In Search of Lily Tomlin By Michael King BOOKS AND THE CULTURE WATCHING LILY TOMLIN in action, I was reminded of the story told of Peter Sellers that he had often remarked that he didn’t really know who Peter Sellers was. His chameleon-like ability to change characters at will apparently fooled the actor as well as his audience. It’s a lonesome thought, and a trait apparently shared by Tomlin, to judge not only from this film but from her unsuccessful attempt to suppress it. Filmmakers Broomfield and Churchill followed Tomlin for a year on the road, while she developed the show that became the Broadway hit, “The Search for Intelligent Life in the Universe.” In telling bits and pieces, the film documents Tomlin’s mercurial talent as well as that of her writer/director partner, Jane Wagner. It also suggests a great deal about the character of the woman behind all the characters. Tomlin sued to suppress the film on the somewhat contradictory grounds that it constituted an invasion of privacy, and would diminish profits from any potential performance film of the show itself. But what we see of the finished onewoman show is fragmentary, the drafts of sketches rather than the sketches themselves, and the audience is likely to come .away wanting more rather than less. As for privacy, there is essentially nothing here one wouldn’t know already from a dozen published sources, though advantage.. Instead, one comes away with the more troubling question, whether there is a “private” Lily Tomlin at all. Perhaps there is more of a personal biography in the outtakes Tomlin held “kill rights” over virtually all nonperformance material but my guess is that what we see here is the Tomlin that Lily shows to the world, or at least to that part of it outside her very small circle of friends and co-workers. There Michael King writes regularly for the Observer on books, films and the culture. He lives in Houston. is scarcely a moment when she isn’t “on” speaking through the persona of one or another of her myriad characters. Churchill and Broomfield have remarked that they were frustrated by their inability to shoot much that didn’t seem staged: “Lily would either play directly to the camera or would ask us what we wanted from the scene.” Even the work sessions with writer Wagner have an air of reconstruction rather than creation, and the drama in these scenes comes from the tension created by the presence of the camera rather than from the development of the LILY TOMLIN Produced and Directed by Joan Churchill and Nicholas Broomfield material. Nobody in this close-knit group, which includes manager Cheryl Swannack, acting coach Peggy Feury, and very few others, is telling any secrets. And secrets certainly aren’t necessary; but in order to be successful, a back-stage documentary has to have at least some flavor of behind-the-scenes revelation, of what the performer is “really” like, of the raw material behind all that meticulous finish. The revelation in Lily Tomlin may be by accident, or default: what you see is what you get. For like that of Sellers, Tomlin’s talent lives entirely in her characterizations: the early ones Ernestine, Edith Ann, and Mrs. Beasley, and the more recent ones which predominate in this film: Agnes the teenage runaway, who slides imperceptibly into Angus Angst, the new-wave neoexistentialist; Edie, the New Age Yuppie who just got “It” at Est; Trudy, the bag lady who was once a “creative consultant” and now receives alien broadcasts through her umbrella-hat the aliens are searching for signs of intelligent life in the universe, but instead are receiving American TV. The most remarkable character is not part of the Broadway show itself; we see clips of “Tommy Velour” in performance, Tomlin’s tour Wayne Newton, whose voice and manner are such that Tomlin entirely disappears into the role. These are vivid and evocative characters, a credit to Wagner’s scripts as well as Tomlin’s portrayals. When Tomlin is in character, whether off-stage or on, it is then that she seems entirely herself; otherwise she reveals only tiny pieces of a very guarded private spirit. Questioned directly, she acknowledges that she grew up in a small midwestern town and that’s it. Only a very early television appearance on the Mery Griffin show suggests that she might have found models for her early characters around her, among her .relatives. The newer material, particularly the Hollywoodbased Yuppie schtick, sometimes suffers by comparison, because it lacks the killer satiric instinct. The “works-in-progress” tour, which began in Austin in 1984, was a gutsy experiment. Tomlin and her crew worked on unfinished and often unrehearsed material before relatively small audiences, drawn largely by word-ofmouth. The method did have its advantages; cues were botched and characters fell flat, but the audience was drawn into the revision process and was flattered by the chance. While the result was hardly a collaboration, it shaped a “play” that had been a formless series of sketches; Wagner desired a show that would capture a unity among Tomlin’s disparate characters and her audience. The method of production sustained that intent. Tomlin does have an extraordinary rapport with her particular fans, especially the women virtually all of her material has an implicitly feminist thrust and the tour dramatically reinforced the artist’s necessary sense that she was speaking out of and for a whole community, not simply herself. But unlike other contemporary comedians Richard Pryor is the most obvious example Tomlin does not really do “stand-up” material: she does not bare her heart and her personal history on stage for comic or emotional effect. That method too has its obvious risks again Pryor is the example but it also allows a performer an intimate relation with his audience that verges on the therapeutic. There is more of Richard Pryor in his fictional, and vastly underrated, Jo Jo Dancer Your Life is Calling, let alone in his excellent concert films, than in all of Tomlin’s multiple personae and clearly, that is the way she wants it. Perhaps a better way of putting it, is that she puts her knowledge THE TEXAS OBSERVER 19
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