LILY TOMLIN: STILL SEARCHING FOR SIGNS OF INTELLIGENT LIFE
Although it would seem she were riding into town in triumph like a celebrity Caesar festooned with tribute, Lily Tomlin is plenty nervous about playing Los Angeles.
“When I think of my fans, it’s all right,” she said. “When I think of the industry, it’s ‘My God!’ ”
Tomlin opens her one-woman play (and a play it is), “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe” (written and directed by Jane Wagner), Nov. 5 at the James A. Doolittle Theater. Previews begin Tuesday.
The show had been running to full houses at Broadway’s Plymouth Theater for more than a year and its reviews have ranged from favorable to ravishing. If morning-after accolades aren’t enough, she brings with her a 1986 Tony Award, an Outer Critics Circle and a Drama Desk Award for best actress. If nothing else, we once again come face to face with one of America’s most brilliant and intriguing comedy figures of our time.
Three days after Tomlin arrived from New York to the Hollywood Hills home that she shares with Wagner, she sat on the patio in the coddling warmth of a Santa Ana condition, the palmy seclusion of her yard stretched below her like a small tropical park. She was congenial, but her voice was strident, her manner initially taut. “I won’t be able to unwind until after we open,” she said.
Part of her anxiety naturally had to do with opening a show in a different location. “I’m as much a producer as a performer,” she said. “I’m obsessive. I worry about details. I take it on myself to worry about things that maybe I shouldn’t be concerned with. Like putting in a new sound system. But that’s the way I am.”
There was also a small but lingering concern over the healing of a calf muscle she tore early in her show on closing night. (“If you hadn’t clapped so loud,” she told the audience jokingly, “I wouldn’t have bowed so low and this wouldn’t have happened. It’s all your fault.” Backstage, while the muscle was being iced by a doctor, she quipped, “I wish Jane knew the part.” Tomlin eventually finished the show.)
She also shares a deep ambivalence with the Hollywood community. Although she doesn’t have a reputation for being “difficult” when it comes to working with an ensemble, she prefers to go it alone as an artist, accompanied principally by Wagner, with whom she has collaborated for 15 years. And though she’s neither hortatory nor even terribly overt on the subject, she offers a tacit rebuke to the good ol’ boy network, the corporate types and the macho -loving temperament of Hollywood’s TV and film-making industry by virtue of being a feminist.
One of the ironies underlying Tomlin’s misgivings is that she’s been star-struck in more ways than one. At 47, she’s been shaped by the movies more than by television, a medium she has used successfully but sparingly. She had the kind of background as a child in Detroit that is appreciated best in retrospect; while she was living it, movies represented a way out.
“Dad was a factory worker, a skilled laborer,” she said. “He was not educated and died young at the age of 56. He was like an old country boy who came to the city--one of the few of his generation to leave Kentucky. He was like a dude. He liked to gamble, drink, bet the horses. When he was off from work, he always wore a white shirt, a suit jacket and Florsheim shoes.” Tomlin is gifted with a photographic memory of what people look like and what they wear; that eye for detail is one of the things that rescues her comedy from either sentimentality or overgeneralization.
“I hung out with my father. I was tolerant of his behavior. My mother, who was a nurse’s aide, aspired to the middle class. I was caught between them, where she’d chastise him for taking me to the track and he’d say to me, ‘Babe, don’t pay any attention to what the neighbors think.’ ”
A revealing example of her lifelong absorption with stardom and the mixture of her feelings on that mythic subject (she signed her thank-you note to the young doctor who treated her backstage, “Lily Tomlin, Star and Actress”), is contained in “Lily Tomlin’s Memoirs of an Usherette.” The article, written with Wagner for a 1983 issue of the ill-fated “The Movies” magazine, is funny and filled with a movie fan’s intimately knowledgeable concern over her subject. For example, they discuss which stars possess the inner/outer charisma of “inner glow and outer twinkle” (“Garbo had an inner glow but no twinkle. Sandra Dee had sparkle, not twinkle, and no inner glow whatsoever”).
The piece is characteristic Tomlin, in which real feeling plus photos of her ungainly teen-age years, with captions such as “pre-sexual awakening” and “post-sexual awakening,” is satirized by excess. (“Reality couldn’t hold a candle to the twisted Vistavision view I had of life, love, sex, marriage, war. . . . Like a dame in distress in a B-Grade Carole Mathews swamp movie, I was caught in movieland’s magical muck of fantasy silver-screen quicksand.”)
Generally speaking, there’s more self-revelation in Tomlin’s sense of irony than there is in her dutiful attempts at direct address, which is reserved and called-for mostly in interviews: The end of that article contains a germ of truth that has informed her character all along.
