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Lily Tomlin: Still Searching For Signs Of Intelligent Life

October 26, 1986|LAWRENCE CHRISTON

In a short time, their friendship and collaboration ripened to the point where they formed a symbiotic whole in which each deepened and extended the other. They worked together (with other writers) on albums, TV specials and on Tomlin's hugely successful one-woman show, "Appearing Nitely," where producer Robert Stigwood and John Travolta approached them about the movie project that was to become "Moment by Moment."

The movie, a love story between a wealthy Malibu woman and a street hustler, was doomed from the start by a script in which the humor, piquancy, the love of the eccentric and the sharp satirical eye that had characterized Tomlin and Wagner's work together were all missing. And the themes they successfully developed later, such as tacit sexual coexistence, the loneliness of people who buy into trends, human fragility and the courage it takes to get through a day, never left the larval stage.

Tomlin had already made "The Late Show" and "Nashville." But, looking back, she says, "I made the wrong choice. I felt terrible. I'd just done 'Nashville.' I didn't know myself. I didn't know what to do. I thought I'd go to Stigwood and ask him to let me go. I made the wrong choice, and that's that. It was amazing to me that you could pick up a magazine three or four years later and still hear about it. I felt for John too--he's so sensitive."

It was Wagner's first directorial assignment and it came at the juncture when the woman's movement was peaking and the underlying historic current of American machismo --which has no greater cultural institutionalization than that of the movies--was beginning to stir. The combination of elements fatally undermined the movie; "Moment by Moment's" release met with universal derision.

Wagner, a soft-spoken, introspective, somewhat cherubic-looking woman, recently recalled the experience in a separate interview: "It isn't enough to know the aesthetics of movie-making. You have to know the mechanics, too. I didn't. I couldn't handle the crew. I had to cut 30 pages out of the script. When Lily chose to play the character depressed, I went with her, even though playing depression is not interesting. Panic began to set in when I saw the rushes at night and knew they were not good, but that I'd have to go on with the next day's shooting anyway. I felt increasingly helpless. I'm not good at dealing with people. I'm much too subjective. I'm always surprised when writers become good directors.

"I know everything I say sounds defensive. I'm responsible for the fact it was a bad movie. Lily feels even more responsible. After we did 'The Incredible Shrinking Woman,' which didn't do well either, there was an estrangement. It was not easy on any level.

"I see things more realistically now. I hadn't been prolific before and I'm still not. At an address to the Dramatists Guild in New York, I mentioned what it is to experience bad reviews and realize that as bad as self-doubt is, it's worse when others think so, too. It takes a lot of arrogance to overcome that and to be able to work again.

"It helps that Lily is such a trouper. She's a fighter; she bounces back. She'll be honest, even if it means showing her irritable side. She's very bombastic, as well as open and childlike, sometimes even naive. When you work so closely with someone and this sort of thing happens, you can develop a hate, or at least lose respect. The opposite happened with us. Thank God she's that way. Even when we disagree on some aspect of our work and I walk out, she'll come after me. She won't let me be the dog under the porch."

Thinking of their upcoming opening, she said, "It's such a triumph for us now." And after the slightest of pauses added, "Whatever that means."

Tomlin went on to make "9 to 5" and the well-received "All of Me" with Steve Martin, directed by Carl Reiner. But the combination of theater and stand-up comedy remained her metier and what she wanted to do most. "Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe" evolved out of "Appearing Nitely," where the snooty character of Kate finds a lost suicide note that has to add to the disconsolate misery of the person who wrote it and now doesn't know what she did with it.

In "Search," Tomlin makes use of yet another series of vivid comic creations added to those she's given us in "Appearing Nitely," or, for that matter, those she's been offering us all along. There's yet another bag lady--Trudy, in this case, who shares her disordered mind and its fool's wisdom with a contingent of extraterrestrials: Chrissie, the young trendy who reflects "I wanted to be somebody, but I think I should've been more specific"; Edie, a radical feminist; Bob and Lyn, disciples of the human potential movement who have been left high and dry on the arid shores of yuppiedom; Agnus Angst, the savagely unhappy teen punker; a couple of hookers; and Kate, the socialite so jaded, her voice sounds positively desiccated with world-weariness.

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