Monday, October 12, 2015

The Method Meets Stand-Up: Lily Tomlin in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe

Lily Tomlin (as Trudy the bag lady) in the film version of The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe (1991).

Though it has often been the case that actors celebrated for their work on the stage are replaced in the film adaptations by established movie stars, there’s a long and respectable history of great stage actors who have recreated their signature performances on the screen; it goes back at least to Walter Huston in Dodsworth (1936), if not even farther. Often it denotes pedigree in the eyes of Oscar voters: sixteen women and men have won Academy Awards for performances they originated on the stage.* In the case of actors who have an instinctual sense for the camera, the work may deepen on film: I suspect that was the case with Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire, and I know from personal experience that it was true of Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl, Stockard Channing in Six Degrees of Separation and Lily Tomlin in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, the one-woman show Jane Wagner wrote for her in 1985 and John Bailey filmed in 1991, in which she plays a dozen different characters. When Tomlin opened it on Broadway theatre critics searched for new superlatives to describe her performance; she had a triumphant national tour with it afterwards, and it was the subject of a PBS documentary. I saw it in Boston prior to the New York opening, and I was mesmerized by her invention, by her emotional range, and by the physical commitment. It was a Saturday night, and she still had a second evening show to give, but she moved as if she’d been shot out of a cannon, and the level of energy never lessened – she even did handstands. It was one of the most amazing performances I’ve ever seen on a stage, and it was even greater on screen, yet the critical reception it got was merely respectful and no one turned out to see it. Perhaps a movie of a one-person show – especially one that acknowledges its stage origins (though one can hardly envision a movie version of a one-person show that didn’t) – is easy to dismiss as a kind of second-hand special event, though in fact Bailey, a cinematographer making his directorial debut, developed a real concept that altered the stage play while paradoxically preserving it at the same time. Perhaps the ideal audience for this sort of entertainment had mostly seen it on stage or caught excerpts on PBS and didn’t bother checking it out at the movies. Or perhaps the show had been touted so loudly and so long when Tomlin was performing it live that it already felt old hat by the time it came out on film.

Tomlin has always been a formidable talent (and still is: she makes Paul Weitz’s tawdry comedy Grandma worth seeing – every scene is built around her). And she’s sui generis, though she’s undeniably a product of the 1960s. The Search for Signs is the most sophisticated and best of the one-woman evenings Tomlin had performed since the seventies, in collaboration with Wagner (who is also her long-time romantic partner), outgrowths of her stand-up routines, which television audiences were first exposed to on Laugh-In and her variety specials. The Vietnam War era was only the second time since talkies came in that the look and sound and feel of performance changed radically, reflecting a new cultural sensibility. The first had been the decade following the Second World War, when audiences responded to a new kind of psychological realism embodied in the generation trained by Lee Strasberg and Elia Kazan and Stella Adler: Brando, Montgomery Clift, James Dean, Julie Harris and their Method contemporaries. What happened to performance in the late sixties and early seventies, when the Hollywood studio system was coming apart and the new writers and directors and actors formed a countercultural bond with the young audience, was that improvisation became lighter and funnier and more widespread and the rhythms grew more ambling and goofy. Acting acquired a looser weave. Revue-style comedy entered the movies. And though it had its antecedents – in the vaudeville comedy of W.C. Fields in the thirties and the informal banter of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in the Road movies in the forties – revue comedy (which includes both stand-up and improv, a genre that in this era was often political in nature) was different: sharper, more irreverent, with a distinctly contemporary sound. And it required more acting training, or at least more acute acting instincts. Fields and Hope never played anyone except Fields and Hope, and when Crosby tried to get beyond his own persona in his serious screen roles in the fifties, he became just a conventional – dull – movie star. But during the Vietnam years directors like Robert Altman and Paul Mazursky encouraged actors to bring the rhythms of revue comedy onto the screen, and what they came up with represented a new kind of Method acting, an attempt to explore the realities of contemporary American life by replicating the way the culture had begun to sound: more ironic, more outrageous, more put on. And the commitment of these performers to their characters was absolutely Stanislavskian. A movie like Nashville is as much an embodiment of Method ideals as the first two Godfather pictures or Brando’s work in Last Tango in Paris: all keynote films of their era.

