Posted by David Kalat on July 13, 2013
As our weeklong tribute to Richard Matheson nears its conclusion, I thought it was high time that someone got around to commenting on Matheson’s comedy work. The only problem is, Matheson wasn’t really a comedy writer and didn’t have much in the way of comedy work. I could have gone with The Raven, or the Buster Keaton episode of The Twilight Zone–these would all have been solid choices. But man do I have a soft spot for the 1981 Lily Tomlin vehicle The Incredible Shrinking Woman.
Matheson of course didn’t write the script–Tomlin’s partner Jane Wagner did, but she was adapting Matheson’s novel The Shrinking Man and followed many of the original story’s narrative beats and incidental details closely enough that if you squint, the 1981 film acts more or less like a remake of the 1956 Incredible Shrinking Man, Jack Arnold’s screen adaptation of Matheson’s book for which Matheson did write the screenplay.
It didn’t take much to turn Matheson’s story into a comedy–although the raw material of the story had been intended as serious, it is actually quite ridiculous. A man is exposed to some glitter so he starts to shrink, and he eventually starts living in a doll house. Even the bits meant to be heart-tugging have a faintly absurd edge, such as when the shrinking man flirts with a circus dwarf. She initially helps him see that being unusual is not such a bad thing, but when he finds he’s even getting smaller than her he breaks it off.
It’s easy enough to credit the profusion of science fiction spectacles in the 1950s and 60s on Cold War anxieties. The ability of science and technology to improve the quality of life and provide control over one’s fate and environment had suddenly leapt past what had once been wishful thinking–and at the same time, science and technology had unleashed powers we barely understood and which could so easily obliterate life on Earth. Naturally enough, popular culture would engage in the idea that science was at once wondrous and dangerous–unleash the Kraaken!
Even beyond that, it’s almost too easy to dig into The Incredible Shrinking Man as a metaphor of man’s increasing marginalization in a terrifying new world. In the 1950s, practically every nation in the world had aligned itself with one or the other of the two super-powers, who were prepared to destroy all life on Earth in order to settle once and for all their fundamental philosophical grudges over which ideology was better. The atom yielded to these forces, as did space itself. Ordinary men and women were dwarfed by this epic clash of the titans–it was Matheson’s genius as a writer to realize how to represent this interior psychological condition in a literalized metaphor–does the Cold War make people feel small? Well, how’s about if it actually made them smaller!
But if that was the masterstroke that made The Incredible Shrinking Man such a perfect encapsulation of its zeitgeist, it was also something that threatened to date the material. I’ve seen revival screenings of The Incredible Shrinking Man in several theatrical settings in recent years, and it just doesn’t play right to contemporary audiences–the metaphor doesn’t work the same way anymore. Nowadays ordinary individuals carry the powers of gods in their pockets and can make nations yield to them (hello, Mr. Snowden!)–and without the same cultural context, what’s left of Shrinking Man is just the spectacle. It’s awfully cool spectacle, I’ll admit–but if that’s all that’s left, what’s to distinguish Shrinking Man from any of the the other films of its era obsessed with out-of-scale characters?
There’s only so far you can go to interpret this one example without running into the realization that movies went mad with giants and lilliputians simply because they were cool special effects.
In other words, regardless of whatever subtexts Matheson wove into his story, he had the fortuity to write a story that was completely in synch with the popular culture’s preoccupations at the time–and the irony is this story about a man made small is what made Matheson big. He’d been a writer for a while, but a struggling one, and selling the film rights to Shrinking Man was the moment Matheson became a professional writer who supported himself with his creative output.
Flash forward a generation and you find Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner grabbing Matheson’s novel as the inspiration for a film that would fit into a very different zeitgeist. It was made between 9 to 5 and Tootsie, as part of a mini-cycle of films about American feminism. Here the concept isn’t that science has made man marginal in his own world, but that housework (and household chemicals) have marginalized women.
Tomlin plays Pat Kramer, an ordinary housewife who is married to an advertising consultant (Charles Grodin). Thanks to the extensive exposure to experimental household chemicals she receives through both her regular life as an American and her exposure to the various products her husband brings home to test, she develops the titular condition and starts to diminish.
Grant Williams’ character in the 1957 film had every reason to assume he should be the hero of his own story–he was an American man, for gosh sakes. But Lily Tomlin is diminished even before she starts to shrink. Her role in life is defined by her housewifeliness–and as she reduces, she becomes unable to perform household chores, discipline the kids, or service the sexual needs of her husband.
