by Jason P Freeman • photos by Dan Dion
Lily Tomlin brings her telephone into the “utility room” of her and her partner’s Sherman Oaks, Calif. home. Located between the kitchen and her home office, Tomlin doesn’t know what the room’s actual architectural name or intended function is, but for her and her partner, play/screenwriter and producer Jane Wagner, it’s become an
all-purpose etcetera space. It’s the room in their house where the two receive massages, where they keep some of their kitschy collectibles and where a small marble table is kept that Tomlin has taken to sitting at for phone interviews. “I don’t know why,” she starts to explain, but cuts herself off, distracted by numerous stacks of Wagner’s magazines. She says they’re just piled up all around her. “We must get like 300 magazines a month,” she remarks, “They’re everywhere ... [Wagner] must like, take them and pass them over her forehead, you know, like scanning, because I don’t know how she could possibly get through them all. We have everything in the world from Scientific American to Entertainment Weekly, or whatever that’s called; Vogue and Vanity Fair.”
As the interviewer, just trying to stay in the conversation, I arbitrarily pointed out that the latter two publications she mentioned are produced by Condé Nast.
“Condé Nast?” Tomlin questions, “I’m not even conversant.” This thought was then immediately followed by an oral editorialization on what Tomlin feels is the plight of print media. Commenting on the industry’s humble origins, how it was once of noble profession, the recent number of folding newspapers, the lost art of investigative reporting and the compromised integrity of most “objective” modern-day reporters, “I worry about journalism,” she starts. Ten minutes later she laughs, “Don’t get me started.” Then she starts up again on something else. Tomlin is apt to talk in tangents.
However, this shouldn’t seem out of place or awkward for the 71-year-old actress and comedian, nor does it. While Tomlin may be best known for her iconic film roles—such as the pint-sized housewife in The Incredible Shrinking Woman, Violet Newstead in 9 to 5, playing identical twins opposite Bette Midler in Big Business and more recently as the existential investigator Vivian Jaffe in I Heart Huckabees—Tomlin’s claim to fame comes from the sketch comedy characters she created and enacted for the 1970’s variety comedy show Laugh In as well as those she performed on the Broadway Stage for 1985’s The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe (adapted to film in 1991). Her oeuvre encompasses over 20 characters, a handful of which were male (account- ing for Tomlin being known as one of the “found- ing fathers” of drag kings). Some characters, like the off-cuff telephone operator Ernestine and the precocious five-year-old Edith Ann, still resound with poignant popularity over 30 years later. Tomlin’s successfully longstanding repertoire is based on her being of one mind and two dozen different people at the same time. And after three decades of practice, she has mastered doing so in a way that comes off as casual and completely natural.
So it doesn’t seem awkward or weird when, while discussing the activities of her daily life, she bluntly digresses to describe the poster she notices leaning against a wall in her “utility room.”
“It was given to me as a gift,” she says of the print, featuring a love clutch between Richard Egan and Beverly Michaels, as depicted in the 1953 B- Movie Wicked Woman. Tomlin first saw the film in her teens, working as an usher for Detroit’s Avalon Theater.
“I was mad for this movie because it was about a bad woman,” she says. “There were only good women and bad women at that time.”
Tomlin was so powerfully moved by, and since continued to greatly identify with, the “wicked woman,” her passions influenced the focus of a cover feature for The Movies Magazine in 1983, 30-years following Wicked Woman’s release. In it, Tomlin quotes herself as saying, about identifying with the bad woman, “...the bad woman was punished at the end of the movie, but the good woman was punished throughout the entire film,” she laughs. “The bad woman at least had her way for at least 90 minutes, and then she was sent to another town, disgraced or put in jail or whatever.”
