Ms. Tomlin, one of the most masterful performers of our time, will be taking you on a kaleidoscopic journey through the landscape of her epically rich imagination.
Ms. Tomlin’s body of work (so far) is staggering. Her career started with doing stand-up in New York. She then joined the cast of Laugh In—and nothing has ever been the same since. From there, she did her first feature film, playing a buttoned up, gospel-singing mother of two deaf children in Robert Altman’s Nashville, for which she received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Her second foray into film was The Late Show, which earned her this praise from New Yorker’s Pauline Kael, one of the most influential film critics of our time: “She takes the camera and holds it for as long as she wants to, with the assurance of a star.” And that was prophetic: Ms. Tomlin went on to star in a couple dozen movies, including Nine to Five, The Incredible Shrinking Woman, All of Me, Flirting with Disaster, Woody Allen’s Shadows and Fog, I Heart Huckabees, A Prairie Home Companion and most recently, Admission with Tina Fey.
In every decade since she first appeared on TV, Lily’s been a regular on many shows, moving at will between comedy and drama. She’s been a regular on Murphy Brown, The West Wing, Sesame Street and Desperate Housewives.
But arguably her greatest cultural contribution has been her work on stage, for which she’s garnered (so far): two Tony Awards. One for Jane Wagner’s The Search for Intelligent Life in the Universe, and another for lifetime achievement.
Ms. Tomlin sat down and chatted with GET about her upcoming show at Newport, as well as politics, marriage equality and her relationship with Jane Wagner, which is celebrating its forty-second anniversary this year.
She also tells GET how she really feels about the most commercially successful playwright to write for the American stage, Neil Simon.
ALISON GALLANT: You recently described your live show as a ‘filmic roller coaster’—could you elaborate a little?
LILY TOMLIN: Well, it’s a way of talking about this form. The reason I call it filmic is because I’m not encumbered by anything. Even though I don’t have sets and costumes, I can cut to a character and take you on the trip with me…ironically, it’s as about as far from film you can get in the sense that it’s a live human being standing on a stage with nothing else but her body and her voice. But it is filmic in the sense that I can cut and move and change the location and change the scenario and take you on a trip. And I co-opted the term ‘roller coaster’ from a couple of reviewers who described the show as kind of like a roller coaster because you can go anywhere and do anything.
Expect a mind-expanding trip with such richly drawn characters as Ernestine, Edith Ann and Mrs. Judith Beasley.
But don’t plan on sitting back and letting Lily do all the driving.
AG: How interactive will the Newport show be? Will Edith Ann be fielding any questions?
LILY: She might. You know, for as many years as she’s been around, people generally ask a lot of the same questions.
AG: So the audience in Newport had better bring some fresh ones?
LILY: Yes, like something besides, ‘where do babies come from?’
AG: And what about Ernestine—will she weigh in on the Marriage Equality Act that Rhode Island passed last month?
LILY: (laughs) Maybe. Or maybe Lily will.
Ms. Tomlin is one of the few comediennes in our time who has successfully integrated social commentary and humor. And she did it by simply living her principles. She didn’t come out about her sexual orientation early in her career, but she didn’t hide it either. In high profile interviews she frequently referred to her life-long love as her ‘partner’ Jane.
AG: There’s been a sea change in attitudes toward gay people in public life, running for political office, on TV and in the movies. Did you ever imagine when you first started in the business that audiences would become so accepting?
LILY: No. But I certainly hoped they would. I just knew there was a tremendous taboo. And even Jane and I—when we would be doing TV specials—a writer said to me one day, ‘I think you and Jane should come to work in different cars’—this would be the early ‘70s, like ’71 or ’73—it was ’73—and I said, ‘well, why? Why would we do that?’ And she said, ‘well, people are starting to talk.’ But there was lots of stuff. Even on one of our early specials, I kissed Richard Pryor goodnight and the word came down not to kiss him. And this was ’73. But I did kiss him anyway. I mean, you couldn’t believe it—you’d burst out laughing.
AG: Has the change in attitude affected the way you interact with audiences?
LILY: I don’t think radically. I’m probably more out. But I was always dancing around it. Like when I did “Lily: Sold Out.”
Ms. Tomlin’s 1981 TV special is sort of a meta-fictional piece where the lead character is none other than Ms. Tomlin, the performer, taking a very high-minded, cerebral work entitled, “The Seven Ages of Womanhood,” to Vegas. The fictionalized “Seven Ages” is something that grad students and literati would swarm to, but not Vegas crowds. The conceit of Sold Out is that Ms. Tomlin, the artist, has convinced herself she’s not going to Vegas for the money. What Sold Out is about is the eternal conflict between art and commerce, between being true to oneself and compromising one’s principles for money or career advancement.
By the end of Sold Out the entertainment publicity mill has chewed up Ms. Tomlin’s work and spat out a frothy Ann Margaret-type act.
In this case, art did not imitate life: Ms. Tomlin never sold out, never played the game. There were no beards. There was only Jane.
AG: How did you and Jane meet and was it love at first laugh?
LILY: For me, it definitely was. I pursued her. And she was kind of hard to get. I had known of her because we had lots of mutual friends. And I had always heard about her, about how beautiful she was and smart and terrific, but I had never met her. The first thing we worked on was the Edith Ann album in ’71.
AG: Forty plus years now?
LILY Forty-two years—
AG: Forty-two years is a long time in the gay community—in the human community. To what do you attribute your relationship’s longevity?
