All of us who love Lily Tomlin are smiling. On Dec. 7, Tomlin, 75, was awarded a Kennedy Center honor. The star-studded award ceremony, where Tomlin, along with Tom Hanks, Sting, Al Green and Patricia McBride, was honored for her contributions to art and culture, will be broadcast on CBS on Dec. 30. Tomlin, who stars with Jane Fonda in the Netflix series “Grace and Frankie” due out next year, is the first out lesbian to receive a Kennedy Center honor.
In a career spanning half a century, the Emmy, Grammy and Peabody-winning Tomlin has received many distinguished awards from a special Tony in 1977 for her one-woman Broadway show “Appearing Nitely” to the Kennedy Center’s Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in 2003. The Kennedy Center honor is, perhaps, the most prestigious honor to be bestowed on Tomlin.
“President Kennedy understood that our art is a reflection of us not just as people, but as a nation, it binds us together,” President Obama said at a White House East Room reception before the gala performance. “Songs and dance and film express our triumphs and our faults, our strengths, our tenderness.”
Some of us grew up with Tomlin, who became a cultural icon after getting her first big break and burst of fame when she joined the cast of the TV show “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.” At that moment, her many characters, especially, Ernestine, the snotty telephone operator (now bureaucratic health care plan employee) and the truth-telling child Edith Ann, became part of our zeitgeist’s DNA.
We’ve watched her perform in movies from Robert Altman’s “Nashville” to (the so funny that its feminism doesn’t beat you up) “9 to 5″ to “Admission.” We’ve laughed and choked up as she portrayed memorable TV characters from “Kay” — Candice Bergen’s foil on “Murphy Brown” — to “Deborah,” President Bartlett’s secretary on “The West Wing” to Fiona’s mom Putsy Hodge on “Web Therapy.”
But what endears Tomlin to me, and I bet many other life-long Tomlin aficionados, is the multitude of characters that she has brought to life on record albums, TV specials and, most notably, in her two Broadway shows “Appearing Nitely” and “The Search for Signs of Life in the Intelligent Universe,” written by her wife Jane Wagner. Tomlin’s characters range from the teenager Agnus Angst, to Trudy, the homeless woman who’s simpatico with extraterrestrial beings, to grandparents Lud and Marie who can’t stop talking about cake to lounge-lizard Tommy Velour to Southern inspirational singer Sister Boogie Woman.
These creations aren’t caricatures. They’re written with Wagner’s extraordinary skill and performed by Tomlin with her amazing talent from the depths of her being.
Like many, but particularly, LGBT people and others who’ve been outsiders, my life was changed by Tomlin’s art. Growing up in an often sexist, homophobic world, I found in her work a universe where women didn’t cower before men; and where compassion, eccentricity and humor ruled. Legally blind, I’d seen only a few disabled characters who weren’t sappy victims or creepy villains, before encountering Tomlin’s character Crystal, a spirited quadriplegic in a wheelchair with the goal of hang gliding off Big Sur. Tomlin’s art gave me and so many others the courage to be ourselves.
In 1976, I accidentally met Tomlin when she performed at a small theater in a town near New Haven, Conn., at a benefit for Jimmy Carter in the 1976 presidential campaign. Somehow, I’d gotten a cheap ticket to the show and, getting lost looking for the bathroom, found myself in Tomlin’s dressing room. Most stars would have kicked a fan like me out, or maybe even called security. Not Tomlin. She graciously offered me some wine, asked where I was from and didn’t snicker when I stammered that I was from Connecticut. Over the decades, Tomlin has shown this humanity in her life and in her art.
Lily, we salute you!
Kathi Wolfe, a writer and a poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.