“In Detroit,” she’s quoted as saying, “when they find flaws in the cars being manufactured, the cars are recalled. In Hollywood, the dreams being manufactured never get recalled, even though it’s a known fact there’s something wrong with most of them. Parts are missing, like Reality and Probability. Those of us who bought malfunctioning dreams should be warned of the dangers because I’m sure these false illusions drive some people crazy.”
Tomlin will point out that she’s not formally well-educated and not even especially verbal. However, she had a precocity of her own that early on set her apart.
“I still romanticize my father and mother,” she said. “To me, he’s Jack Teagarden and she’s Norma Shearer. But when you get it that your parents were once children, it’s all over. I got that very early. I knew they had to be as vulnerable and confused as I was. I was a good reader early. I’d fight with my father over the paper. He’d say, ‘Babe, get the paper,’ and I’d wind up reading it before he did, asking my mother the meaning of words like negligent or abusive.
“To this day, it’s hard for me to get that every family doesn’t struggle. None of us was educated. I was innocent. I still think I’m innocent, like I see the world innocently. I’m not a romantic, but I’m not jaded either.”
Tomlin is an unusual figure in that her off-stage persona isn’t drastically different from her performance presence, given the scale of her setting and the size of her audience. The genial calm of her social demeanor is continuously broken up by antic facial expressions, long-drawn ironic asides and laughter over the outrageous where her small eyes squinch shut into twin ligatures. Her Midwestern accent, with its exaggeratedly flattened vowels, is also comical.
The characters she has memorably created over the years are very much alive in her and they frequently appear in conversation, be they The Tasteful Lady, Ernestine, or--quite often--Tess, the Bag Lady. Tomlin is a wonderful raconteur and impromptu figures will pop in to move her stories along. One of her tales includes an uncannily funny impression of a besotted W. H. Auden.
The enormous variety of character expression in real people is something which, like the tensions of family life, impressed her early and prefigured the kind of entertainer she would become.
“The building I grew up in wasn’t homogeneous,” she said. “Every apartment was like a different neighborhood. I could visit one apartment and play Rooks, eat donettes and do the Chicken all night long. Or I could go up to Mrs. Rupert’s and act like a lady, drinking tea and listening to Lowell Thomas or Gabriel Heatter on the radio. There was one woman whose husband was a radical communist. They were all mysterious to me, and funny, and a little sad.”
Creating characters--originals and eccentrics--is the thing that drew Tomlin to performance beyond the earnest, but vaguely focused desire to be a star. Her first real creation, developed in a Detroit coffee house, was Lupe, the World’s Oldest Beauty Consultant. She was a nightclub hit with Lupe when she played the Upstairs at the Downstairs in New York, prompting critic Vincent Canby to observe, “Beatrice Lilly and Dracula’s daughter have come into some kind of lunar conjunction.”
Though she earned an Academy Award nomination for her role in Robert Altman’s “Nashville,” Tomlin had more than the usual difficulty trying to become an actress. “When I went to acting class in the beginning, I couldn’t understand what they were talking about. I couldn’t adapt. After a while, I didn’t get auditions. People would say, ‘I’ll never send you on anything again.’ Once, when I auditioned for Charles Grodin, who was going to direct ‘Lovers and Other Strangers,’ he took me aside and said kindly: ‘Have you ever acted before?’ I told him about that recently and he said, ‘I couldn’t have said that.’ But he did, and afterwards I went into a telephone booth and sobbed.”
“Everything you wind up doing is imprinted on you during your first 25 years,” Tomlin said. “But you don’t wake up to it until 20 years later.” With her, the first 15 years might be a closer estimate. There’s almost always an underlying sympathy in Tomlin’s comedy creations, as though everyone were making the best of a bad existential bargain. Although she claims to have no political ideology, she formed ideas about social and sexual inequity at home and they haven’t changed.
“I was always aware of a double standard, even if it wasn’t articulated. My father was economically and socially oppressed, but at the same time, he was less oppressed than my mother. He kept the money and came and went whenever he wanted while we waited on pins and needles. You knew not to provoke him. He gave her house money, such a small amount, God only knows what we could do with it. We were always in debt, hiding charge accounts (to an old Southern boy, debt was a stigma). Salesmen knew how to exploit women like my mother. She was always getting stuck with these vacuum cleaners we’d have to hide in a closet.
“I suffered for her. Once, after she bought yet another vacuum and didn’t know what to do, I said, ‘Lemme see that contract.’ I was about 14. I didn’t really know what a contract was. But I called the salesman and told him to take it back. I felt some kind of class rage--I pitched the vacuum outside. I lived so enraged and so in fear for my mother.
