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Movie Review : 'Tomlin': Thin Portrait Of The Artist

February 20, 1987|KEVIN THOMAS | Times Staff Writer

Joan Churchill and Nicholas Broomfield's "Lily Tomlin: The Film Behind the Show" ( at the Westside Pavilion) is entertaining simply because Lily Tomlin is entertaining. But as a film it finally cancels itself out, unsatisfying as either documentary or concert film.

There's not enough of Tomlin's dazzling one-woman show "The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe" (which continues at the Doolittle) to do it justice, yet the behind-the-scenes stuff is too thin on its own. (The film makers even dip into old TV show clips.)

You can understand why Tomlin, concerned with a cable-TV sale for her show, would try to block the film. Harder to understand is why, as an essentially private person, not to mention a show-business veteran, she agreed to be filmed in the first place. Apparently, she wasn't sure enough of the show's success to feel the need to protect her material. At any rate, it is strictly a portrait of an artist preparing and in performance; do not go expecting to discover the woman behind the performer.

In February, 1984, six months after Tomlin and writer-director Jane Wagner started work on "Signs of Intelligent Life," Churchill and Broomfield, known for their impressive documentaries "Soldier Girls" and "Chicken Ranch," started filming in Austin, Tex., where Tomlin began trying out Wagner's new material before an audience for the first time.

In essence, the film is a record of a lengthy, cross-country tryout, building to a triumphant Broadway opening. We watch Tomlin gradually develop her characterizations, sharpening her timing, eliminating fluffs and adding music and sound effects. Although audiences are asked for their responses, it's not clear to what extent their opinions helped shape the final show.

Generous as the glimpses of Tomlin on stage are--they make up 20% of the film--they are just that. Apart from polish, they're identical to what she is currently performing in person. There are bits and pieces of the defiant yet vulnerable teen-aged Agnus Angst; the clutch of women friends who've survived the '60s and '70s and their fads and causes; and of Trudy, the unhinged but wildly imaginative bag woman. You may enjoy them in snippets, but there's nothing like seeing these characters in their wondrous, hilarious and poignant stage life.

There are no surprises offstage: Tomlin and Wagner come across as the hard-working, highly talented professionals their work proclaims them to be. Perhaps the most revealing moment of Tomlin at work is a session with her late coach, Peggy Feury; in this scene we see Tomlin revealing the awesome range of her expressiveness, the controlled flexibility of her voice and body. Tomlin is ever the chameleon: In a snap she can switch from young to old, plain to beautiful--but we already knew this coming in. Certainly, the film does allow us a close-range look at Tomlin's sheer joy in performing and the rewarding cheers it brings her.

It is perhaps a measure of the ultimate superficiality of the film (Times-rated: Mature for some racy lines) that the individual we do feel we come to know best is neither the highly focused Tomlin nor the lovely, gentle Wagner, but their feisty road manager Cheryl Swannack.

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