PRINT September 2019



Joel Schumacher, The Incredible Shrinking Woman, 1981, 35 mm, color, sound, 88 minutes. Pat Kramer (Lily Tomlin).

WHEN LILY TOMLIN’S FIRST FILM, Robert Altman’s Nashville, was released in June 1975, the actress and comedian had been a star for at least five years, celebrated for her array of voluble characters. Some of these personae—Ernestine, the floridly passive-aggressive telephone operator; Edith Ann, an uninhibited five-year-old emotional savant—made their debut during her 1969–73 tenure on NBC’s Laugh-In. Others, like Bobbi Jeanine, a bromide-dispensing lounge-circuit organist, premiered on The Lily Tomlin Show (1973), the first of her four eponymous TV specials from the ’70s. These personalities illustrate Tomlin’s tremendous gifts with voice. But in one of the best scenes from Altman’s superb ensemble movie, itself dense with talk and song, she mesmerizes with her silence.

In the final hour of Nashville, Tomlin’s Linnea Reese—dutiful wife to a self-involved attorney, devoted mother of two deaf pubescent children, and a part-time gospel singer—takes a seat at the back of a club where Keith Carradine’s Tom, a philandering country-rock heartthrob, is gigging. The Jesus-haired libertine, who had met the upstanding housewife at a music studio two months prior, has been calling Linnea at home, pleading to see her again and inviting her to this intimate show. Also in the audience are three of Tom’s latest bedmates, each convinced that she is the “someone special” for whom he’s written a recent number, “I’m Easy,” and completely unaware that the true dedicatee is Linnea, who is calmly sipping apple cider from a wineglass.

As Carradine croons this ballad, Tomlin gives a sublime performance of being seduced, transforming a putatively passive act into an agile display of tiny, potent gestures. With her lips slightly parted, she places her left hand under her modest white blouse and rests it on her clavicle. Near the end of the song, Linnea inhales deeply, closes her eyes for a second or two, and leans gently into the side of a wooden banquette, as if unmoored by her besottedness.

*Robert Altman, Nashville, 1975, 35 mm, color, sound, 160 minutes. Linnea Reese (Lily Tomlin).

This segment from Nashville endures for me as one of the most moving depictions of desire, my pleasure in watching it heightened by the fact that the woman who offers such a compelling interpretation of heterosexual cathexis is gay. At the time of Nashville’s production, Tomlin was already a few years into a romantic relationship—which continues to this day—with the writer Jane Wagner, who has also been one of her most vital collaborators. Their partnership is the focus of “Two Free Women: Lily Tomlin & Jane Wagner,” a retrospective running this month at Film at Lincoln Center in New York. Organized by Hilton Als and Thomas Beard, the series isn’t limited to the pair’s joint efforts; projects that Tomlin, the far more prolific of the pair, has made without Wagner’s involvement, such as Nashville, dominate the program. But by showcasing the rarely revived titles from the Tomlin-Wagner corpus—from the most lauded (the 1991 movie adaptation of their 1985 Broadway hit The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe) to the most reviled (Moment by Moment, a 1978 film maudit)—“Two Free Women” salutes a lesbian couple without equal in entertainment history. 

Work brought the two together. Tomlin had been impressed by J.T. (1969), a CBS after-school special (included in the Lincoln Center series) written by Wagner about a lonely African American boy in Harlem who nurtures a stray cat. Tomlin, preparing to record an Edith Ann album in 1971 and looking to enrich the kindergarten-age character, reached out to Wagner, who eventually joined the comedian in California to help her produce the LP. In a 2006 interview, Tomlin recalled of their initial face-to-face meeting, “I was pretty taken with her as soon as I saw her. We just sort of clicked. We became a couple right away.”

Wagner was on the writing staff of all seven of Tomlin’s TV specials (the last one aired in 1982), contributing such pensive sketches as “Juke and Opal,” the final piece in Lily (1973), the second of these one-off shows. This roughly nine-minute segment, which will play as part of the retrospective, features Tomlin and her friend Richard Pryor, respectively, as a café proprietress and a down-and-outer who’s one of her regulars. They banter, bicker, and flirt like lovers or exes, the tenderness between them ineradicable—never more so than when two uptight white social workers enter Opal’s eatery and begin asking Juke questions as part of their “community research.” The skit, which Als, in an essay on Pryor included in White Girls (2013), hailed as “the most profound meditation on race and class that I have ever seen on a major network,” may freak out contemporary audiences; Tomlin is coded as black via costuming and speech—but, crucially, not through makeup. (“Tomlin plays Opal in whiteface, as it were,” Als writes.) However discomfiting today, the earnest sequence at its most fundamental level shows two comedy eminences fully in sync, their admiration for each other abundant.

Jane Wagner, Moment by Moment, 1978, 35 mm, color, sound, 102 minutes. Trisha Rawlings (Lily Tomlin) and Strip Harrison (John Travolta).

