Lily Tomlin Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Lily Tomlin 1939–

(Born Mary Jean Tomlin) American writer, comedienne, and actress.

Tomlin has been lauded as a comedic genius; some critics feel that her work has even transcended the genre. Robert Benton, who directed Tomlin in The Late Show, has said about her film work that she is "the greatest living American actress." Although not all critics will concur with this extreme praise, critical opinion has in general recognized her as a superior actress with far-reaching potential. The skill with which Lily Tomlin has made the transition from comedy to acting is said to be a startling example of the versatility of her talent. Tomlin, however, has always considered herself an actress. She approaches her comedy as an actress would approach a serious, dramatic role. Her characters are studied, shaped, formed, directed, and executed as if she were the playwright, the director, and the play. Tomlin's close associate Jane Wagner maintains that Lily practices what she calls "comedic posession." She maintains that Lily Tomlin simply becomes her characters.

Tomlin's comic writing has a distinctly literary quality and her work verifies the fact that the line between comedy and drama is a fine one. She has created characters who have real depth and range. They are funny, but they are also sad, lonely, and despairing.

Lily Tomlin is a staunch supporter of the women's movement and her work often projects her feelings on this subject. She is politically and socially active and aware. Some critics feel that her work has suffered as a result, and what was once cynical and intelligent has become arrogant and moralistic. These critics, among others, feel that Tomlin's best material comes from her memories of growing up in an old Detroit apartment building that was filled with "upwardly striving, downwardly moving people who were all funny in different ways." Tomlin advocates will say that it was necessary for her to expand her repertoire to include more universal figures. Her most loyal audiences have said that Tomlin shows us a vision of ourselves—individuals who sometimes win and sometimes lose. At its best, her wit is not directed towards individuals but towards the society which imposes convention and judgment upon them. Her characters are survivors. Their strength and dignity as individuals lend a certain optimism to her work.