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Thoroughly modern Lily: Lily Tomlin's living large at 65 with work on TV, stage, and movies (I [heart] Huckabees, now on DVD),She talks to The Advocate about growing up Southern Baptist, working with Dustin Hoffman, and Time magazine's offer to out her.

What do you get when you cross screwball comedy with philosophy? David O. Russell's cult bit I [heart] Huckabees, which is now coming out on DVD after sharply dividing movie audiences into delirious fans and rabid detractors. The ensemble cast features Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman as "existential detectives" Vivian and Bernard Jaffe, who cross paths with infamous French nihilist Caterine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert) as they attempt to help their clients figure out the meaning of life.

But that equation also gives you the one-of-a-kind career of Tomlin, whose work as a comic and performer has been more concerned with life's mysteries than with setups and punch lines. Not for nothing has her biggest tilt been The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, which Tomlin created with her longtime creative and romantic partner Jane Wagner. Together the two have collaborated on a plethora of albums, TV specials, and films.

Tomlin has been active in the gay community, with her friendship with legendary film critic Vito Russo, her narration of the film version of Russo's book The Celluloid Closet, and her and Wagner's patronage of the Lily Tomlin/Jane Wagner Cultural Arts Center in the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center. But this interview marks one of the few times she's ever spoken with the gay media. Over the phone, Tomlin is unguarded, frank, opinionated, and of course, hilarious.

I have to tell you, I loved Huckabees so much.

Yeah, I loved it too.

Obviously, from doing The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, there were definitely life questions you had tackled, but this movie focuses very specifically on existentialist thought. Had you trafficked in that a lot before?

Well, I feel some part of me can wake up and be very existential and the next day wake up and be sort of in love with the universe. So I guess that's part of being an actor.

I'm curious about what kind of research went into it. I'm imagining you guys watching My Man Godfrey in the morning and then talking about Sartre's Being and Nothingness in the afternoon.

[Laughs] I don't know, yeah. I think we all kind of came from that. I certainly feel like I came from that place, anyway. I mean, it's not unrelated to something like The Search in a certain kind of way, in its own individual way.

This is the first time you'd worked with Dustin Hoffman. Did you know him from your early days in New York, or had you met before?

I've known of Dustin and known his work, of course, for years and years, but we really had only met briefly a couple of times. Well, actually, that's not true--way back in the '70s, when Bob Evans was going to do Popeye originally, he wanted Dustin to play Popeye and I was being tapped to play Olive Oyl. I don't know how certain I was as Olive Oyl or not, but we met over at Bob Evans's house that many years ago. Anyway, of course I was thrilled to work with Dustin. He's very mensch-y and very easy to get on with, anyway. And I'm totally open to whatever anybody has to carry on with.

So this is your second film with David O. Russell. Are you into sort of a groove now?

Well, I have tremendous regard for David, so I certainly hope it's not my last film with him. That's up to him. I think I totally get David in many ways as a person and as an artist. I am just ready to go on the trip with him.

It's always been interesting, in terms of your career--you had the interview with Us Weekly three years ago where you finally said, in essence, "Well, I'm a lesbian, but everybody knows about it." Has it had any effect whatsoever? I'm guessing the answer would be no.

I'm too old a broad. [Laughs] You have to look at it from the whole perspective of time. I got famous in '69 on Laugh-In. I can remember being on Carson in '73, and just asking a female why she wasn't married or why she didn't want children was a mesmerizing moment. [Chuckles] I used to call it a Chappaquiddick moment, where they would come in on poor Ted Kennedy's face and do an extreme close-up, to see just how he was going to betray--


Exactly. And Carson said to me, "Well, don't you want to have any children?" [Laughs] And I said, "Look, I love kids, really--I mean, I play a kid, I am a kid." And then I said, "But who has custody of yours?" [Alonso laughs] But the audience was dead stone-still. I mean, the audience was just on the edge of their seats at that kind of a question at that time.

Well, yeah, he's allowed to ask you, but God forbid you go to the other place.

