A Look Back at “The Incredible Shrinking Woman”

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“The Incredible Shrinking Woman” is an American comedy released on January 30, 1981. The movie stars comedian Lily Tomlin as house wife Pat Kramer. Readers may recognize Lily from her current role in the Netflix series “Grace and Frankie.” She was joined in “The Incredible Shrinking Woman” by Charles Grodin, who played Pat’s husband Vance, and Ned Beatty, who played Vance’s boss Dan Beame. Lily also played other characters in this film, such as the neighbor Judith Beasley and telephone operator Ernestine.

Those other characters had previously been created for stage and TV shows. Therefore, many movie viewers in the early eighties were familiar with Judith Beasley and Ernestine from earlier performances. However, people watching the film today may find it strange when Lily plays multiple characters.

Lily changes her hair style and wears different clothing, such as eye glasses, when she switches characters, but it’s still clear that the same woman is playing the different characters. For example, see the following two images:

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Lily playing Pat Kramer
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Lily playing Judith Beasley

Contrast that to Eddie Murphy in 2000’s “Nutty Professor II: The Klumps” in which Eddie’s characters each look significantly different.

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That’s not to say that Lily’s approach is bad, but rather to point out that for movie goers in 1981 the characters were already established. That approach has not necessarily aged well as modern viewers are no longer familiar with those side characters.

Lily and the movie’s writer Jane Wagner worked together on many projects before and after this film such as “An Apology to Elephants,” “Modern Scream,” and “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe.” The two were romantically involved, and they wed in 2013. Incredible_shrinking_woman

The director, Joel Schumacher, might be better known to modern readers as the director for 1987’s “The Lost Boys” and 1995’s “Batman Forever,” the latter in which featured a bat suit with nipples. 😉 (This film was Schumacher’s directorial debut. Schumacher replaced the original director, John Landis, due to budgetary concerns.)

The story is of a stay-at-home Mom who inexplicably begins to shrink. Doctors eventually determine that exposure to a large number of household chemicals was responsible for Pat’s transformation. She struggles for awhile to cope as she steadily diminishes. Eventually, Pat is kidnapped by evil corporations which intend to create a serum from her blood to shrink the world’s population! (A cursory examination yields several possible complications in carrying out that plan, but whatever! 😉  )

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Extra-large clothes were used to make her appear smaller than normal.

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4 - Kleinman ergo small man
The lab’s name was amusing since “klein” is German for “small.” Ergo, “Kleinman Institute” could be read as “Small man institute.” (Technically, I think the German word for “man” is spelled “Mann,” thus with two n’s. But I still thought this was amusing.)

Pat befriends an intelligent gorilla named Sydney at the secret laboratory. The two escape, and Pat is eventually able to share her plight with the world. (Or at least, with a group of shoppers outside a supermarket.) She then shrinks out of sight. Yet, fear not my gentle readers, there is a happy ending! Furthermore, there was a very short sequence that growth fans will enjoy.

The special effects looked pretty decent, all things considered. The gorilla was portrayed by Richard A. Baker, an accomplished make-up artist. Sydney doesn’t behave or move like a large ape, but all in all it was a very respectable effort.

Supermarket incident

The shopping cart reminded me of the one previously displayed at the Hyatt Plaza in Doha, Qatar.

giant shopping cart in Doha formerly at Hyatt Plaza
Alas, this was removed in 2014.

There is an anti-consumerism theme, but it was not fully explored. The audience is shown that reliance on too many chemicals can lead to negative effects, like shrinking. Yet, we weren’t given an alternative, and at the end of the movie the world is the same as it was at the beginning. (Although, Dan Beame does turn himself into the cops to be arrested.) I agree that our modern lives are too commercialized just as the film’s writer felt that they were even back in 1981. However, it seems like the movie should have had more to say about it beyond “consumerism bad.”

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A multitude of props and special sets indicated that Pat was gradually diminishing in size. The props included an oversized wine glass, a giant spaghetti strainer, enormous salad bowl, extra-large tape recorder, titanic toys, etc. A larger-than-life wetting doll even “urinates” on Pat at one point. This is later followed by Champagne showers when Vance tries to re-fill her drink. Overall, an impressive effort using practical effects was applied to sell the illusion that Pat was shrinking.

My favorite visual gag was Pat on a soap box figuratively (in the sense of preaching or providing advice when unwanted) and literally (she was standing on top of a box of soap). The_Incredible_Shrinking_Woman

Speaking to the times, Pat continues to do all of the cooking even when she’s only a few feet tall while her husband watches passively (and unhelpfully) during her struggles. Also, of the time, was Pat’s appearance on “The Mike Douglas Show.” (Not the Michael Douglas that most might expect.) Instead, Mike Douglas was a prominent talk show host in real life. He hosted Richard Nixon (before Nixon became the 37th president of the United States), singer Aretha Franklin, and many other celebrities over the years.

I was born in the 1970s, but had not heard of the Mike Douglas Show. (Although, I do remember “The Phil Donahue Show.”) That’s perhaps not surprising as the Mike Douglas Show ended in the early 1980s.

Evil corporations
This is an odd-looking assortment of evil corporate representatives. The actor, John Glover, on the bottom left is drinking milk. (John went on to play the sinister Lionel Luthor in the WB/CW Smallville TV series.) The two on the right are playing backgammon. I don’t typically picture conniving business people drinking milk and playing backgammon while scheming. Also, the guy on the top left is wearing a track suit to the meeting. For reasons? O_o

It was strange to see Pat struggle to handle her two young children and cook meals, even with the aid of full-time house keeper Concepcion. Mind you, I mean she struggled even before she began to shrink. That was a little hard to sympathize with since many modern families have two working parents, no house keeper or maid, and sometimes have more than two young children.

Also, and regrettably, this film is not really funny. Lily is a charismatic actress, and I’ve enjoyed her in other comedies like 1980’s “9 to 5” and 1984’s “All of Me.” However, there was little in this that made me laugh. Bottom line, if you’re looking for eighties comedies there are better examples like 1980’s “Airplane!” and 1986’s “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”

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From left to right: Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda, and Lily Tomlin from “9 to 5”

Additionally, Lily is not quite as overtly sexy as some of her contemporaries. I might have preferred an actress like Dolly Parton or Jane Fonda. Although, Lily’s talent in creating characters is impressive and with a better script she could have turned this into a funnier film.

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Unsurprisingly, there were no nudity or sex scenes in this PG-rated comedy. At one point, Pat puts on a Little Bo Peep costume and goes to see her husband at night. However, he turns over in his sleep and inadvertently sends his wife flying toward the doll house which has become her new bedroom.

Despite it’s deficit of humor and sex appeal, I still recommend this film. Size-fetish fans should enjoy the extensive effort put into the special effects. You can easily find this movie in Blu-Ray and DVD format, as well as from streaming sites.

P.S. Check out the interview with Syrus Durham to read how this movie left an indelible mark on him.

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This review is protected under Fair Use copyright law.

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2 thoughts on “A Look Back at “The Incredible Shrinking Woman”

  1. Oh yes, I remember this film. The last scene made an impression on my young mind.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love Pat’s smile when she outgrows her shoe 🙂

      Like

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