Lily Tomlin in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe (1991)

The Search for Signs cuts between Tomlin on stage performing in a simple pants suit, miming all her props and Tomlin in costume as she plays Trudy the bag lady, Agnus Angst the alienated teenager, Chrissy the temp, who’s afraid of everything, and the others. At the outset of the movie, the shifts between stage and film are distracting, and so is the static we see and hear when Trudy, who believes she’s being grilled by friendly extraterrestrials trying to discover the essence of life on earth, moves onto one wavelength after another, picking up the signals of each of the other characters. It takes a while to figure out Bailey’s idea: that the shock waves running through Trudy’s head are a metaphor for Tomlin’s acting. She has all these characters in her head. When Bailey moves from a segment of her on stage – miming the way Chrissy towels herself off after an aerobics class or the way Agnus is caged inside a phone booth, placing SOS calls to her best friend – to a fully costumed image of the same thing, he’s making the point that all the usual movie actor’s paraphernalia is already completely imagined in her performance. It may be trite to say that a great actor is possessed by a character, but the movie transcends the cliché by proving it.

When Tomlin’s acting is perfectly naturalistic, as it is in Altman’s 1975 Nashville, the clarity of the inner life of the character she’s playing can dazzle you. Everyone who’s seen Nashville remembers the inner conflict she conveys, without a line of dialogue, while Keith Carradine’s Tom serenades her in the club with “I’m Easy,” a public seduction. What separates her Linnea Reese in Altman’s movie from her work in The Search of Signs, among other things, is the jolt of almost superhuman energy that she rides like a pogo stick from character to character. Tomlin gets high on her adrenalin in this movie; she seems to be strung out on the pure joy of performing. The material is shaped like a combination of stand-up and individual character monologues (like, say, the segments of Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology). But they’re not exactly presentational; there’s always an imagined listener (and sometimes Tomlin plays the listener too), though since they’re filled with one-liners, on one level we hear them just as we would hear a nightclub routine by a performer who’s blitzed on his or her own creation. (Tomlin’s logical closest relative in the comedy community would have been Richard Pryor, who also got under the skin of the characters he played in his stand-up act. See Richard Pryor Live in Concert, Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip, and Richard Pryor . . . Here and Now.) But we hear something else at the same time – a real human being, so real that Tomlin’s ability to evoke her (or him: two of the characters she plays in The Search for Signs are men) is spooky. Let me offer an example. The climax of the film is a twenty-minute section tracing the history of the women’s movement through the story of a woman named Lyn who struggles to maintain her leftist-feminist ideals while “having it all”: a high-powered job, a good marriage, twins. Late in the scene she reveals to her two closest friends, Edie and Marge, that she’s got a job at a company that imports chi-chi clothes from South America, and then imagines their objections to the exploitation of the working poor of the Third World. When she cries, “It’s hard to be politically conscious and upwardly mobile at the same time!”, we know we’re hearing a punch line, and certainly we laugh. But Tomlin’s face shows us the agony in Lyn’s revelation that she’s given her life over to something she’s always despised.

Tomlin makes strong vocal and physical choices for the characters, especially Trudy (the exaggerated Chicago accent, the split-end sibilants, the way she hits the final consonants of her words so hard that they splinter), teenage Agnus Angst (the bubble voice contrasted with rage that keeps threatening to well up into tears), bored, moneyed Kate (the elongated Indian face, the wide Judith Anderson stare, the black velvet voice with the aristocratic drawl). And she makes lightning transitions from one character to the next. She takes pauses at important, revelatory moments, but the shifts into new phases, new time periods, are instantaneous: she leads into the next one before we have time to register it, like superimposed images in a dissolve. (Otherwise she couldn’t pinpoint the grief in Lyn’s voice as she’s picking up the phone to receive news of Marge’s suicide.) None of this is characteristic of Method training, but it implies a deep well of Method commitment to realistic character detail, given circumstances, all the Method shibboleths. In an interview in Janet Sonnenberg’s book The Actor Speaks, Tomlin explains, “You know, I don’t use Stanislavsky’s approach, but I do use activities and a lot of background material. I always see the character. I imagine her behaving in the moment, and then I get ideas for business or behavior.”