Right. Well, anyway, what I was going to say is, I was around for so long and had been interviewed so many times, it gets to be a bit ... when you talk about yourself for 35 years, first of all, it gets repetitious. And then it seems a little bit excessive, at the least. But if you look and see, when I was on the cover of Time in '77, PMK--my publicist--almost pulled off the old two-cover coup that was so highly prized in those days. Only two or three people have done it over the decades--I suppose in politics, no, but in entertainment it was a rare thing. And so I had a big inside story in Newsweek and I had the cover of Time, because they got wind of it soon enough to change their cover.

Oh, bummer.

No [laughs], it's all right. It wasn't my passion, it was my publicist's. I don't get the credit for it; as the publicist she pulled it off. Anyway, the point I'm trying to make is, if you read both stories--and I'd have to go back and look at them, 'cause it's been so many years now--in one story they talk about me living with Jane, and in one story they don't. It's really ... also, something happened to me in '75, and to this day I cannot find anyone to corroborate this--my publicist, my old manager, nobody, and it's so vivid to me. In '75 I was making the album Modern Scream, and I got a call from my publicist saying that if I would come out, they would give me the cover of Time in '75.

You're kidding.

They needed someone gay on the cover at that time for something, and I was more insulted that they would ask me to trade my personal life just to get on the cover of their magazine. Those were my politics at the time. Instead I put a piece on the album, and actually Vito Russo put it together with me. I just did a flip of [actor] Cliff Gorman's interview after Boys in the Band, where he so wanted to be sure that everybody understood that he was straight, bless his heart. And he's dead now.

So what was your and Vito's response to Time's offer?

Modern Scream is an album that's about being interviewed by an entertainment magazine, and I'm playing the interviewer and myself, plus I'm doing bits and all that stuff. So in the interview there's a little hunk in that album where the interviewer says, "In your recent movie"--this was not long after Nashville; I was just generic, but most people would think of that film--"how did it feel to play a heterosexual?" "I've seen these women all my life, I know how they walk, I know how they talk," that kind of stuff, see? Because that was my answer to the magazine malting that approach to me.

Speaking of Vito Russo, you did such an amazing job narrating The Celluloid Closet, I'm wondering if you have a feel for--just in the decade or so since that film--where gays and lesbians in cinema stand, what our place is, and whether things have gotten any better.

Well, in some ways I think it must have gotten somewhat better. It's like when somebody says to me, "How do you define comedy?" People are always asking me these kinds of questions, and I have no idea, really, how to answer those things. It's a very diverse culture, and it's basically a male-identified culture, and you're always going to get whatever sells the most. People think there's some real subversive thing playing against whoever it is; a lot of it is just people who want to go along and get along. And they also want to make money. And the bottom line is, they're going to put out as much stuff as they can--stupid, banal stuff that makes money.

It's not a conspiracy, it's just bland for the sake of marketing.

People certainly hold views, and I'm not saying that things aren't affected in some way, but I'm sure the dollar affects things in most ways.

Absolutely. I agree.

But this is such an overwrought issue, because of the religious right in this country and the percentage of people who will vote for President Bush just because of the whole moral values issue being identified with gay marriage or with abortion, rather than being identified with the subjugation of people all over' the world in poverty and suffering. It's a bit daunting also for us to feel that this country is somehow divinely guided--those are the things that really concern me. They're just so much larger. Of course, the fallout is that any of us who are different suffer or [are] potentially slated to suffer.

Right. Because we're not "on the team."

Yeah, but the larger picture is really to swing people's awareness of what really is moral.

It's true, because once you have God on your side, then that excuses you to do whatever against the people you've declared your enemies.

There are great clergypeople who absolutely do not agree with this. It's not whether God is on our side or whether we're doing God's will, it's being so narcissistic as to think that God is telling you what to do. I was raised Southern Baptist, so I'm very well acquainted with fundamentalist religion even though I lived in Detroit.

Were you an avid churchgoer?