Being an incredible shrinking woman gives her some fame–but it’s not like anyone really wants to listen to her even now. She’s a spectacle to be gawked at.
Tomlin and her team embellished the source novel with some ideas of their own–for example, in addition to playing the shrinking heroine, Tomlin also plays three other roles in the film, each of which was a pre-existing comedy character she’d developed in prior work (such as her standup act, or Martin & Rowan’s Laugh-In).
As it happens, 25 years earlier, in the wake of the success of Jack Arnold’s film, Matheson had written a sequel, tentatively titled The Fantastic Shrinking Girl, in which the Randy Stuart character suffers the same fate, re-meets her miniature husband Grant Williams at the microscopic level, and then together they start to grow again… it wasn’t made, and the treatment by Matheson seems to trudge through the same basic storybeats and ideas already accomplished perfectly well enough by the first film, but with a touch of added sexism in that title “Shrinking Girl.” Not Shrinking Woman, but Shrinking Girl. Talk about marginalization.
So it’s not that Matheson had any visions of a miniature Lily Tomlin dancing in his head in 1956. And even when the 1981 comedy remake first went into development, it was no feminist parable–it was to star Chevy Chase. That version ran into problems, at which point Tomlin entered the picture and gave it focus.
Part of the appeal of the Lily Tomlin take of the material is the way that this 1981 film anticipates the 24 hour news cycle and instant-celebrity that colors our 21st century world. It’s still a rudimentary vision of our world, of course, but this is something the 1957 film couldn’t foresee: news crews camped out on the lawn, talk show hosts eager to put the shrinking woman on air, neighbors who become famous simply for being in her orbit.
There is another embellishment, however, driving the 1981 version. Although switching the gender of the main character gave new life to the metaphor, and transforming the story from grim sci-fi parable into comedy provided new avenues for entertainment, writer Jane Wagner also reconfigured the ending to provide some human villains not present in Matheson’s original.
There’s a secret cabal of mad scientists and businessmen who want to use Tomlin’s blood to create a “shrink serum” to shrink the world. They do everything but twirl their moustaches while cackling evilly.
Grant Williams is a passive protagonist in his adventure–he isn’t responsible for what happens to him, he has no ability to come up with a solution (no one does). The best he can hope for is to find some peace with his destiny. He is a victim in an uncaring universe–
And it would be silly to expect that a comedy starring one of the nation’s most beloved comediennes, made in Ronald Reagan’s America, would also turn out to be a cold fable about the indifference of a hostile universe. Creating some human villains gives someone for Lily Tomlin to oppose and triumph over, by way of creating a more crowd-pleasing happy ending.
And the last act veers into new territory, introducing another comedy trope, the guy in a gorilla suit (Rick Baker). This allows the film to work some comedy riffs on another classic sci-fi staple–King Kong (Rick Baker having played Kong just a few years previously).
The 1957 film concludes with a virtuoso special effects extravaganza as the hero tries to retain his humanity by doing battle against a giant spider–the 1981 film finds its heroine fighting for her humanity by teaming up with a super-intelligent gorilla who uses his knowledge of sign language to express his displeasure using the exact gesture you think he will. (And let me just say that even today, with as crude as movie comedy has gotten in the year since, there’s still such gleeful giddy “hey look what we just did” pleasure inherent in that angry gorilla’s finger.)
As far as the film is concerned, he’s meant to be a “real” gorilla but I couldn’t even bring myself to write the word real without quote marks. If you did this movie today you wouldn’t have a guy in a gorilla suit, you’d have Andy Serkis doing motion capture, but it would miss the point. He isn’t meant to be a convincing realistic gorilla, he’s a comedy archetype–like the guy in a gorilla suit who shows up in the finale of Trading Places in 1983 (where he’s played by Don McLeod).
I mention Trading Places because it was directed by John Landis, who was the original choice to direct the Chevy Chase version. Landis kept thinking big, however, and the studio didn’t want to pay the kind of money Landis’ ideas would have cost, so he was replaced by newcomer Joel Schumacher. Although Schumacher would come to be known for the same kind of budget-busting excess, at this point in his career he was grateful enough for the job to acquiesce to the studio’s budget limits.
And the crazy magic of Matheson’s story is such that simply putting a comedian in the main role naturally turns the thing into a comedy, and having that comedian be a woman naturally turns the thing into a feminist parable–without having to actually change very much of the original material. It all just sort of happens, as if the idea that this story could be a satire on the role of housewives was already embedded in the story right from the start.
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