“Obviously that feeling stayed with me, but I don’t have real ideological stances. I feel if we have moral aspirations, we’ll evolve to something higher, although the complacency and over-emphasis on celebrity right now is shocking. It’s very hard for me to see that people can really be worthless and crappy. I don’t wanna talk about positivism because it’s so simple-minded and corny. Why do we do the stuff we do? Because we’re paranoid. Our priorities are armaments, not improving everybody’s life. It’s not like you have to lo-o-o-ove everybody, but there must be some means of expressing a sensible parallel to moral and creative aspiration in an adult way.”
Tomlin experienced a second meaning of the term star struck when she made the 1978 movie “Moment by Moment,” which was written and directed by Wagner. That it was a thunderous debacle is further highlighted by the success, before and after it was released, of one of the most creative collaborations in modern theater. That has to be a secondary feature of Tomlin’s anxiety, even while she senses that this chapter of her life can’t hurt her anymore--though it still strikes a small nerve.
“Failure has a smell to it in this town,” she said. “Everybody (in the industry) lives in terrible fear. Is anybody disgruntled with what they make if it gets good grosses? That’s why people are always working on the next picture. There’s no regard for the organism’s rejuvenation. OK, we made a ‘duddy’ movie and got kicked around. So? It’s not all of life, or all of real life.”
She began to mention her anger and surprise at what she terms “the gleefulness of the attacks” and then virtually snapped shut. A great deal of her anger is on behalf of Wagner, who is not a performer and therefore has not developed a crust toward the vagaries of public and critical opinion when it turns sour and vituperative.
“As a performer, I get strokes,” Tomlin said. “I’m thought of as an extremely perceptive, talented person--you pick up books and articles and find positive things attributed to me that I never said. Jane was devastated. It took her years. . . .” Tomlin didn’t finish the sentence.
Wagner herself says, “I wish it would finally go away. It took so long. I hate to have these scars opened again.”
Tomlin had a rough start the first time she went to New York in the wake of what she called her “Holly Golightly damage, my Brigitte Bardot damage and my Jeanne Moreau damage” (her adolescent phases) and went home to Detroit for a little woodshedding in local coffeehouses. In the late ‘60s, Tomlin returned to New York, where she slowly made her way to prominence, and in late ‘69-early-’70 her career took off when she joined the cast of TV’s “Laugh-In” in Los Angeles.
But she was unhappy with the development of her characterizations, particularly Edith Ann. One afternoon she saw a Peabody Award-winning teleplay about a young boy called “J.T.,” which had been written by Wagner. Tomlin sensed a quality in the writing and conception of this character she might use to deepen Edith Ann. “I don’t know if I can help you,” Wagner said, after Tomlin reached her by phone. But they began working together.
“From the beginning, I perceived in Jane’s work a heightened naturalism,” Tomlin said. “It’s essenced. She has an insatiable thirst for knowledge and the rare ability to be both funny and touching. Her dialogue is very compressed. When we did the Edith record, it was a fulfilling artistic experience I’d never had before. It’s the sense that you’re discovering something new. There’s no excitement like that of creative discovery.”
In a short time, their friendship and collaboration ripened to the point where they formed a symbiotic whole in which each deepened and extended the other. They worked together (with other writers) on albums, TV specials and on Tomlin’s hugely successful one-woman show, “Appearing Nitely,” where producer Robert Stigwood and John Travolta approached them about the movie project that was to become “Moment by Moment.”
The movie, a love story between a wealthy Malibu woman and a street hustler, was doomed from the start by a script in which the humor, piquancy, the love of the eccentric and the sharp satirical eye that had characterized Tomlin and Wagner’s work together were all missing. And the themes they successfully developed later, such as tacit sexual coexistence, the loneliness of people who buy into trends, human fragility and the courage it takes to get through a day, never left the larval stage.
Tomlin had already made “The Late Show” and “Nashville.” But, looking back, she says, “I made the wrong choice. I felt terrible. I’d just done ‘Nashville.’ I didn’t know myself. I didn’t know what to do. I thought I’d go to Stigwood and ask him to let me go. I made the wrong choice, and that’s that. It was amazing to me that you could pick up a magazine three or four years later and still hear about it. I felt for John too--he’s so sensitive.”
It was Wagner’s first directorial assignment and it came at the juncture when the woman’s movement was peaking and the underlying historic current of American machismo --which has no greater cultural institutionalization than that of the movies--was beginning to stir. The combination of elements fatally undermined the movie; “Moment by Moment’s” release met with universal derision.
Wagner, a soft-spoken, introspective, somewhat cherubic-looking woman, recently recalled the experience in a separate interview: “It isn’t enough to know the aesthetics of movie-making. You have to know the mechanics, too. I didn’t. I couldn’t handle the crew. I had to cut 30 pages out of the script. When Lily chose to play the character depressed, I went with her, even though playing depression is not interesting. Panic began to set in when I saw the rushes at night and knew they were not good, but that I’d have to go on with the next day’s shooting anyway. I felt increasingly helpless. I’m not good at dealing with people. I’m much too subjective. I’m always surprised when writers become good directors.
