“BLAND AMBITION: THE SUPERMARKETING OF LILY TOMLIN”
Lily Tomlin never goes anywhere without an entourage.
Some of her escorts may be familiar — they’ve been around for an awfully long time. There’s Edith Ann, the perpetual preschooler who sounds like she has a Parcheesi dice stuck up her nose, and Ernestine, the wizened, power-mad telephone operator whose latent sexual turbulence frequently erupts in ladylike snorts. And Mrs. Judith Beasley, a housewife from Calumet City, Illinois, who doesn’t get much enjoyment out of life but stands prepared to inform you that the plastic shortage is not a hoax — “it s a genuine synthetic crisis.” Others occasionally spotted in the Tomlin party include Ramada Inn lounge legend Bobbi Jeanine, who does a mean version of “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Old Oak Tree,” a shopping-bag crazy, Tess, Rick, an insecure macho strutter, and Crystal. a quadriplegic who has been known to go hang-gliding off Big Sur.
When Tomlin mounted her unanimously acclaimed Broadway show Appearing Nitely in 1977, she packed this motley bunch in her car and filmed them for a commercial for her show. “Some people would say, ‘How do they all know each other, and how could they be in the same car?” recalls Tomlin. “But that never bothers me.”
Me neither. The stable of characters that Lily Tomlin has created over the years on stage, TV and records all coexist in one person. Tomlin summons up the contradictory impulses within herself and fashions from them vital and disparate alter egos in a way that is genuinely liberating — not because they represent notions of political correctness. but because they represent the possibilities of human emotion.
Some of these suspicious characters will turn up on Monday night on a CBS television special “Lily: Sold Out,” in which Tomlin goes Vegas. A couple of them make their presence known on “The Last Duet,” the soon-to-be- released single by Tomlin and Barry Manilow dishing recent teams of pop songbirds (“With you I’m bored again”). And others put in cameo appearances in The Incredible Shrinking Woman, which is scheduled to open Friday in some 600 theaters across the country.
In Shrinking Woman, Tomlin plays Pat Kramer, a chirpy middle-class mother of two who shops incessantly and dutifully helps her upwardly mobile ad-exec husband invent snappy names for the household products his clients serve to the insatiable American public. When hubby accidentally splashes his wife with a new perfume, which she instantly christens “Sexpot,” it turns out to contain one chemical too many for her system — at least that’s what the doctors say when she starts shrinking….
The Incredible Shrinking Woman is a satire of advertising and consumerism — full of hyperbolic brand names, junky products, cliches and TV colors — that was written by Jane Wagner, Tomlin’s longtime associate, whose preoccupation with mass-market banality pervades their collaborative material. As such it is flawed; what has worked brilliantly in quick sketches onstage or in television specials becomes somewhat heavy-handed over the course of a feature film. But even this relentlessness is forgivable. The Incredible Shrinking Woman records a valid response to a world in which corporate superpowers get bigger and bigger while the consumer feels progressively smaller and more helpless until she’s unable to distinguish reality from what’s seen by closed-circuit camera, natural color from cheerful dyes, herself from a product. “Oh,” gasps Pat Kramer with wondrous pride when she arrives back to safety on the neck of a gorilla after being kidnapped by mad scientists, “There’s my shopping center!”
More important, Shrinking Woman is a lot of fun — funnier albeit less well-made than, say, Heaven Can Wait, while on the same level of whimsy. But the coup de cinema is the strong supporting role of Mrs. Judith Beasley, as Pat Kramer’s next-door neighbor, played also by Tomlin. She first appears as a sort of Avon lady peddling a new line of supposedly organic cosmetics called Naturelle (they come with their own handy carrying case called the Tray Naturelle). But after what happens to Pat, Mrs. Beasley repents and becomes a consumer advocate; in a line cut from the final version, she wails, “Oh, Pat, I should have known that anything made in Trenton, New Jersey, could not be organic!” And at the empty casket funeral after the family mistakenly thinks Pat has gone down the drain, it’s Mrs. Beasley who delivers the eulogy to “a woman who gave so much and got so little.”
When Appearing Nitely was about to open on Broadway, it was the same Judy Beasley, dressed in a Red Cross uniform, who not only administered hot coffee and Kleenex to the weather-beaten faithful waiting in line to buy tickets, but who also protected Lily from a real street crazy. Oddly enough, she was nowhere in evidence when Tomlin arrived in town early this week to promote The Incredible Shrinking Woman.
Over lunch at the Sherry Netherland, Tomlin introduces a new character whom we’ll call Pollyana Plazasuite, a not particularly pleasant but certainly recognizable figure who answers all questions with the guarded attitude and bland fatuousness that only a movie star can summon. They say things like “My fellow workers were so great” and “That’s show business” and “It’s all relative.” Reporters are reduced to asking them what their favorite food is, and they say things like “wedding cake.”
