Hollywood Flashback: In 1981, Lily Tomlin's 'Shrinking Woman' Almost Disappeared

The Incredible Shrinking Woman Still 1981 - Photofest - H 2017
Universal Pictures/Photofest

The film was delayed a month before shooting was to begin due to "budgetary complications," with original director John Landis replaced by Joel Schumacher, making his feature debut: "When you have Lily Tomlin, you just have to turn the camera on her. Putting little Lily with that big gorilla was magic."

Hollywood has always had an appetite for shrinking actors down to size. The latest to get the treatment is Matt Damon with the Dec. 22 release of Downsizing. But films as varied as 1966's Fantastic Voyage (the only submarine crew ever to feature Raquel Welch is shrunk and injected into a scientist's bloodstream), 1987's Innerspace (more inner-body miniaturization involving scientists) and 1989's Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (which merited two sequels, a 3D attraction at Disneyland and an ABC TV show) have used extreme diminishment as a plot point. Two classic tiny-human films were related to each other: 1957's The Incredible Shrinking Man, which The Hollywood Reporter said was "exceptionally well done for a production of its budget class" (at the time, Universal cranked out loads of sci-fi B-movies that ranged from Abbott and Costello Go to Mars to Creature From the Black Lagoon), and 1981's The Incredible Shrinking Woman, starring Lily Tomlin.

While Shrinking Man is dead serious, Shrinking Woman's "strength is in Tomlin's unique comedic abilities," said THR. (In the film, written by her partner, Jane Wagner, Tomlin plays a housewife who's poisoned by household products and turned into a miniature.) However, Shrinking Woman almost got shrunk out of existence. The original film was to be directed by John Landis, fresh off a mega-success with Animal House. But a month before shooting was to begin in March 1979, the project was put on hold. THR's front-page story attributed the stop to "budgetary complications" and quoted Universal's then-president Ned Tanen, who said the original budget of $7.5 million had risen to $13 million and wondered if there was "another way of doing this without destroying it completely?" There was.

Landis, who had said he viewed the film as an "epic" that was "a cross between Star Wars and I Love Lucy," was replaced by Joel Schumacher, who went on to helm St. Elmo's Fire, The Lost Boys and two Batman movies. (Landis moved on to Universal's The Blues Brothers.) "Let's just say John's budget was extravagant, so I got my first chance to direct," says Schumacher. "It was mostly because they thought I'd be cheap. I was in way over my head, but we got through it. When you have Lily Tomlin, you just have to turn the camera on her." 

This story first appeared in the Dec. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.