Lily Tomlin, Seriously

One of the screen's great comediennes talks about being directed by Robert Altman and Woody Allen, chats about everyone from Bette Davis to Bette Midler, and reveals why she's selling videos out of her garage.

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Lily Tomlin is running late. To find a few hours for this interview, she has to take time off from a schedule that includes getting ready for her role as Miss Hathaway in The Beverly Hillbillies, preparing an animated prime time special--à la "The Simpsons"--about her wise-child character Edith Ann, screening a rough cut of Robert Altman's Short Cuts, in which she stars with Tom Waits and 20 other actors, and sending out boxed sets of her videotapes, which she sells from her garage. Before we even begin our chat, however, she remembers that she needs to use the phone.

"It's going to sound a little bit show-offy," she excuses herself, "but I'm ordering flowers for a famous old movie star, Lana Turner. I missed her birthday."

She dials her secretary and asks her to look up Turner's number on her Rolodex. "Call up the florist in Santa Monica," Tomlin instructs. "I think she likes white roses, I can't remember, it says on her card. Simple, simple, elegant. Just send it to L. Turner. Then put 'We love you, Lily and Jane.'"

She hangs up the phone, and apologizes again. Nothing to be sorry about, I say. It's a perfect lead-in to talking about the influence of the movies on her life and career.

Growing up in Detroit, Tomlin once worked as an usherette, so she saw a lot of movies. Her favorites were the "bad girl" films which featured the tough-talking chippies like Dorothy Malone, Jennifer Jones, Beverly Michaels, Brigitte Bardot, and, of course, Lana Turner.

These women definitely had their effect on the teenage Tomlin. After she saw Bardot in ... And God Created Woman, she suffered what she has since called "Bardot damage": "I went around Detroit wearing a red shirt-dress with a black leotard underneath, unbuttoned almost to the waist. Walking the streets of Detroit barefoot as if I were in the south of France, I felt womanly, bohemian, abandoned!" When she saw Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's, Tomlin suffered "Hepburn damage"; then "Moreau damage" after seeing Jeanne Moreau in Jules and Jim.

But Tomlin was also watching TV, enthralled by Lucille Ball and Imogene Coca, laughing at "The Honeymooners." So she abandoned her med student dreams and, after leaving Wayne State University, set out to make people laugh.

By the end of 1969 she'd joined the cast of "Laugh-In," where she hit a national nerve with her characters Ernestine and Edith Ann. Tomlin went on to do nightclubs, and then got her first movie offer, to appear in Robert Altman's Nashville, for which she received an Oscar nomination. Her next film was The Late Show. And then came Moment by Moment, which seemed to halt the career of John Travolta, but Tomlin went on to do The Incredible Shrinking Woman, 9 to 5, All of Me, Big Business, and cameos in Shadows and Fog and The Player.

But it wasn't her film career that made her so unique. It was her one-woman shows: Appearing Nitely and, later, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. She won Tony awards both times out.

While she lives in W.C. Fields's former home in Los Angeles, she prefers doing her talking on more neutral grounds, so we met first at my office, and then at her publicist's. Though the setting was somewhat sterile, the company was anything but. When Lily Tomlin smiles, the room lights up.

LAWRENCE GROBEL: How did you become friends with Lana Turner?

LILY TOMLIN: I was on Jay Leno one night when he used to sub for Carson and I was talking about my being an usherette, and I did this whole thing about when Lana Turner pushes her hair back in The Flame and the Flesh, when she's kind of renewed, going to change her ways, and not ruin good men's lives anymore. When I was a teenager, I was very addicted to "bad woman" movies. In terms of women's roles, they were the only movies that were of any real interest to me. The roles that other women played were too suffering, too sacrificial. Anyway, after that Leno show she wrote me and I made friends with her.

Q: What was it like getting to know one of your idols?

A: Well, one doesn't want to belabor it or inflate it, it's not like they levitate. In a way, I'd almost rather never meet them. Not that they disappoint, they don't. But it's like... the world is just so finite, so mortal, so simple.

Q: You've said that you were not only affected by movies, you were molded by them.

A: As a teenager, movies certainly molded one's sexuality and one's role-playing as a female. Like Wicked Woman with Beverly Michaels. You probably never saw it, because you can't get your hands on it. I remember seeing it with The Moon Is Blue, which was square as a box. Wicked Woman was about this bad woman who dominates everything. She's the sexual aggressor, doing all the lying, all the manipulating. You just didn't see that in other films.

Q: Was this anything like Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not?

A: No, that predates Wicked Woman and it's maybe a classier film, but it's not the same because Lauren Bacall still had it both ways. Beverly Michaels was like taking the Greyhound. She was truer to life--she had to work her way across the country via gentlemen with a two-day growth.

