Several years ago I had the opportunity to interview performer, Lily Tomlin on stage as a benefit for The New Conservatory Theatre Centre. A fan since the 1960s, I was so excited I was afraid I’d float away before I could sit down on stage. As I prepared I thought about so many decades ago when she dared to send a public greeting to the Pride March in New York City. Although whispers had always swirled around a few public figures no TV or movie stars were out. Still diehards remained unsatisfied with her reaching out to us—they wanted Lily to publicly come out as a lesbian. I just wanted her to have the freedom to keep doing what she loved to do.
And what she does is extraordinary. She captures the emotional and intellectual energy of not one but several generations and embodies them on stage using their words to make us think, even when we might not want to. Lily’s physical beauty becomes submerged beneath characters so varied and precise it’s hard to remember they aren’t real.
“We don’t care. We don’t have to. We’re the phone company.” When Lily Tomlin’s character, the telephone operator Ernestine, said those words on the TV show ‘Laugh In’ (1969) most of us customers already knew that’s how the phone company felt. But no one was saying it out loud: corporate America was swallowing up profits sucked out of workers’ wages and didn’t really give a damn about service or community.
Ernestine’s acerbic personality was the perfect vehicle to capture a radical understanding of capitalism back when television was still actively commenting on social reality. Lily Tomlin was at the nexus of that understanding and expression. She has, of course, performed hundreds of characters including the beloved Edith Ann, the precocious five-year old and Mrs Beasley, so mid-western she smelled like a casserole.
Her most daring feat was performing two male characters at a time when that wasn’t done. Lounge lizard, Tommy Velour was startling with his slicked back hair and casual sensuality. The Black R & B singer Pervis Hawkins shocked audiences even more. I (a devoted fan) had to decide how I felt about a white woman playing a Black man in the 1960s. Ultimately it was her deep investment and respect for the characters, as well as the great writing, that made them as beloved to me as the rest of Tomlin’s repertory.
She’s received a Grammy for her recordings of these unforgettable characters as well as an Oscar nomination for her dramatic film debut in Robert Altman’s classic “Nashville.” Over the years Lily has brought her repertory to theatres around the world in one woman shows—owning a DVD of at least one of them is a requirement for any true fan of comedy and any feminist.
Many of her characters were created by her long-time collaborator/now spouse, Jane Wagner. That two women artists create such ground breaking work may seem incidental to some; that they are life partners might also seem beside the point. But to me that would be yet another lazy dismissal of female and lesbian energy, culture and perspective. Together Tomlin and Wagner are emblematic of the genius which collaboration can engender and a feminist perspective can nurture. It’s valuable to acknowledge this female team work in a time when most media representation suggests that women are in eternal competition with each other and can’t be trusted to be mutually supportive.
So when Lily steps on stage Jane steps out with her. Recently, at 74, Lily Tomlin did a full length show here in San Francisco for a sold out house. It was like visiting with an old friend or actually many old friends. Using only lights, words and her body, (no makeup or costuming) Tomlin makes dozens of characters materialize on stage, each with a trenchant message worthy of Edith Ann or Ernestine.
My all-time favourite has always been Trudy whose philosophical observations about earthlings leave you screaming with laughter and pondering mortality. Her Broadway show, “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe,” (available as a book and on DVD, and of course many selections are online, is a compendium of characters with the character Trudy as the through line. She keeps notes on post-its affixed to her clothes and hopes to interpret the wackiness of humans to brainier extra-terrestrials who are on a fact-finding mission. From Trudy’s perspective (“Reality is nothing but a collective hunch.”) we seem a trifling pack of random chemicals and while we’re laughing we start to wonder how we might do better.
More than forty years after first seeing Lily Tomlin on TV, as I sat in a theatre over flowing with enthusiastic fans I felt so happy for her and Jane you’d have thought they were my sisters or best friends. Over the years their perceptions and Lily’s performance have remained sharp. Her relationship to the audience still reveals an underlying sense of humanity and kindness. As always, there is no one like Lily. At 74 she was still doing what (I hope) she loves to do. And her showing up as one of those few ‘signs of intelligent life’ is still an inspiration for me. Happy Wedding!
Jewelle Gomez is featured in Beauty in Truth. She is the author of 7 books including the lesbian vampire classic novel, The Gilda Stories. Follow her on Twitter: VampyreVamp. Or her website: www.jewellegomez.com