By Neal Broverman
Originally published on Advocate.com April 05 2010 3:55 PM ET
“Gay people don’t have an excuse to be square,” Lily Tomlin told Coco
Peru on Saturday night at “Conversations With Coco,” a fund-raiser for
the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center. At the event, fittingly held at the Lily Tomlin/Jane
Wagner Cultural Arts Center in Hollywood (named for the star and her
partner), Clinton Leupp’s alter ego talked Tomlin through her 45-year
career in film, on television, and on Broadway ... and Tomlin proved that discussing your Emmys and Tonys with a famous drag queen is about as far from square as it gets.
Entering the simple stage set — two chairs, a table,
and some flowers — Tomlin looked chic and youthful, her jet-black hair
matching her leather jacket, slim pants, and high-heeled boots. Exposing
a bit of vanity, she complained lightheartedly about her “sidelight”
and fussed with her pants all night to make sure they weren’t riding up.
Her first job on camera actually involved a play on her
beauty — on a short-lived revival of TheGarry Moore Show in 1966, Tomlin is
seen in front of a mirror as a stagehand informs her she has two
minutes before showtime. She brushes her hair, applies mascara, and
announces she’s now groomed and gorgeous enough for the cameras. Then
she pulls a gorilla mask over her head. Even though the skit was cut,
Tomlin’s delivery of her aborted debut didn’t miss a beat.
Quick to laugh and full of stories, Tomlin talked up her Detroit childhood,
which included several sojourns to visit relatives in Kentucky. Her
brother fancied himself a playboy, drinking water out of martini
glasses, while she and her cousins would eat cobs of corn thrown on the
floor by her mother (Tomlin’s next project should be a Running With
Scissors/Me Talk Pretty One Day anthology).
Clips of Tomlin’s characters on Laugh-In, which she joined in its
third season in late ’69, were projected on a giant screen, including
Suzy Sorority and, of course, impish Edith Ann and the snorting phone
operator Ernestine. She described Ernestine’s power trips and facial
tics as signs of a repressed sexual beast within. Tomlin spoke of the
most memorable characters she created for Laugh-In and her
television specials — including the male lounge singer Tommy Velour and
the R&B crooner Pervis Hawkins — like friends she hadn’t seen in
a while, describing them as you would a high school boyfriend or
college professor (Hawkins was a “cool cat” and Ernestine “really loved
Her transition to film was seamless, which now
strikes Tomlin as amusing — it was rare in the ’70s for
television actors to graduate to film. But at the time she never saw
herself as limited, which may explain her Oscar-nominated turn as a
gospel singer and unfaithful wife in Robert Altman’s Nashville.
The ageless feminist comedy 9 to 5 was the topic of the most questions
from Coco, with Tomlin relaying that she and costars Jane Fonda and
Dolly Parton remain close (“there’s nothing like a number 1 movie to
bond you together”), and no ... she’s never seen Dolly without her wig.
called Steve Martin, her costar in the 1984 comedy All of Me,
sweet and real. Her Prairie Home Companion costar Meryl
Streep also received praise, with Tomlin describing her as a blithe
spirit, often prone to fits of laughter and known to unleash Ernestine-like
snorts at times.
One of Tomlin’s most beloved movies, especially
among Generation X-ers, is the Wagner-penned The Incredible Shrinking
Woman from 1981. Wagner has been Tomlin’s creative partner since
1971, when the comedian met the writer to discuss an Edith Ann album. “I
fell madly in love with her as I laid eyes on her,” Lily said of Jane.
They just celebrated their 39th anniversary.
Wagner also wrote The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe,
a starring vehicle for Tomlin that played on Broadway in the ’80s,
before being made into a film in 1991. Adored for its satirical look at
modern mores — as viewed by aliens studying the human race — it
attracted a cult-like following. Tomlin spoke of Katharine Hepburn taking
in a performance; the younger star showered the legend with kisses when
she was brought to her dressing room. Barbra Streisand was also in the
audience that same night, but by most accounts she left halfway through
because she “wasn’t feeling well.”
The two-hour-plus conversation
— which included clips of Tomlin’s most recent work, on the lauded legal
drama Damages — ended emotionally with Peru whipping out a flier
from September 1977. It was the announcement of a charity performance
at the Hollywood Bowl starring entertainers including Bette Midler and
Tomlin — the event was a fund-raiser against California’s Briggs
Initiative, an unsuccessful attempt to bar gays from teaching.
cried as he read the pamphlet, finally uttering through whimpers that,
“Even in 1977, you were fighting for us.” That’s a testament to Tomlin’s
power — this class act can even make a hardened drag queen sob, no