Lily Tomlin, performing on stage in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe in 1985.

When Tomlin was younger, she used to create characters who were preposterous enough to be the figures of fun in stand-up routines yet also possessed such recognizable human qualities that, with a slight twist, they’d reshape themselves into the people who populate the landscape of our daily lives – like the rubber freak whose confessions sounded too much and too movingly like an alcoholic’s to be merely a parody of one. In The Search for Signs you generally don’t need to apply that twist. (Perhaps only Trudy feels like an old-style Tomlin routine, and because the others are so much more evolved, she’s just a trifle wearying. Also you’re aware that Trudy’s meant to carry the authorial line on every eighties phenomenon the play wants to lampoon.) Kate and Chrissy, the aerobics-class woman whose life is an unending let-down and even the teen performance artist Agnus Angst aren’t much more stylized than the characters in Nashville, the movie in which Tomlin earned her Method chops. But then, Tomlin’s world and Altman’s have always intersected. The doctors in M*A*S*H perform perfectly calibrated deadpan comedy – put-ons – and all of The Long Goodbye is a hip seventies take on old Hollywood, with bits you think you might recognize from Laugh-In.

Wagner’s writing is funny and smart, and the characters, who are meant to suggest a cross-section of the social landscape of the eighties, link up in ingenious ways. That’s Wagner’s point: that in ways we can’t even imagine we’re all connected. (She’d be the Thornton Wilder of the late twentieth century if John Guare hadn’t already laid claim to that distinction.) But you can’t imagine what the script would play like without Tomlin turning it into flesh and blood, and when you read it, you can’t get her line readings out of your head – nor should you. When she plays Agnus, all bunched up inside that phone booth, or, crossing gender lines, Paul the stud, who’s haunted by the thought of the child he fathered but has never seen, or Kate, ripping the pull-outs, one by one, out of the magazines she thumbs through at the hairdresser’s, or Tina the whore, sucking on a lollipop while she lounges against the back seat of a john’s car, she inhabits each so fully that when they begin to converse with each other, you almost have to pinch yourself. And you don’t see the emotional punches coming at you – like Paul’s eerie realization that the musical child prodigy he catches on PBS could be his kid (now there’s a moment John Guare could have written) – so you’re never prepared for them. The long women’s movement piece near the end is such an emotional workout that I was a little relieved that the film didn’t end right away, because I’m not sure I could have made it safely out of the theatre afterwards. And then, just when you think Tomlin couldn’t do anything more spellbinding, she brings Kate back, and this frigid woman, sick with ennui, climbs ecstatically back into life before your eyes. Tomlin’s performance is an enduring miracle, and watching it again nearly a quarter-century after it was made, I thought once again: This woman could be the greatest actor on the planet.

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­* Here is the list of actors who won Oscars for performances they first gave on the stage: Paul Lukas, Watch on the Rhine (1943); Laurence Olivier, Hamlet (1948); José Ferrer, Cyrano de Bergerac (1950); Judy Holliday, Born Yesterday (1950); Karl Malden and Kim Hunter, A Streetcar Named Desire (1951); Shirley Booth, Come Back, Little Sheba (1952); Yul Brynner, The King and I (1956); Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke, The Miracle Worker (1962); Rex Harrison, My Fair Lady (1964); Paul Scofield, A Man for All Seasons (1966); Barbra Streisand, Funny Girl (1968); Jack Albertson, The Subject Was Roses (1968); Joel Grey, Cabaret (1972); Marlee Matlin, Children of a Lesser God (1986).

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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