As a prank, no doubt, Tomlin sent Pollyanna downstairs to do her lunchtime interview with the Soho News. After all, Lily Tomlin used to get stoned with Rolling Stone reporters, and go bombing around L.A. shopping for used cars with the interviewer from the Advocate. So this woman, armored with a vigilant publicist-nanny and meekly standing by while the maitre d’ forces the reporter into the tackiest polyester houndstooth sportscoat on earth has gotta be Pollyanna Plazasuite, decked out in her pinstriped jacket and gray slacks, nibbling calves’ liver and dodging questions.
Soho News: Let’s talk about the product called Lily Tomlin. Shrinking Woman is all about consumer products and marketing and all that, and I assume you’re aware of the process of marketing yourself as a commodity in Hollywood. How do you do that in a way that ties in with your principles?
Pollyanna Plazasuite: I dunno, it’s hard. It’s a career, and it’s all so public and…I don’t know how to answer that. I’m going out and selling this movie right now like mad, and I have a special on Monday night and I’m gonna be selling that, too. I even did the “Midnight Special.” Some of it is lucky circumstance. When I was doing Shrinking Woman, I didn’t know 9 to 5 would be out and be such a big hit.
SN: Did you make a conscious decision to make movies your primary pursuit?
PP: Oh no, I haven’t made that decision. I don’t think that’s necessarily even an option open to me. I don’t think of it in those terms. It just happened that in the last four years I’ve made three movies, and the way they were scheduled prevented me from a lot of other activities, not intentionally. I very much wanted to go out and tour a little more, but I never got a chance.
SN: Do you have a strategy for your movie career?
PP: No. You wanna invent one for me? Sometimes other people have a much more objective overview. It was just circumstance. I did the Broadway show, and then Stigwood came to me and asked me to make a movie with John Travolta. I like John so much and I thought, “That would be fun.” I’ve been rolling more into kind of … leaps of faith, y’know, much less intense about selecting everything. On Shrinking Woman so many people contributed so honorably, and I saw that most people want to do the very best they can do, and if people are given the support, they’ll basically do the best they can do.
I could scarcely believe my ears. This wasn’t the double-edged humor of the woman who in an earlier interview vowed she would never put her Broadway show on TV “because it’s the only thing that stands between me and a regular guest spot on ‘Hollywood Squares.'” It didn’t sound like the same person who told Mademoiselle, “Unless I’m working with an Altman, I’m not interested in getting parts, just being a body that someone uses in a film…I have an innocence, a belief that you can do it your own way, that you don’t have to play the game, or whatever people say is playing the game.” She’d given a wittier interview to After Dark. Asked what her aspirations are, she said, “I want to bake a potato, and I want to bake it just right!”
Lily Tomlin is one of the great comic minds and live performers of our time. Yet her transition from being a live performer to a film actress has not been smooth (Bette Midler, for instance, did it almost effortlessly with The Rose), and that is puzzling; her native talent ought to make her Queen Midas. By getting her to talk about her film career and her struggles and her plans, one might hope she could reveal profound insights about modern celebrity, Hollywood today, creative career planning and packaging with dignity.
It’s been an interesting career, of course. She made her debut in Robert Altman’s Nashville as a gospel singer/mother of deaf children/adulteress — a part which won her rave reviews and an Oscar nomination. She got just as sensational notices co-starring with Art Carney in The Late Show as Margo, a ditsy middle-aged teenager turned amateur gumshoe. Pauline Kael, reviewing Tomlin’s performance in the New Yorker, said, “She takes the camera and holds it for as long as she wants to, with the assurance of a star.” More recently she’s been praised for her work with Jane Fonda and Dolly Parton in 9 to 5, where she plays a sharp-tongued, underpromoted supervisor. (Handed an officious memo by the office snitch, she coos, “Thanks, Roz, I know just where to stick it.”) And now, in what appears to be gorgeous timing, comes Shrinking Woman hot on its heels.
In between those two pairs of films there was Moment by Moment, her first film for Universal Pictures, which in 1977 signed her to an impressive two-picture deal reported to resemble Woody Allen’s hands-off arrangement with United Artists. Since then Moment has become notorious for two reasons. First, it was Tomlin’s first artistic stumble. Jane Wagner’s script and direction were muddled, the movie’s point about reversed sex roles was simplistic and schematic, and Tomlin seemed to give herself the strange task of not acting (a perverse way of compensating for her incomparable range). Second, the critics hyped a flop into a mega-flop. It wasn’t a very good movie, but it wasn’t the earthshaking disaster they called destined to be cherished by “future generations of movie trash-lovers” (David Denby, New York) or to “occupy a hallowed place in the pantheon of high camp” (Frank Rich, Times). More than anything else, the most vociferous — therefore most talked about — reviews of Moment by Moment were disturbing for their thinly veiled homophobia and antifeminism. Rich ended his review saying, “For those who toil in the never-never land of camp, heterosexuality is still the biggest joke of all.”