“I know everything I say sounds defensive. I’m responsible for the fact it was a bad movie. Lily feels even more responsible. After we did ‘The Incredible Shrinking Woman,’ which didn’t do well either, there was an estrangement. It was not easy on any level.
“I see things more realistically now. I hadn’t been prolific before and I’m still not. At an address to the Dramatists Guild in New York, I mentioned what it is to experience bad reviews and realize that as bad as self-doubt is, it’s worse when others think so, too. It takes a lot of arrogance to overcome that and to be able to work again.
“It helps that Lily is such a trouper. She’s a fighter; she bounces back. She’ll be honest, even if it means showing her irritable side. She’s very bombastic, as well as open and childlike, sometimes even naive. When you work so closely with someone and this sort of thing happens, you can develop a hate, or at least lose respect. The opposite happened with us. Thank God she’s that way. Even when we disagree on some aspect of our work and I walk out, she’ll come after me. She won’t let me be the dog under the porch.”
Thinking of their upcoming opening, she said, “It’s such a triumph for us now.” And after the slightest of pauses added, “Whatever that means.”
Tomlin went on to make “9 to 5” and the well-received “All of Me” with Steve Martin, directed by Carl Reiner. But the combination of theater and stand-up comedy remained her metier and what she wanted to do most. “Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe” evolved out of “Appearing Nitely,” where the snooty character of Kate finds a lost suicide note that has to add to the disconsolate misery of the person who wrote it and now doesn’t know what she did with it.
In “Search,” Tomlin makes use of yet another series of vivid comic creations added to those she’s given us in “Appearing Nitely,” or, for that matter, those she’s been offering us all along. There’s yet another bag lady--Trudy, in this case, who shares her disordered mind and its fool’s wisdom with a contingent of extraterrestrials: Chrissie, the young trendy who reflects “I wanted to be somebody, but I think I should’ve been more specific”; Edie, a radical feminist; Bob and Lyn, disciples of the human potential movement who have been left high and dry on the arid shores of yuppiedom; Agnus Angst, the savagely unhappy teen punker; a couple of hookers; and Kate, the socialite so jaded, her voice sounds positively desiccated with world-weariness.
What distinguishes this production is that all these characters eventually blend into a narrative framework intended to reflect American social history of the last decade or so. The piece rises to an unanticipated moral eloquence, all in the framework of comedy.
“Search” also reaffirms Tomlin as one of the most engaging and subtly provocative performers of our time. However elusive comedy is when it comes to definition, it always hovers at the edge of perception. If you consider the comedian as an artist whose nervous system absorbs the social energies and currents of his or her time and turns them out again (think of Chaplin’s jumpy reaction to anti-human industrialization and systems), only Robin Williams and Richard Pryor have been able to ride with the times. But Pryor is relatively quiet at the moment, and Williams doesn’t have Tomlin’s focus. Right now, she has the field to herself.
At first, Tomlin and Wagner disagreed on what to present and how to present it. “I wanted to do monologues,” Tomlin said. “Jane said, ‘No.’ She knew I had to do more. The public would’ve been satisfied and I would’ve been satisfied. But in a sense she’s invented a new form and I had no idea that it would turn out to be so powerful. I have a very good sense of what’s funny in terms of my sensibility. She knew how to give it emotional impact.”
Adds Wagner: “What turned me on in writing this was not plot or a linear kind of show, but something that takes the place of plot by way of connections. I’d read quantum physics and was impressed by the notion that we’re all connected in some basic organic way. I didn’t want to do something that could have been done better by Studs Terkel. Monologues weren’t enough.
“I wanted to embrace the world, to do something about the new age and getting to a higher consciousness. Everyone sees everyone else’s patterns so quickly now, the question was ‘What do I want to illuminate? What can I say that’s going to mean anything?’ That’s what stops me and propels me at the same time. But it’s easy for me to speculate. Lily’s the one who has to go out and do it.”
“We’ve had a lot of amazing reaction to this show,” said Tomlin. “Deeply thoughtful letters from men and women, some of them professionals, about how they’re touched. I have a friend who is wholesome and cynical at the same time. She said, ‘It makes me feel my humanity where most other things separate me from my humanity.’ ” She made a face, as though a foul odor had wafted by. “I’m not sure about that word,” she said of humanity , fearing that it presupposed a moral imperative that resisted humor. “Everything I do has a sense of self-mockery.”
She grinned her conspiratorial, raucous grin. Tomlin has always chosen protective self-coloration, from the days of Mrs. Rupert and her “hoody” high school period in which she prided herself on blending with all the differing cliques.
The essence of Lily Tomlin lies in reserve. And in the space between earnestness and satirical detachment resides one of the richest comedic sensibilities of our time.
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