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Curio: Lily Tomlin, Movie Fan

Alexa here. To celebrate Lily Tomlin's 75th birthday tomorrow I dug up this 1983 issue of the ill-fated "The Movies" magazine from my collection. In it, Tomlin shares her film memories, especially those during her time as a teen usherette. The lengthy diary-like piece, filled with teen snapshots and written with wife and longtime collaborator Jane Wagner, reveals Tomlin to be a true film obsessive, discussing various modes of screen charisma ("inner glow" versus "outer twinkle"), her sexual awakening via B-movies, the damage Brigitte Bardot did to her, and her feminist critique of Annie Hall. Here are some choice excerpts.

On the peculiar influence movies had on her:

To say movies had a big influence on me is an epic understatement. When I got the job as an usherette my movie-mania had reached a feverish pitch. I was thirteen (I lied about my age) and star struck. Each night I would fix myself up to look like the star on the bill that week at the Avalon Theatre in Detroit. I would take my mother's Futurama lipstick and make a mmmmmmoist Marilyn Monroe mouth that would remain mmmmoist even while talking, laughing, necking, or eating popcorn. I couldn't wait till it was time to go to work so I could leave my blue-collar home environment for spectacles so spectacular, action so action-packed, romances so romantic that I actually fainted on one occasion as I was transported from bleak industrial Detroit to Hollywood's silver screen under some kind of celluloid spell I never fully came out of...Like a dame in distress in a B-grade Carole Mathews swamp movie, I was caught in movieland's magical muck of fantasy silver-screen quicksand. The moviegoing ritual was practically a religious experience. I became one with the movies.



On the lure of lobby cards and posters:

I was a lover of lobby cards and a pushover for poster prose. All movie addicts are. I was so impressionable in those usherette days that when I think about what was being sold to us through movies, I cringe...and so should those picture-show poets who did the blurbs. There was Cecil B. Demille's Unconquered with Gary Cooper and Paulette Goddard. It went something like, "I bought this woman for my own and I'll kill the man who touches her!" Then there was The Private Affairs of Bel Ami with George Sanders and Angela Lansbury, which had the shameless come-on: "All women take to men who had the appearance of wickedness." The visual was a man's legs from below the hips and there was Angela on her knees, clinging to his pants leg and looking up at him...I guess for some sign of wickedness...Hilda Crane with Jean Simmons was responsible for more than one gender-identity crisis, I'm sure. The blurb alone was enough to make you look twice at your genitalia: "I want to live like a man and still be a woman." By the way, I'm not saying that was false advertising.

On women and the moral universe of movies:

B-movies often hit upon some gritty truth that the more mainstream movies missed in their middle-brow attempts at respectability. The good women in the A-movies were either too idealized, or too ditzy; worst of all, they had no dreams of their own. They didn't need them maybe because they had their husbands'. The bad women in movies, sad, but true, seemed to have more daring, more guts, more strength. They definitely had more dreams even if their main one was to get a whole lot of money and go lie in the sun in Acapulco. As a kid I was confused by the movie moral code. Sure, the bad woman always gets punished in the end, but the good woman seemed punished throughout the entire movie...The woman I'm talking about, personified by Beverly Michaels in Wicked Woman, comes into town (having been run out of another town) and starts doing the things she needs to survive. She checks into a two-bit hotel, circles the want ads for a barmaid's job, drinks out of a bottle she keeps in her drawer, shaves her legs in the sink, peroxides her roots with a toothbrush, two-times everybody, only to find in the end, of course, she is the one who is double-crossed...I didn't know much about feminism but I knew if forced to make a choice I would rather be Ruby Gentry who wrecked a whole town than be Sandra Dee and be wrecked by a whole bunch of surfers...Actually, I've tried in my lifetime to be both - a good woman and a bad woman. Don't ask me to elaborate. In Nashville, the character I played, Linnea, was a good woman with bad woman desires. It can make a girl crazy.


On her embryonic feminism and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes:

I remember when Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was playing and this middle-aged couple was standing in the back because the wife was disgusted and wanted to leave and the husband was trying to catch the last few frames of Marilyn Monroe jiggling and dancing. The wife said, "Oh, she doesn't have any talent." And he said, "She doesn't need any." That remark disturbed me somehow. Feminism was like an unborn fetus in me, only for a long time I didn't know I was pregnant. I would feel these little embryonic kicks of consciousness, flickerings of feminist feelings. But I stayed in labor for years.

On Bardolatry and the damage done:

I had to go through heavy Brigitte Bardot damage. Bardolatry. After I saw And God Created Woman I went around Detroit wearing a red shirt-dress with a black leotard underneath, the dress unbuttoned almost to the waist from the top and the bottom. Barefoot. Walking the streets of Detroit barefoot as if I were in the south of France. In the title And God Created Woman the implication was that the devil created Bardot. She would sit with her legs wickedly apart and throw her skirts between them - it was like Elvis moving his pelvis - a breakthrough. I began to affect this Bardot behavior; I felt womanly, Bohemian, abandoned! And in Detroit, sitting around with my skirts thrown down between my opened legs, I was. 

On screen charisma:

I have this inner/outer theory of screen charisma. Goldie [Hawn] has an inner glow and an outer twinkle. You can't beat that combo. Shirley MacLaine has it. Jean Arthur, too. Garbo had inner glow but no outer twinkle. Sandra Dee had sparkle, not twinkle, and no inner glow whatsoever. Not a glimmer. Doris Day was something else. She had outer glow. June Allyson...inner twinkle. Debbie Reynolds, inner bubble. Mitzi Gaynor, outer gleam. Barbara Streisand has something, but I wouldn't call it twinkle or glow, it's more like an urban energy. Liza Minnelli's twinkle is not inner or outer, it's peripatetic...more free form.

On her critique of Annie Hall, almost:

I loved Annie Hall, but sometimes [Diane Keaton] seemed too threatened by Woody Allen. Don't print that because I don't want to say anything that might hurt someone. I've read things people have said about me, and sometimes just a casual little critical remark can be so piercingly painful that you agonize over it for days,...weeks. A whole lifetime. (Pause.) A whole lifetime. I'm still not over what was written about Moment by Moment.

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Reader Comments (7)

I love love love love love this, thanks for sharing! Especially love Tomlin's thoughts about actors having glow and sparkle, which is such a non-actorly way to think about what makes actors appealing but so true to the experience of watching actors onscreen.

September 1, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTB

What a brilliant woman!

September 1, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBiggs

This is so great!
I just finished watching Nashville, and I had no idea it was Tomlin's birthday while I was watching it, but I can't think of a better way to spend a holiday Monday/diamond jubilee of an American treasure.

September 1, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMike in Canada

this is really special. I learned new things about Lily. I don't remember this magazine at all and I used to be a magazine freak.

September 1, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNathanielR

"don't print that.."


if the moment by moment wound was still raw five years after i wonder how she feels about it now..?

September 2, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterpar

This. The best thing ever.

September 2, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDon with ADD

Damn, she's good.

September 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDback

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