80s Bits: Big Business

Big Business - Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin

Welcome back to 80s Bits, the weekly column in which we explore the best and worst of the Decade of Shame. With guest writers, hidden gems and more, it’s truly, truly, truly outrageous. 

Big Business (1988)

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Big Business poster

DirectorJim Abrahams

Writers(s)Dori PiersonMarc Reid Rubel

Runtime: 97 minutes

StarringBette MidlerLily TomlinFred Ward

Distributor: Touchstone Pictures


Rating: Certified Bitstastic (★★★★★) (?)

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Big Business (1988), directed by Jim Abrahams, is a fine example of the comedy releases that we saw in the late 80s. The comic timing which was successfully delivered by Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin is later developed in Abrahams’ directorial film series Naked Gun and Hot Shots. The concept behind Big Business was loosely based on Shakespeare “The Comedy of Errors”, being a farcical comedy about two sets of identical twins and their mistaken identify.

The mixed up family adventures begin in 1940 in the isolated country setting of Jupiter Hollow, West Virginia. Millionaire entrepreneur Mr. Shelton and wife find themselves in need of a hospital when Mrs. Shelton goes into labour while journeying to a friend’s country house.  Jupiter Hollow Hospital is only available to employees of Hollowmade local furniture company and as an act of desperation Mr Shelton makes an investment which sets off a series of coincidental happenings in the future. Local couple The Ratliff’s find themselves in a similar situation leading to birth of 2 sets of identical twins. Through the hospitals lax country ways the babies end up in a jumble, and even though not all ending up with the correct parents each set are named the same, Rose and Sadie.

Flash forward 40 years both pair’s of twins are successful in their own right. The Shelton Twins run Moramax, being the successors of their father and propose to off-load Hollowmade which is now directed by Rose Ratliff with the assistance of Sadie Rattliff. In an effort to save the company the country sisters head to New York City to challenge the siblings they are otherwise unaware of. This leads to a succession of amusing situations where various romantic, domestic and work relationships are awkwardly passed through. The highlight of the film is the scene where the Shelton sisters and Ratliff girls all meet initially thought to be a mirror reflection leading to an en masse freak out.


Midler and Tomlin are both to be highly commended for the creation of the twin personalities that struggle with their identities. Bette plays Sadie Shelton, egocentric power woman who always gets what she wants and on the other side Sadie Ratliff, a country girl with a talent for yodelling who yearns for the glamorous fast paced city life.  This flick was along a similar vein to Midler’s previous performances in Down and Out in Beverly Hills and Outrageous Fortune. Her moving performance as CC Bloom in the acclaimed Beaches was released in the same year following Big Business, proving her depth in more dramatic roles. Alongside Midler, Tomlin plays Rose Shelton a nervous, ditsy and clumsy woman with a warm kind heart as well as Rose Ratliff, a confident, strong and practical leader with a bite. Tomlin’s characterisation of these twins is highly amusing and entertaining.

Built on a solid script the movies humorous performance delivery was spot on, special effects were flawless and music set the scenes perfectly in this must revisit 80s comedy.