Q: Talk about the influence of Brigitte Bardot, Audrey Hepburn and Jeanne Moreau.

A: What can you say? You could do worse.

Q: If you could have had the career of any of those three, which would you choose?

A: Jeanne Moreau, just because she's French and she's very smart. More bohemian, too, and she directs. Well, I'd like to be Jeanne Moreau but get to wear Audrey Hepburn's clothes.

Q: What if you were a teenager today?

A: If I were 19 years old today, I'd probably want to be Thelma or Louise.

Q: Which one?

A: It doesn't matter. Thelma and Louise are like one person.

Q: You can't say that about Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. Did you know either of them?

A: I met Bette Davis once.

Q: Was she intimidating?

A: My God, yes! I was at this dinner party with about 10 people, all writers or performers, and Davis came by. She was still in very good shape and boy, she was full of vinegar. You couldn't say a word at the table without her challenging you on it. Totally outspoken, just as brash as she could be. That's why I like to be Ernestine--we all would like to be like that.

Q: When you were growing up, how important were breasts for you?

A: Oh God, profoundly! I grew up in the '50s and Kim Novak was the body image to aspire to. Very full-figured, full bust, full round hips. I used to pad my hips because I thought you were supposed to have round shapely hips from the front, because straight skirts had a little extra material on the sides. And when I was a kid, I didn't like to have my hair pigtailed. I wanted to have movie star hair, so I used to lie on top of my mother's dresser in the bedroom, with a horizontal mirror, and I'd pin curl my hair, and admire myself. Then I'd walk around the neighborhood in this two-piece bathing suit with my hair real fluffy. I thought this was a movie star look.

Q: Did you read many movie magazines when you were young?

A: Sure. I remember all the stuff in movie magazines like Modern Screen about how, when Doris Day got in the shower, she would always run her fingers over a bar of soap, so when she got out her fingernails would be real white. These things were important. And I was hip to Confidential and True Confessions, too, when I was about six. We didn't have the most evolved library in our home. My family was blue-collar.

Q: Meaning they weren't encouraging you to be anything you wanted to be, like a lawyer or a doctor?

A: The general feeling in my family was, as long as the girl doesn't get pregnant and the boy doesn't wind up in the joint, you've done pretty good.

Q: Did your parents ever embarrass you?

A: Things of modesty were embarrassing to me. Like if we'd go to the beach and my mother would make me change my bathing suit. People treat children like they have no sense of dignity. Even if I was seven or eight, I definitely wanted privacy. Because I was very adult. I used to read marriage manuals. When I'd go visit somebody, I'd go right to their bookshelves and look for their sexy books. This was when I was under 10. See, very early I'd gone through a realization that my parents had been children. I'd look at their baby pictures and suddenly I'd think, "My parents are just like me." So I knew they didn't know anything.

Q: Did that make you independent from adults?

A: Yeah. We lived in this old apartment house in Detroit, and I was fearless. I can remember coming home at 10 p.m., eight years old, running, jumping. I'd have to jump over certain fences and swing on certain poles. And I'd hear my mother screaming for me, crazy, because here I was a little tiny kid and she'd been out looking for me for three hours with the neighborhood kids.

Q: Didn't you also discover orgasms sliding down those poles?

A: Oh jeez, it was actually worse than that! I would actually hump the clothes poles. And I would tell all the women in the building who were hanging their clothes out, "Look at this great game I discovered." I would demonstrate it for them. Then somebody told my mother and she said, "Don't do it outside," so I took my activities indoors.

Q: Later, you were a cheerleader in high school. What did that teach you about life?

A: How easy it is to shock people.

Q: Which is why they kicked you out?

A: No, I got suspended from time to time for shocking people on the field. Doing a cartwheel and having my underwear show, or doing some vulgar pose. Just being sexual on the playing field. Instead of going, "Rah, rah, sis, boom bah," I was doing, "Bom de bom ba." Very soulful.

Q: Did you ever get caught stealing bathing suits?

A: No. We did that because it was a challenge: could we get every bathing suit in every color and every manufacturer? There were two of us, and we would brazenly take half a dozen at a time. We literally had two or three big old suitcases full of bathing suits. We took them to the beach, and we'd change every five or 10 minutes. It was totally insane.

Q: Did you ever get caught for shoplifting?

A: Yes, once. I was already grown and was doing a show in Detroit. I was in this store and I had this impulse: I wanted to get caught to see what it was like. I took a skirt that was very bulky, just put it in my purse--it was hanging out of my purse, and I saw a woman tailing me. When I went for the escalator, she took me by the elbow and said, "Come with me." What they think you are is part of a ring. So they want to come to your house to see if you have a lot of their merchandise.

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