My parents were Southern, and we went to a Southern Baptist church. When I was a small child, until I was about 8 or 9 years old, I worried if I didn't go forward and get saved every Sunday--which I couldn't do, it was absolutely too humiliating to see these adults flailing and beating their breasts and sobbing, and I thought, Oh, my God, this is so ridiculous, so embarrassing--I could never bring myself to go forward. And I'd think, Oh, my God, if I don't go next Sunday, if the end of the world comes, I'll go to hell. And tiffs is a pretty hard thing for a 7- or 8-year-old to catty all the time. [Laughs] And yet I loved the preaching. The preaching was great 'cause it was so theatrical.

I know a lot of people who grew up Baptist, and they love the singing if nothing else.

The singing, right. And then after I got older, I used to go to black churches in Detroit just for the absolute fun of it. It was so wonderful, and the music was so great, and the preaching was beyond the white Baptists. But the point I want to make is, the idea that people will say--out of the 170,000 people or however many were killed in the tsunami--they'll say, "God saved me." As if God particularly saved this person. There's a tremendous amount of narcissism in that belief, that God is speaking directly to you. I mean, it's unbelievable.

Yeah, you know the divine secrets but nobody else does, and they have to hear it from you.

All these disparate opinions and points of view that people say they're getting as direct divine guidance--I've been concerned for decades about presidents who claim to be born again. And knowing that everyone I knew in the fundamentalist church or in the evangelical Christian church--they wanted the rapture to come.

Oh, yeah. There are people handling our foreign policy who are pretty much using the Book of Revelation as a guideline.

We don't have to save the environment, because we're not going to be around.

Tell me about winning the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in 2003. I'm wondering, for somebody who's still as active and out there as you, if it feels weird to get--

They tried to give me the first one or the second one after Richard [Pryor], and I never want those awards because I say "It's too soon." [Laugh-In producer] George Schlatter gave me and Bette [Midler]--15 years ago--a lifetime achievement in comedy award. And I said to Bette, "I don't know if we should take this. This is a bit of an end-of-the-line trip." And also, I never wanted to take it because I didn't want to take it without Jane. Finally, we talked it over, and we decided. Anyway, they've got to get people to do stuff, or else they can't have a show.

This is true.

I really was very pleased about it because our families got to go to Washington and they had a great time, and they were very, very kind to them. And generous--the little kids in the family got to do a lot of stuff. So that part was good. And it was acknowledging of Jane, but I wanted it to be more acknowledging. But anyway, it was nice to have. It was a fun time. But I don't look forward to the Kennedy Center Honors or anything like that.

It's all laid out in front of you.

I bet they don't take me, but if they rim out of people, I reckon they will.

What should we be looking for from you in the next few months?

Well, let's see--I'm still on West Wing, and I'm sure if the Administration goes over to next season, I'll be on. And I did a Will & Grace a couple of weeks ago.

Yes! That was terrific.

Was it really? I was very nervous. But that was fun, because I get a kick out of that show. And of course, I just did Huckabees, and I go out on the road all the time. And I'm supposed to do a movie in the spring with Bob Altman--A Prairie Home Companion. Meryl Streep and I are supposed to be a sister singing act.

Now, that I totally want to see.

Let's see ... we talked about Huckabees. So you really did love that movie. I do too--I've seen it six times.

I was pushing everybody I could to go see it.

There was a whole backstory to the movie that had to be cut out because there were just too many stories. And that was that Caterine and Bernard and Vivian had all been in love with each other at one time. We'd all been lovers with one another. And then Bernard and Vivian abandoned Caterine because of whatever they decide their philosophy is, and the implication is that Caterine became negative about the universe because of that abandonment. We have a big showdown, and it made our characters more colorful, but I can see it didn't really serve the movie, ultimately.

Did you guys shoot this?

Oh, yeah, we shot it. Part of it's on the DVD. I'm not saying we did it well or anything, but that was part of the back-story of our characters.

Hey, who wouldn't fall in love with Isabelle Huppert, right?

Right. [Laughs]
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Article Details
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Author:Duralde, Alonso
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 15, 2005
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