Lily Tomlin: Back in Aspen, still searching |

Lily Tomlin: Back in Aspen, still searching

Stewart OksenhornAspen Times Weekly
Brett PattersonComedian Lily Tomlin appears this week at Aspen's Wheeler Opera House.

ASPEN Who holds the J-Bar record for the most Wild Turkey consumed in one night?Lily Tomlin contends she does, or at least did, as of that night in Aspen in the spring of 1985, when a reporter, now deceased, from the Rocky Mountain News (also deceased) challenged her to a drinking contest. The two each consumed in the neighborhood of 13 shots of the Kentucky bourbon, Cokes back.Tomlin protests now that a commemoratory plaque, which had been promised, was never installed in the bar. Which might be for the best; as it turns out, an asterisk would probably have to be affixed to the record.I cheated. Totally, Tomlin confesses now. I vomited. If I hadnt, Im sure I would have died of alcohol poisoning.The regurgitation had benefits, even beyond the not-dying part. The following morning at John Denvers house, where Tomlin was staying, friends and associates roused the comedian with alternate dunks in the hot tub and the snow. When she and the Denver journalist showed up for a radio interview, Tomlin was in fine shape. Exquisite, actually.I was like a million bucks, Tomlin said from her home in Los Angeles Sherman Oaks neighborhood. In fabulous shape. Radiant.Tomlins memory of the rest of her Aspen stay is not quite as vivid. She cant recall the names of restaurants she frequented. For the length of her stay, she takes a stab at three weeks. (Records show it was six, from late February into March.) In fact, she cant even remember how it came to be that she workshopped the one-woman show The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe in Aspen, and in the process swapped homes with John Denver. (Would it be baseless to suggest that the 13 Wild Turkeys had something to do with the faulty grasp of details, the egress notwithstanding?)Several things, however, are clear enough in her mind. The experience was wonderful; Tomlin who doesnt seem much inclined to say a bad word about anything sings the praises of the town; the Wheeler Opera House, to which she had open access and where she gave more than a dozen performances; the people; the barfing.It was harmonious; everyone there was great, said the 69-year-old. Sort of like a Pleasantville convenient, great restaurants, lots of people coming out more than once. And the Wheeler was such a jewel box.The other aspect of the trip, equally positive, was the work that was accomplished. The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, written by Tomlins longtime mate and creative partner Jane Wagner, stands with the best work of Tomlins long, varied and honored career. Tomlin, who had come up in comedy clubs and television, was no stranger to being funny. And her appearances on the big screen especially in Robert Altmans 1975 sensation Nashville, for which she was nominated for an Academy Award revealed a talent for drama as well. But in Aspen, Tomlin and Wagner intertwined the humorous and the dramatic in a format they had not done before.It was very funny, very perceptive, very moving material, said Tomlin. Theres a sensibility that Jane and I share, but we had never before presented it in a sustained way like this, a divine, cohesive whole.We started getting incredible letters, the most unexpected kinds of letters deeply felt, from men and women, and talking about the play in a way that I had not heard directly in the past.The Search for Signs gave Tomlin 12 separate characters to inhabit from the edgy teenager Agnus Angst, to a pair of New York City hookers, to a troupe of feminists. At center-stage is Trudy the Bag Lady, who takes on the assignment of being tour guide through America in the 80s to two alien beings. One of the running bits in the play is a Warhol-inspired commentary on the relationship between soup and art.That discussion comes to a poignant conclusion when Trudy, trying simultaneously to demonstrate the experience of goose bumps, takes the aliens to the theater. They focus their attention on the crowd rather than the stage, and witness the theatergoers laughing and crying at the same time. That gave them goose bumps, notes Tomlin. The aliens come to the conclusion that The play was soup; the audience was art.Several months after the workshop stage in Aspen, The Search for Signs landed on Broadway. Tomlin was used to making people laugh, but she wasnt so accustomed to providing the feeling of fully rounded humanity that The Search for Signs left people with.After the show, there would be three middle-aged ladies from the Midwest, staying at the Milford the tourist-oriented theater district hotel known as the lullaby of Broadway a yuppie couple dressed to the teeth, gorgeous; some punk-Goth kids, said Tomlin. And theyd all be hanging together, and theyd invite me into the group. They were in a happy, spirited mood. People still stop me and talk about it as a singular moment they had in the theater. They remember it vividly.Tomlin earned a handful of awards for The Search for Signs, including a Best Actress Tony, and a Cable Ace Award for a subsequent televised version of the play. She successfully revived it on Broadway in 2000, and brought it to San Francisco in 2001, where it opened on Sept. 13. Despite the timing, it was a hit: I was nervous, of course, she said. But it was just what the audience needed at the moment.

Tomlin has been in Aspen just once since 1985, and she is sketchy on the details a benefit, a few years after workshopping The Search for Signs, maybe she performed. She is enthused about her next visit Wednesday, March 18, when she returns to the Wheeler with her show, An Evening of Classic Lily Tomlin. I hope I have a day on either side there, she said, hoping to revisit old times and places.Tomlin says she likes to keep her Classic Lily Tomlin events wide open. A lot of first-person, free-form. Informal, she said. And if the venue wants me to, Ill do a Q&A at the end.The show leans heavily on the various characters created by the Detroit native: Ernestine, the gum-cracking, wisecracking telephone operator; the little girl Edith Ann; the slick Tommy Velour. She can also break out characters from The Search for Signs.Tomlin says she pretty much expected to do character sketches her entire career. She never imagined herself jumping from television to feature films; that was a tough thing to do in the early 70s even if her Laugh-In co-star, Goldie Hawn, had done so.But Tomlin had the foresight in 1971 to obtain the option on a book, Maiden, by playwright Cynthia Buchanan. I was mad for it. I found the book so funny, comedic and original, she said. Tomlin shared an agent with Robert Altman at the time, and the filmmaker was looking for a project for his associate, Joan Tewkesbury, to direct. When Altman heard of the Maiden script, he touched base with Tomlin. The talk soon turned from Maiden to Nashville, which Altman was in the process of casting. Louise Fletcher, fresh off her Oscar-winning performance in One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, had dropped out, and the role was offered to Tomlin. She made her debut as part of the ensemble cast in Altmans ground-breaking, absorbing survey of an iconic U.S. city and American politics, circa 1975. Playing the gospel singer and mother Linnea Reese, Tomlin not only earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress, but also a place in Altmans stable of actors. She would go on to appear in his Short Cuts and his final film, A Prairie Home Companion; she was also planning to be in Hands on a Hard Body, which Altman was working on when he died, in 2006.Id have liked more dramatic roles. But they werent offered to me, she said. Thats why Altman is so unusual, that he would give me a chance to do things no one else would.Comedies were a different story. Tomlin has appeared in blockbusters (Nine to Five), edgy artistic successes (Flirting with Disaster), Woody Allens oddest film ever (Shadows and Fog), and had a few star turns, in The Incredible Shrinking Woman, and Big Business, which teamed her with Bette Midler. She appeared recently in The Pink Panther 2, which reteamed her with Steve Martin, her foil in one of her finest films, All of Me.Tomlin has two projects lined up, one with Lisa Kudrow, the other with Dan Aykroyd. In both of them she plays the mother character but a different sort of mother character than she played in Nashville.Thats what happens. You play mothers, she said. But I guess I could be playing somebodys grandmother. Im old enough.She says this with no evidence of regret. Tomlin has aged well. In her mind, she says, Im not changed much.And then she reconsiders: I think Im much better, she offered. And I dont tire of getting better. Pablo Casals, when he was 85, someone asked why he still practiced five hours a day. He said, Because I think Im getting

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