Getting “her bad-woman way,” despite social stigma, and refusing condemnation for getting so, played a strong part in Tomlin’s subscription to feminism, the ideals of which she carried into her early stand-up comedy career in the late ‘60s-1970’s. “...there weren’t really any [strong women] doing stand up [at that time],” Tomlin recounts. “Then Phyllis Diller came along and she was one of the first really outrageous women to stand up and do comedy, but she made fun of herself. And most of the women did. ... They were all trying to get a man; they were too homely, they were too flat- chested, they were too scatter-brained and always getting into trouble and stuff like that. Women didn’t stand up and do really intelligent stuff ... they used themselves as the object of humor, and there was not much more than that. ... you weren’t re- ally supposed to be attractive to stand up and do comedy, because men didn’t want to see attractive women doing that ... People used to say to me, ‘How can you do stand up? You’re going to lose your femininity.’”
But losing her femininity was never a concern for Tomlin (“I thought those people were nuts!” she argues). Her famed roles performing in male drag can serve as a testament to her as-of-then point of view.
However, fans may be surprised to learn that Tomlin’s staged assimilation into Vegas headliner Tommy Velour and/or The Search’s crotchety Lud were not motivated by the cross-dressing proclivities analogous to gay community members. Tomlin does not view herself in these roles as a lesbian in male drag but as an actor playing a part.
“It was like, if I was doing all these characters, I should be able to do as many men as I do women ... It never was meant to be for any adamant political reason. I did it to add to my range, and it suited a story.”
However, this isn’t to imply that Tomlin does not live and love, in and for, her LGBT community. While she wasn’t professionally out at first per say, Tomlin has always been very open about her long relationship with Wagner during interviews and the like (while also making sure to respect the privacy of her immediate family.)
“No one ever ostracized me, or treated me badly, and Jane and I were always together and so on, but I was not out proselytizing to my Christian relatives,” she says.
Additionally, she has continuously been active in LGBT concerns, such as fundraising for gay social programs, campaigning for openly gay Boston legislator Elaine Noble and speaking out at LGBT community centers. Career-wise, Tomlin has also been known for taking on roles that directly relate to the gay sensibility, like that of the gay-focused documentary The Celluloid Closet (1996) and the early HIV/AIDS- themed docudrama And the Band Played On (1993).
“I never shied away from doing anything; I just never had anybody write in a newspaper: ‘Lily is a lesbian!’” That is until she deemed herself “openly gay” via an official announcement in 2001.
Since, the gay community has been seeing more of Tomlin by way of public functions and discussions for LGBT lifestyle groups and events, as it did November 13, 2010 when she M.C.-ed the 39th Anniversary Gala and Auction for the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center. It was a romantically notable time for Tomlin since The Center’s 39th anniversary runs parallel to her and Wagner’s 39th anniversary as well.
Yet as to how she and Wagner managed to reach 39 years together, Tomlin says, “I don’t know. You either you do or you don’t.”
“Let’s face it,” she later adds, speaking in Edith Ann inflection. “If you’re a human being you’re going to rub a lot of people the wrong way.” She laughs, “So, you know, we’re just all human. You start overlooking all kinds of habits and things that reveal themselves in a long-term relationship, like how people handle the toothpaste. Like, how can you use the roll in a certain way, or leave the cap off the toothpaste and now I can’t squeeze it out. You just have to accept that stuff, you realize that’s just kind of like small stuff.”
So, with over 40 years of combined life, love and career under her belt, does the septuagenarian have any thoughts on retirement, or at least slowing down?
“No, not really.” She “supposes” there are things she’d still like to do artistically and then laughs, “but not that much.”
At interview’s end, after she concluded what seemed her 10th consecutive tangent, I, as the interviewer just trying to stay in the conversation, arbitrarily asked if there was any points or facts from our preceding discussion that she feels a need to clarify or follow up on.
To which Lily Tomlin responded, “I don’t even know what we talked about.”
Lily Tomlin performs a special “Valentine’s Day Show” at the Raue Center for the Arts in Crystal Lake, IL, 8:00 p.m., February 12, 2010. For tickets and other information, visit www.rauecenter.org.