Lily Tomlin James Wolcott - Essay

James Wolcott

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Modern Scream (great title: movie-mag trashiness crossed with primal therapy) is not the usual recorded-live-stage-show-comedy album, as Lily Tomlin's first two albums were. It's a conceptual work—a movie with Lily Tomlin in every frame. The plot structure is an interview in which the Hidden History of Tomlin's life is revealed. (Actually, concealed.)…

All of Tomlin's characters are twisted, but like Robert Altman, with whom she worked on Nashville, she does not hang them on hooks of contempt for our amusement; their kinks are painted with tender strokes….

[This is] the true subject of Modern Scream: having your fame and still maintaining your inner equilibrium. As it says in the Label of Contents: "Lily talks intimately to reporter, reveals nothing." Not quite nothing. Interviewer: "Did it seem strange … making love to a man on the big screen?" Tomlin: "You don't have to be [a heterosexual] to play one." For years, reporters have been probing this area of Tomlin's life; this switch on the old joke is her way of disposing of the issue without allowing her intimacies to be violated. She does a media strip-tease, and through the assurance of her technique … remains clothed…. Tomlin's triumph on Modern Scream is that she takes this—the fake intimacy that we all indulge in—and makes it funny. (p. 73)

I could have done without the obvious conceit of Tomlin comparing herself to a chameleon, and the reprise of bits at the end doesn't give the album a sharp enough sendoff. Trivial complaints when weighed against a fine sequence like Tomlin's female version of the American Graffiti high-school heebie-jeebies, in which the desperation of acceptance-seeking teen girls is presented with comic poignance. Wanting to be liked has never seemed so scalding….

Indeed, after Modern Scream, a lovely comic garland for the twisted, Lily Tomlin's voice will have the certification of Katharine Hepburn's cheekbones or ballerina Gelsey Kirkland's feet as an authentic American treasure. (p. 75)

James Wolcott, "Bizarre Acts Revealed by Star," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1975; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 200, November 20, 1975, pp. 73, 75.