“The work of the brilliant performer is to make a habit of disjunction,” Als continues in that essay; his laudatory declaration is directed as much to Tomlin as to Pryor. “Disjunction” aptly sums up Moment by Moment, the only film Wagner has ever directed (she also wrote the screenplay), one defined by a fascinating, perverse lack of correspondence. (Just before press time, Tomlin and Wagner asked that the movie be removed from the retrospective.) Centering on the age- and class-discordant relationship between Tomlin’s Trisha, a wealthy woman nearing middle age whose marriage is unraveling, and John Travolta’s ludicrously nicknamed Strip (as in Sunset), a twentyish stud, Moment by Moment appeals despite its failures. Although Tomlin and Travolta kindle zero erotic heat, they exhibit an intriguing amity that buoys the film, a gentleness and generosity that might have been rooted in a shared vulnerability. Wagner’s movie, a serious romantic drama, was a significant departure from the previous work of its stars, then at the height of their popularity. Travolta had become the signal Carter-era male idol thanks to Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Grease, released six months before Moment by Moment; Tomlin had been anointed the “New Queen of Comedy” on the cover of Time in 1977, having recently starred in both Robert Benton’s offbeat sunshine noir The Late Show (charmingly playing a SoCal weirdo turned accidental gumshoe) and her first one-woman Broadway show, Appearing Nitely, which she cowrote and codirected with Wagner.

Gutted by the critical savaging of Moment by Moment, the actress thereafter stuck to comedies with wider appeal, most famously Colin Higgins’s Nine to Five (1980), a support-staff revenger hamstrung by too many dopey gags but boasting a felicitously cast lead trio, with Tomlin’s Violet Newstead the most revolutionary-minded of the film’s pink-collar intifadists, who also include Dolly Parton and Jane Fonda. (Tomlin and Fonda have remained active in the streaming age as the stars of Netflix’s Grace and Frankie.) Following two other crowd-pleasers—Joel Schumacher’s The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1981), a cheery spoof of consumerism scripted by Wagner, and Carl Reiner’s All of Me (1984), a burlesque involving a metempsychosis mishap—Tomlin began touring small venues with embryonic incarnations of The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe; the play’s evolution is tracked in Nick Broomfield and Joan Churchill’s documentary Lily Tomlin (1986).

Jane Wagner and Lily Tomlin on the set of John Bailey’s The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, 1991.

An absorbing chronicle, Lily Tomlin is structured as a countdown to September 26, 1985, the triumphant Broadway opening night of Search, an opus at once exuberant and mournful that reflects on the dashed hopes of second-wave feminism and the raging contradictions of trying “to be politically conscious and upwardly mobile at the same time.” Written and directed solely by Wagner, the play—a feat of precise, supple sociocultural analysis—features Tomlin flawlessly embodying a dozen or so different characters, with no props or costume changes. (The ’91 film adaptation dispenses with the original’s minimalism.)

As they trace the development of Search from a work in progress toward its official debut, Broomfield and Churchill incorporate candid backstage incidents: Tomlin inviting Wagner and other members of the crew (all distaff—and maybe all dyke?) to huddle up and sing the chorus of “We Are Family”; Tomlin, distraught over the still-rudimentary show’s imperfect sound, announcing the enormous challenges she faces in conveying so many different personae on such a spartan set: “All I have is my voice and my body . . . to make it believable.”

By showcasing the rarely revived titles from the Tomlin-Wagner corpus, “Two Free Women” salutes a lesbian couple without equal in entertainment history.

But the most revealing moment occurs during an iteration of Search performed in San Diego in 1984. During the second act, whose characters include a lesbian couple and a sapphic Casanova, Tomlin, not yet off-book, directly addresses the audience, which on this night seems to feature a sizable gay-lez contingent: “I didn’t write this material. My partner, Jane Wagner, writes my material. And . . . I hate to fail her material. I mean, it’s so much better than I am. You know, it’s kept me going for years.”

At the time of Search, Tomlin wasn’t “officially” out—very few celebrities of her stature were in the mid-’80s—but her relationship with Wagner had never been hidden, either. In the years since 2000, when Tomlin’s sexuality became a matter of public record, her more noteworthy films have included Paul Weitz’s Grandma (2015), a project written specifically for her, in which she plays a recently widowed, acerbic lesbian poet—a role that nicely, if too programmatically, underscores her status as lavender legend. I’d argue that the greater homage to Tomlin, and to her love-work partnership with Wagner, is to be found in David O. Russell’s metaphysically motored screwball comedy I Heart Huckabees (2004). Tomlin portrays Vivian Jaffe, an “existential detective” who divides sleuthing duties with her adored spouse, Bernard, played by Dustin Hoffman. Quasi-transcendentalists, the Jaffes champion omnipresent “interconnectivity”—always searching for signs of intelligent life in the universe. 

“Two Free Women: Lily Tomlin & Jane Wagner” runs September 12–16 at Film at Lincoln Center in New York.

Melissa Anderson is the film editor of 4Columns.