Drop Everything to Watch This Riotous 1988 Comedy of Errors

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Big Business, 1988(Film still)

As comic legend Lily Tomlin returns to screens in Grace & Frankie, we remember the time she and Bette Midler starred as two sets of twins mixed up at birth

Long before Lindsay Lohan stole hearts as family-swapping double act Hallie and Annie Parker in The Parent Trap, Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin played separated and mixed up at birth twins Sadie and Rose (twice over, respectively) in riotous 1988 comedy Big Business. In a somewhat complex premise, two sets of identical twins are born in the town of Jupiter Hollow, West Virginia – one to local family the Ratliffs, the other to the hugely wealthy Sheltons who are just passing through – at the same time, in the same hospital. A nurse’s mishap results in one twin from each set being swapped, and the Ratliff father’s sharp ear for eavesdropping means both twins are named Rose and Sadie. So far, so feasible. Decades later, circumstances bring the Ratliffs, who have stayed in Jupiter Hollow, and the Sheltons, now in charge of their father’s extremely lucrative company Moramax, together in New York, and a series of mistaken identities wreak ridiculous havoc on the supporting characters.   

Inspired by Shakespeare’s The Comedy of ErrorsBig Business is consciously ludicrous and comedically pitch perfect. The Jim Abrahams-directed feature was originally penned for Barbra Streisand and Goldie Hawn (a version which will have to exist solely in our dreams) but Tomlin and Midler are both smart and sharp in their characterisations of each twin: no mean feat, since the two Roses and the two Sadies have vastly different personalities, and accents. The costumes, too, are equally as enthralling; 80s power-woman silhouettes abound, as do baby pink dresses, polka dots and gingham. The film’s costume designer, Michael Kaplan, also masterminded the wardrobes of Blade Runner and Fight Club, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that the clothes in Big Business make such a statement. As Lily Tomlin returns to screens in a new season of Netflix hit Grace & Frankie, we thought it apt to return to Big Business and its winning combination of commanding outfits, empowered female characters and plainly bizarre mishaps.

1. Invest in polka dots

Polka dots are a recurring motif throughout the film, sported by the two Sadies. Both Sadie Shelton and Ratliff are ambitious, and both seek out the finer things in life – though Sadie Ratliff is certainly more charming in her efforts than her Shelton counterpart. And, inevitably, since they share the same genes, they have the same taste in clothes. In the scene where the Ratliffs and Sheltons eventually come across one another, the Sadies are wearing the same black-and-white polka dot skirt suit, purchased in the Plaza that very morning. Though there is undoubtedly something fun and carefree about a spotted print, on the Sadies polka dots are powerful, chosen to make people pay attention (which they do – with aplomb).

2. Make pink your go-to shade

If Sadie’s signature is polka dots, Rose Ratliff’s is pink. Far from a submissive character, Rose’s pink dresses belie her determination and fearless demands for Hollowmade Factory to remain open. If anything, her blush-coloured garments add an air of mystery to her, and serve to puzzle those she encounters. One particular scene sticks out: as she saunters through the Sheltons’ bustling Moramax office – where all the employees mistake her for Rose Shelton, obviously – in a pale pink frock, Rose, believing that the company has been spying on her, drawls, “Hi everyone – I’m fine. Had a good breakfast – oatmeal, but I guess you knew that. Got on my Tuesday panties, but I guess you knew that too”. Cue aghast expressions office-wide. Rose is also a vision in pink gingham, seen dancing briefly but majorly during a performance of Sadie’s – but more on that in lesson five.

3. Avoid wearing red to work

Sadie Shelton is feared by her employees at Moramax, a fact confirmed by a sequence depicting her entrance to the office. Slot in Stanley Tucci warning colleagues to gird their loins for Sadie’s arrival and you’d be hard-pressed to spot the difference between this entrance and that of Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada. Highlights include Sadie telling an employee that she “looks like a blood clot” before demanding flow charts and profit pyramids from her glorified minions.

4. Hold on to your shoulder pads

A noticeable character trait of Rose Shelton – alongside her fundamentally kind nature – is the fact that she can’t seem to keep hold of her shoulder pads. While her sister (though, remember, Sadie is not actually her sister) dons jackets finished with sharp square shoulders as a sign of her status and confidence, Rose’s attempts to follow suit fail when, on more than one occasion, her shoulder pad literally falls down her sleeve, as can be glimpsed in the beginning of the above clip. Whether this is a comment on Rose’s lack of confidence or the fact that she is simply out of place in fast-paced New York is unclear, but this much is certain: shoulder pads should be approached with caution.

5. If in doubt, break into song

You won’t be surprised to learn that Bette Midler breaks into song not once but twice in Big Business. The first is a charming ditty about country life in Jupiter Hollow, with Sadie’s choreography including dress swishing, leg kicking and cow milking as Rose watches on very enthusiastically. The second instance takes place in New York, and is perfect in its spontaneity. Because surely, upon coming across a steel drum band busking in the park, it would be wrong not to start yodelling along with them?