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30 years ago, ‘Big Business’ was really small potatoes

The Bette Midler-Lily Tomlin comedy has historic roots but didn't impress critics.
Published Jun. 10, 2018

When Big Business opened the in theaters back on June 10, 1988, the storyline of two youngsters trading places was hardly new. You can trace it at least as far back as Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper back in 1881. (And even further back to Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors.) But the concept of two sets of identical female twins seemed fresh – at least to '80s fans.

Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin payed Sadie and Rose Shelton (and Sadie and Roe Ratliff) in the comedy. Big Business had a lot else going for it, including a member of the Naked Gun and Airplane! team serving as director (Jim Abrahams) and a supporting cast that included Fred Ward, Edward Herrmann, Joe Grifasi, and Seth Green.

The plot was simple. A business tycoon and his pregnant wife find themselves in the sticks of Virginia when the Mrs. goes in labor. Meanwhile, a local couple find themselves at the same hospital in the same condition at the same time. Add in one elderly nurse who mixes and mismatches the two sets of twins delivered and you should have a comedy classic, right?

Eh, not so fast. The Disney flick (Touchstone technically) didn't have the bawdy humor of the Naked Gun or Airplane movies, and critics weren't generally impressed. Though the movie was moderately successful at the box office, it maintains a 40 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Critic Roger Ebert was savage in his review of Big Business, writing: "In a movie of disappointments, the major disappointment is a shocker. What have we been waiting for through the whole movie? For the moment when the four women all meet in the same place at the same time, right? So what happens when they do? After the first shocked moment of mutual recognition – nothing happens!"

Here are five things you didn't know about Big Business on its 30th anniversary:

1. Big Business was written for Barbra Streisand (Midler's role) and Goldie Hawn (Tomlin's role). Would the other actors have improved the final product? Doubtful.

2. Much of the movie takes place at New York's Plaza Hotel, but the hotel wouldn't allow filming there. Producers ended up recreating the hotel on sound stages. To recoup the costs, Disney created a sitcom – The Nutt House – to use the same sets. The show – co-created by Mel Brooks and starring Cloris Leachman and Harvey Korman – lasted only 10 episodes.

3. Although Midler and Tomlin played identical twins, in real life, Tomlin is six years older.

4. The year 1988 was a big one for Midler. She appeared in another movie about best friends. You know it as Beaches.

5. Though Big Business wasn't the smash hit Disney was hoping for, other adult flicks from the Mouse House in the '80s fared much better, including Ruthless People and Down and Out in Beverly Hills.



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