When I asked Universal Pictures’ vice-president of production Verna Fields how much the failure of Moment hurt Tomlin’s career, she said, “To be honest with you, I don’t think Moment by Mornent would have been perceived as such a failure if it had been by a male director, or if it had been the story of a middle aged man having an affair with a little cutie on the beach. Nobody every talks about Goin’ South being a major failure for Jack Nicholson. Nobody ever talks about Paul Newman and The Drowning Pool; it died, and they let it die. They won’t let Moment by Moment die. There were a lot of expectations because the two stars were both very hot at the time, and it’s very hard for a director to meet up with such expectations. Particularly a first-time director. Particular1y a woman director. Women aren’t allowed to fail, you see.”
The movie had a true-to-life resonance, though. Unlike Travolta, who reportedly took Moment’s failure hard and subsequently canceled his commitment to making American Gigolo, Tomlin didn’t let it faze her. She bought and redecorated W.C. Fields’ old house, a 27-room old-fashioned Hollywood mansion. She found a safe vehicle for re-entry into the movies in 9 to 5, where she was buttressed by Jane Fonda and Dolly Parton, a successful male director, Colin (Foul Play) Higgins, and a palatable political “message.” She plunged into pre-production work on Shrinking Woman. again with Wagner as writer. (Tomlin’s loyalty to Wagner is most impressive; as Fields said, “Women don’t get second chances.”)
I figured that the setback had taught Tomlin some valuable lessons about the limitations and frustrations and possibilities of pursuing her art and her politics within the rules of the movie industry — and that she would be happy to impart these lessons.
In fact, I imagined the conversation would go something like this.
Soho News: Did you make a conscious decision to make movies your primary pursuit?
Lily Tomlin: Oh, yes. After I was such a big hit in Nashville, I said, “Forget TV, this is for me.”
SN: Did you have a strategy for your movie career?
LT: Yeah, I thought I’d do a couple of supporting roles, and then I’d make my own production deal and just sail on into the big time.
SN: Did the failure of Moment by Moment set you back?
LT: Obviously it did; I had to re-think my strategy, but I think I’ve come out on the top. I realize that the movies I want to make may not be ones America or Hollywood is ready for. So I have to bide my time, make a few successful comedies, establish myself as a popular,. bankable, non-threatening performer. Only then will I have enough clout to make a movie about a gang of mentally retarded children who assassinate Idi Amin Dada, or about the first lesbian on Mars.
SN: Have you had to court people in the industry to get them behind your projects?
LT: You mean did I go around and give head to all the studio executives?
SN: No, I mean, do you get involved in any of the middle levels of the business — marketing, distribution?
LT: Very minimally, although I did go out to Pittsburgh last year to perform at a convention of film distributors, sort of as a gesture toward the troops, to make up for whatever bad attitude they had left over from Moment.
SN: Are you concerned with marketing yourself as a commodity? How can you do it in a way you feel good about?
LT: I worry about that a lot. I mean, the only reason people approach you on that level is that, properly handled, you can make millions and millions of dollars. I spend a lot of time worrying about what I would do if something of mine that I’m not proud of turned up in the public eye. What do I do if I’m juxtaposed with a concept or an idea that I abhor? Suppose I were playing in Lake Tahoe and so was Frank Sinatra, and we had the same manager and he puts me up on a billboard on Sunset Blvd. with Sinatra. Suppose I don’t want to be on a billboard with Sinatra? Do I have to do that anyway? That’s the big question in this business — do you sell yourself and all your values in order to get where they want to take you?
If Lily Tomlin was thinking anything like that, Pollyanna Plazasuite wasn’t letting on. She explained how some of the special effects in Shrinking Woman were done, expressed her delight over the gorilla costume in the movie (“Wigmakers were knotting yak hair for months”) and boasted that they brought the movie in on time on budget ($13 million). The most interesting thing she said was, “The only little fantasy I have, in terms of movies, is to make a multiple character movie, because I love my characters so much, and it’s another context to put them in. Like Ernestine is on my special, you know, and she’s Liberace’s date. I do a new character, a male singer named Tommy Velour and they go to see Tommy’s act. Ernestine is so delicious, I could just bite the TV screen. She’s so proud of herself being with Liberace, and she’s so attractive, never been more lovely. When Liberace gets introduced from the stage, she feels like she’s as much a part of it as he is. And when Tommy Velour introduces Lily as a star in the audience, he says, ‘Oh, give us one of those!'” Snort, snort, like Ernestine. “So it’s me as Tommy introducing Lily, and she gets embarrassed and goes ‘snort, snort,’ and then it cuts to Ernestine. And she says, ‘That just steams me!'”
It’s not Hannah Arendt, but what do you expect from a movie star, over lunch at the Sherry Netherland?
A little less of the polite but distracted celebrity routinely hyping product and a little more of the satiric genius who used to muse aloud, “Sometimes I wonder about being a success in a mediocre world.” The closest I got to that Lily Tomlin were those moments after she’s just said something really inane and looks right at you and widens her eyes just a little bit in a way that says: “You know what I’m saying. Why do I have to say it?”
Soho News, January 28, 1981