The Midler Tomlin Chemistry

Director: Midler-Tomlin Chemistry Balances
JUNE 16, 1988

HOLLYWOOD (UPI) – The Hollywood gossip mill has been working overtime about the supposed clashes between Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin on the set of “Big Business,” but their director says the “chemistry” between the two was anything but volatile.

Midler and Tomlin, who play two pairs of very un-identical twins in the movie, may have their own individual approach to comedy, but their relationship could be better compared to a mutual admiration society, said director Jim Abrahams.
Abrahams, who also directed Midler in “Ruthless People,” said she is an intuitive performer whose best work is done spontaneously. Tomlin, on the other hand, painstakingly establishes her character and improves with repetition.

In other words, Midler is a flash on the first take and grows progressively less effective while Tomlin blossoms with each take, and inevitably, the contrast in work methods would create a bit of anxiety.

“Bette is spontaneous,” he said. “She relies on a first reaction. She takes time focusing in on a character, then backs off and lets things happen when the camera rolls. “It is always a good idea to start the cameras rolling on Bette’s rehearsal because she will do some unusual, innovative things. Frequently we use them. She is bright and intuitive.

Usually her first takes are brilliant. “Lily is more methodical. She improves with every take. But she can also be good on the first take because she thinks a scene through far in advance.”

Part of Abrahams’ job was to prepare both women to compromise as best they could for the good of the picture. Abrahams said about 40 percent of the time, either Midler or Tomlin would ask for additional takes, and sometimes he would use them.

“Once they knew their director had the shot in the bank, the pressure was off ,” he said. “So they would try a new approach when they requested additional takes, some of which were terrific because they were unusual.

“I was relieved to see how well Bette and Lily worked together. One day, when we tested them for wardrobe and hair – without sound – I asked them to go into character just for the heck of it.

“The next day when a bunch of us, including Bette and Lily, were watching the test we broke up in howls of laughter. So did they. It was hysterical to see how quickly they fell into the roles of the twins, even without dialogue.

“I’d always thought the term ‘chemistry’ as applied to the relationships of actors was a kind of movie-talk pretension – until I saw that wardrobe test. They really worked magically together.

“It’s not true that they didn’t get along. They liked and respected each other personally and professionally.”

“I think we’ve made a very funny movie,” Abrahams said. “Both women are genuinely funny.

“The real reward is going to theaters and listening to the laughs in all the right places, the spontaneous applause. It validates your work when you hear people having a good time.”

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