backstage (2006-44)

Laughter is the Best Cure

Lily Tomlin talks about her love for old movies, the South, and the stage

by Lisa Slade

Knoxvillians may not feel as though they have much in common with visiting Northerner Lily Tomlin. After all, Tomlin was born and raised in Detroit, Mich., a freezing-cold place where most of us would not live unless threatened by death, torture or a combination of the two. Tomlin is not estranged from the South, though, and is quick to speak her praises of it. “I grew up in Detroit, but used to spend every summer in Kentucky with my aunts and uncles and cousins. I have a definite affinity with that part of the country,” Tomlin says, “Also, my partner Jane [Wagner] is from Morristown.”

Tomlin is also quick to talk about how much she relishes performing on the stage. “If I could only do it, that’s what I would choose to do. It’s more personal, from our point of view, and with the interaction with the audience. It’s there in the moment, and that’s it; it never happens that way again.” It’s sort of surprising to hear, coming from someone who has starred in as many award-winning movies as Tomlin. It’s also startling, because the theater seems like it’s a lot of work.

Tomlin is accomplished in nearly all realms of performance. Not only has she starred in the aforementioned numerous motion pictures and television shows, and won six Emmys for them, but she has also starred in several Broadway plays. Tomlin’s first Broadway play was Appearing Nitely in 1977. Tomlin also performed in The Search for Intelligent Life in the Universe , a one-woman play written by Wagner. She won a Tony for that role in 1986. 

Theater may be her favorite, but Tomlin also has a certain fondness for many of her screen works. She says, “Oh God, there have been so many I liked. Nine to Five with Dolly [Parton] and Jane [Fonda] was a great one. Nashville was my first movie, and I was nominated for that movie [for an Oscar]. All of Me with Steve Martin is another one of my favorites. Flirting with Disaster , I think it is absolutely hilarious, and I did another David O. Russell movie called I Heart Huckabees . I loved doing that movie, we really had a good time.”

Yes, Tomlin does enjoy movies that she acted in, but she also has an enormous amount of appreciation for movies from the past, and a few from the present. “One of my favorite movies is Baghdad Cafe, it’s an old Percy Adlon movie. There are so many movies that are incredible. There are old melodramas from my childhood and teenage years that were very impressive.”

“There’s one movie called Wicked Woman,” continues Tomlin, In all of the mainstream movies of that time, the women were very suppressed and the bad women always got punished in the end. Wicked Woman sort of went against that idea. I also loved Jules and Jim . I think I saw it 19 times. It was a French film, and was much more sexually liberated than the American movies of the time.” When asked if she thinks movies from the past are better than current movies, Tomlin says, “No, there’s always great movies. I think now they’re more honest.”

At age 67, and with such an illustrious career behind them, most people might think of slowing down a little, but not Lily Tomlin. She has a Paul Schrader movie called The Walker, also starring Woody Harrelson and Kristin Scott Thomas, coming out sometime in the next year. It is set in Washington, D.C., but was filmed in London.

 Tomlin is also in the process of shooting a pilot for HBO. “It’s a new comedy set in Texas, I play the matriarch in this really rich real estate family. They’re pretty much a crazy family,” Tomlin says. “It’s just a pilot, but I feel fairly confident that it will air.” The show is called Twelve Miles of Bad Road .

Tomlin’s show at the Tennessee Theatre will resurrect many of her famously funny television characters from the past. “I’m known for doing characters, and that’s most of what this show will be. I’m doing 10 or 11 different ones. I’ll be doing a lot of old favorites,” Tomlin says. “Edith Ann, Ernestine, Sister Boogie Woman, and several others.” The show will be a great chance for current fans to relive some Tomlin magic, and also a chance for Tomlin to gain some new fans with her hilarity. “The show will be pretty informal, with lots of interaction with the audience,” she adds.

What: An Evening of Classic Lily Tomlin