his last one for the 70s, the decade he at this point practically defines, and it’s a romantic drama. A romantic drama starring a teen heartthrob, okay, fine. But a romantic drama where the audience’s (young girls) surrogate is an older woman. An older woman who spends the first half of the film annoyed by John and mostly unable to tolerate him. It’s more than a case of overexposure, so I don’t think Travolta can shoulder the entire and considerable weight of the blame for this one. But I’ve gotta know – what were they thinking?
The reason movies like Twilight provide such bland heroines (through casting if not characterisation) is for the precise reason that the audience can easily insert themselves into the narrative. In 1978, young girls loved Travolta. They recut Fever to be PG just so they could show it to them. To follow it up with this, a movie where he plays an annoying, borderline Aspergers hustler – named Strip (“Think Sunset”) – who’s completely uninterested in the kind of girls who want to see him…it just defies belief.
And all this would be forgivable if it was an entertaining movie in its own right, but no. Moment by Moment drags on moment by agonising moment. Conversations between the two leads go on and on, achieving nothing. They’re the conversational equivalent of a World War I battle. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, the movie sets out to document this romance moment by moment, and oh how it achieves that goal.
The only reason I can imagine Travolta being attracted to this project is because the romance between an older woman and a younger man mirrors his real life relationship with actress Diana Hyland, which ended with her death at age 41 in 1977, when John was 23. Hyland was best known for her role as ‘Susan Winter’ in Peyton Place, and as ‘Mickey Lubitch’ in The Boy in the Plastic…
Anyway, Strip’s courtship of Trish dominates the first half of the movie, and includes such winning tactics as him following her to the beach, stripping (see what I did there?) down to his Speedos in front of her and coyly asking to borrow a towel. But then again, this is a man who doesn’t believe the law should be involved in a robbery case, so he has no qualms excessively stalking the poor woman.
He turns up at her house. When she goes for a drive, he’s there on the side of the road, smiling that creepy smile. She’s at the shops? He’s there. The filmmakers even allow you to pinpoint the exact moment that this stalking becomes comical – Travolta admits to Tomlin “I always feel like I’m overstepping my boundaries with you.”
It’s just so hard to believe this was never picked up at any point of the film’s production. This sequence culminates in a horrendous hot tub scene in which Tomlin finally submits to Travolta’s obsessive pursuit, and in a normal movie, this would be the point where you’d find out about his sinister motives.
In a normal movie.
In this movie, the two begin the fusion process promised on the poster.
Can YOU tell them apart?
Once they get together, they break up and get back together a bunch of times…moment by moment. Then it ends. Like this. This is how Travolta chose to end the decade he helped to galvanise.
On the surface, a movie that features John Travolta in his underpants for three quarters of its running time should automatically qualify as a major disappointment, but what makes this so much worse is that up until now, Travolta seemed to have a clear idea of his place in pop culture. His choices were interesting because they said so much about where he felt his career should go, what his image should be. Moment by Moment suggests that this wasn’t by design at all. It’s hard to point the finger at Tomlin for any of the film’s failings, because even though she gets top billing, it wasn’t like it was her vehicle.
To say Moment by Moment was a financial disaster is an understatement: it made only $10m at the box office, and presumably it’s for this reason that the film has never been released on any home media of any kind. Nope, not even CED. It’s worth considering that by the end of the 70s, people were probably just very sick of John Travolta. He’d been so everywhere in the years leading up to Moment by Moment that audiences had had enough. He wisely took the following year off, and hopefully fired his script reader.
Again, it’s hard to imagine why, if not for contractual reasons, Travolta would agree to be in this movie. It did nothing for his image, and did nothing but hurt his career. If his films are hurdles (and believe me, some of them really are), this was a major stumble that he never really recovered from. If he’d directed his unprecedented post-Grease momentum into a great or even just a semi–decent film, who knows how far he could have gone? Perhaps, heading into the uncertain future of the 1980s as he was, he was starting to worry about how long his fame would last and took what seemed like a safe bet.
Given what’s ahead, I’d say he was right to worry.
HIS FUCKING NAME WAS STRIP