LILY: I think just commitment. I mean, I can’t imagine living without Jane. I love her, I adore her, I respect her. She’s really brainy. Everybody adores Jane. She’s very empathetic and very smart. People always want to talk to her about their situation or their problems.
AG: Do you think you’ll ever make an honest woman of her?
LILY: No. (laughs) I mean, we talk about it all the time but I don’t think we’ll get married—but, we might, who knows? Maybe if they [the U.S. Supreme Court] rescind Prop 8 [the California law banning same-sex marriage]. I don’t know. We have so many friends who got married and now a couple of them are getting divorced. But it seems like it would be a lovely thing, especially if you really make something artful and beautiful out of it. More than just going down to city hall or something just to jump through the hoop. I do talk about same-sex marriage in the act briefly. I’ll say no more.
It’s no surprise that a hot-button topic like marriage equality will make its way onto Ms. Tomlin’s stage. The Detroit-born comedienne can’t stay away from politics—it’s in her blood.
No sooner had she become a household name in the early ‘70s than she found herself having to take a political stand. Because of the popularity of the Ernestine character, AT&T approached her to do a national commercial campaign based on Ernestine.
Apparently, AT&T didn’t have an ear for satire.
Despite the big paycheck that would’ve come from it, Ms. Tomlin passed.
LILY: It wasn’t even hard to do. In fact, I burst into tears when they told me I had the offer. You’re just so young, so idealistic. I saw myself as satirizing the phone company. It was a monopoly then and we knew that AT&T was involved in all kinds of global shenanigans and eavesdropping. Now they don’t even need to have a monopoly to achieve it. They’ve been doing it all along. Anyway, it was as if I was stripped away and was just another commodity that could be bought or sold. But I wasn’t the only one. There were many people in my generation who believed that it was really important to have the integrity of your politics and social action. We just didn’t do it. It wasn’t a hard decision to make. It lived in your DNA. We really thought we were going to make the world way, way better.
AG: Well, you did in many ways and you continue to. Any projects you passed on which you wish you hadn’t?
LILY: When I was younger, I was offered a couple of Neil Simon scripts that I didn’t do because my politics just wouldn’t allow me. I mean, even if my part was sort of acceptable, there was something in the movie I didn’t like from a feminist point of view. I did that very early, when I was on Laugh In when it really meant something because I had nothing. I turned down the part Jane Fonda had where she had to wear a bikini on the beach [the movie was Neil Simon’s California Suite]. I used to kid her because that’s when she started the workout, to get ready for that movie. That was the motivation (laughs). Well, there was another scene in that movie, it’s at the Beverly Hills Hotel—there’s three couples that are rotating in that hotel. And I think Jane was with Alan Alda. And there was this other character [Walter Matthau’s character] who had a prostitute in his room and they treated the prostitute like a piece of meat, you know, threw her under the bed, etc., I mean, she was passed out. And his wife comes knocking to surprise him because—I don’t even remember the story—but it’s something like they have to go to a Bar Mitzvah that day. I don’t even know if you ever see the prostitute’s face but she’s thrown around like a sack of potatoes and he’s trying to get rid of her and I was just horribly offended. It wasn’t hard to be offended. I don’t even know who directed that movie, but let’s go on.
AG: Where did you get your political values?
LILY: Well, I think it was just growing up in Detroit and living in a very diverse neighborhood in an old apartment house with lots and lots of people. And then going to rural Kentucky in the summers where my parents’ families were all from and living on the farm for two months and then coming back to inner-city Detroit. And I just saw a lot of stuff. And I knew very well people who had more material things and people who didn’t and the huge chasm between. And I was one of the kids who was blue-collar, working-class. And things were more mixed up a bit. Like in the old apartment house where I lived, it was maybe just a matter of six or eight blocks away the houses got bigger and bigger, the streets got more affluent where there were lots of kids whose parents were doctors or lawyers or business people and they lived in what seemed like mansions to me. They were mansions, really. And I’d hang out at their houses, and black kids’ houses and white kids’ houses, and there were forty apartments in my old building to navigate and research.
AG: And what’s sad is that at that time the working-class had a better shot than they do now—the disparity has gotten worse—
LILY: —way worse.
GET: Do you despair about that or are you hopeful things will turn around?
LILY: I’m going to say I’m hopeful.
AG: You said recently that you hope your work brings people closer. Here at the mid-point of your career, what do you consider the most meaningful work you’ve done?
LILY: Probably the thing I like the most and am proudest of is Jane’s play “The Search…” [Tony-award winning “The Search for Intelligent Life in the Universe] because I think it broke the form a bit. And it really reached a lot of people. Still, all these years later, people come up to me and say, ‘one of the greatest nights I had in the theatre was the night I saw ‘The Search….” I mean, it was such an embrace of the species. One of my favorite things was coming out of the stage door and there would be this most disparate group of people in a little knot who were so moved and so affirmed by the play. And these were people who would never socialize or be together any place else.
AG: On a lighter note—what are your guilty pleasures?
LILY: Oh, god, watch any old, you know, ‘America’s Got Talent.’
AG: I thought you were going to say any old Neil Simon movies.
LILY: (laughs) Well, if I thought they were funny, I would. There.
I said it.
Well, there. She said it.
And that’s the truth.
Ms. Tomlin will be performing at the Newport Comedy Series, July 26th, at 7:30PM, at the Newport Yachting Center. Tickets are $56.70-$79.00 and can be purchased online at Newport Comedy. Go to NewportComedy.com | 800. 745. 3000.