The Telephone (1988 film)

The Telephone is a 1988 comedy-drama film written by Terry Southern and Harry Nilsson and directed by Rip Torn, in what was to be the only film he directed.

The Telephone
Directed byRip Torn
Produced byRobert Katz
Moctesuma Esparza
Written byTerry Southern
Harry Nilsson
Music byChristopher Young
CinematographyDavid Claessen
Edited bySandra Adair
Distributed byNew World Pictures
Release date
January 22, 1988
Running time
78 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$2.2 million[1]
Box office$99,978

The film stars Whoopi Goldberg as an out-of-work actress who starts doing some prank phone calls which creates a chain of events. The entirety of the film is set in the main character's apartment, and features few actors other than Goldberg. Elliott Gould and John Heard appear in supporting roles.

The film was released on January 22, 1988 by New World Pictures to negative critical reception and poor box office.


Vashti Blue is an out-of-work actress who we watch make a series of prank calls throughout the night, that causes a chain of events. She is eventually revealed as being medically unstable, as a telephone contractor turns up to her home to confiscate the handset due to arrears with her phone bill. It is revealed that her telephone line was disconnected some time ago, much to her denial. As he struggles to take the handset, she strikes him in the head and stabs him with a knife.




The Telephone was produced by Hawkeye, a company formed by screenwriter Terry Southern and singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson.[2] According to Southern, "We had this idea about an out-of-work actor who gets so into hallucinatory-type improvisations that he even makes up phone calls to himself."[2] Nilsson and Southern wrote the screenplay with Robin Williams in mind for the main character, and attempted to get the comedian a copy of the script, but Williams' manager did not want him to make the film.[2] After viewing Whoopi Goldberg's standup performances, Nilsson and Southern thought that she would be right for the part.[2] After seeing Rip Torn's direction of stage plays, the writers felt that Torn would be ideal to direct the film.[2]


The film's producers persuaded Goldberg to ignore the film's script and improvise, leading to arguments with Torn, who preferred to direct the film as scripted.[2]


Whoopi Goldberg states that she was given approval over the film's final cut.[3] The film was screened at the Sundance Film Festival in a version edited by Rip Torn.[2] Unhappy with Torn's editing of the film, Goldberg filed a $5 million lawsuit against New World Pictures and Torn to prevent its release.[3][4][5][6] Following arbitration, the jury found in favor of New World.[6]


When the film was screened in New York, audiences allegedly cried out "I want my money back!" and "I hope the film breaks!"[7] Grossing $54,811 during its opening weekend,[8] the film went on to become a box office flop[9] with a total domestic gross of $99,978.[10] The movie was poorly received by critics, with The New York Times stating that the quotes mentioned in this section were "the truest, most sanely existential lines spoken during the film [that] night,"[3] as the Los Angeles Times wrote "Sorry, but [the film] is a wrong number."[11] Leonard Maltin wrote that "Goldberg may have hit rock bottom with this clinker".[5] For her role in the film, Goldberg was nominated for a Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Actress.[12] According to Southern, "I was ambivalent about it. I was too close to the film to be objective, but a number of people ended up liking the released film. [The New World version] is still selling well as a cassette at my local drug store."[2] Obsessed With Film named The Telephone as the 10th best "One Man Band" film, in a list of films with only one or very few characters.[13]


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