Lily Tomlin: Bound To Happen

I have always believed that I was in the act of writing comedies. Black, perhaps, certainly full of portent, but nonetheless comedies. I can't help but believe that if you can't find both the utterly tragic and utterly silly, the utterly insane and wonderful in life, you simply can't cope, and you certainly can't write. There is a vision in those people I consider to be artists that can see many sides and angles and colors to a character or a situation, and it is folly to exclude the comedic. Many do this, because there is a belief that the comedic is perched on some lower rung of the artistic ladder--that laughter is a cheap act; that seeking laughter is a mortal sin. I could not disagree more. People were always amazed that I laughed throughout Menagerie and Streetcar and Cat. Well, they're funny plays at times. People are funny many times.

When Carol Burnett began to play Eunice on her program, I felt--happily--that my psyche had been broken into and a shard or two of mine had been mined in the production of those scenes. I think that many people watched those characters and laughed and told themselves that it was all a comedy, but I found it both terribly funny and terribly sad, which is a recipe I love and use frequently. It is a recipe that truly represents, I think, life, and if we aren't expressing the life around us, we really need to find something else to do. I think at times I spent too much time trying to express what would get me produced or get me attention or get me awards and I got off the track; I became irrelevant. I need--we all need--to describe and to share and to study what is around us.

Lily Tomlin is, I believe, a great artist. I find that her work succeeds on every level: She is a great actress; she is a brilliant comedienne; she is a coruscating commentator on our times and on her place in the world; she is frighteningly clear in her ability to see and to share what entered her mind and her heart; she is amazingly generous with her material. The final point is one that you will not understand until you begin to create your own work, and you will know the brutal difference between those who give a great deal and those who give according to fashion and whim. Trust me when I tell you this is a brutal point.

I went to see Nashville to support my dear friend Barbara Baxley, a brilliant actress, who had described for me the process by which Robert Altman allowed her to work. I knew Lily's work from television and albums, but I must admit that I went to the screening thinking that her casting had been a savvy coup more than anything else. I do not wish to discredit Barbara Baxley, who was marvelous in her role, but I left the film enamored by and addicted to Ronee Blakley and Lily Tomlin, and for very different reasons.

Blakley's performance was superb, but operated for me on an operatic level of emotionality, whereas Tomlin was cerebral, delicate, a Joseph Cornell construction of compartments of emotion, desires, actions: It was a performance that built into something terribly human and, for me, devastating. I do not mean to demean Miss Blakley, who is remarkable, but her part was a red carpet on which she was asked to walk, and her walk was sublime, whereas Tomlin took what could have been an utterly common, terribly familiar wronged woman and made it shattering. Tomlin lets you see her think, which is terribly difficult for so many actresses. I do not know why. Even some of the best actresses with whom I've worked want so much to let you see them act, as opposed to seeing them live and think and change. There is no busy, redundant acting with Tomlin: She gives you a great deal, but it derives from within; it is utterly true; it is, I think, genius.

I hesitate to call her work stand-up, although she is far from recumbent, and she is funny. What she does is a combination of things: theatre, comedy, commentary, criticism. I love it all. She devastates me in the way Burnett did with Eunice, by allowing us to see the human being upon whom the commentary and the comedy has been gently placed. She expands the characters she plays and the audiences who come and watch them grow.

I would love to work with her, not only on those pieces of mine that cry out for comedic actresses--and those cries have yet to be heard or honored, I might add. She would be a remarkable Amanda. Give her time, let her age, and she would be incredible. She would understand the vaudeville act that Tom and Amanda have crafted to ward off reality and overdue bills and wayward affections and shattered dreams. She would understand the rage that Amanda feels as her annuities--which is to say her children--fail to mature. Think of her as Big Mama, devoted to lies and decorum, nattering on about social affairs, until she swirls and nails the problem between Brick and Maggie. That is supposed to be a volcanic moment in the play, and I think there has been lava only once or twice. 

Lily brings lava.

All of us require a witness. A witness who will let us--and the world--know that we have lived, that we have contributed. As artists we need to know that our contributions mattered, touched the heart, evoked a thought, led someone else off to their own pale judgment to scribble something out. When we create characters, we are witnesses to ourselves and to those to whom we have reacted, to those we have loved, to those who inspire us.

The greatest artists are, I think, witnesses. They have been, to steal a line, present at the creation....of whatever they have seen.

Barbara Baxley told me that Lily wrote things down all the time--in a journal perhaps. Notes for characters, overheard conversations, thoughts that came to her that might lead her to her pale judgment. I would give anything to see those journals. I would give anything to be able to fill my own journals with what I imagine is in hers.

Barbara told me she had a response to things, both verbally and in notes. Sylvia Miles has a note with the same response: Bound to happen. I love that. Positive but with a prediction of servitude, hard work, penance. I will write again, and well. I will meet Lily Tomlin and perhaps we will fake a fog and dance on a stage. Bound to happen.

Take me to her. 

Tennessee Williams, in conversation, 1982.


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