Saturday, September 01, 2007

Honoring a many faceted gem: Lily Tomlin

Today, September 1st, is the 68th birthday of Lily Tomlin, a great comedian and actor whose versatility I've admired for many years. She's one of those performers who can identify and fondly embrace the many personsonalities that are tucked away in the corners of our human consciousness.

Many of us were first introduced to Ms. Tomlin via her regular bits on the 70s TV sketch comedy show Laugh-In, where she took turns as Edith Ann — a precocious little girl with an oversized attitude and rocking chair — and Ernestine — the nosy operator with the distinctive chortle (pictured at left). They were just two quills in her comedic quiver, and I was lucky enough to see her perform her one-woman but many character show The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe at in downtown Chicago theater in the mid-80s. The range of types she played was impressive enough, but the fact that she made them all not just real but interesting, and quite often touching, was truly artistic.

Tomlin has also done some wonderful film work, ranging from the dramatic Nashville to the screwball All of Me. I was very pleasantly surprised to discover her again in the 2004 comedy I Heart Huckabees where she played along with Dustin Hoffman as the wife-and-husband Existential Detectives inspecting the connections between their clients apparent coincidences.

Ours is a society that likes to pidgeon-hole everyone, forcing us at an early age to choose a life path and stick to it. We're all obsessed with our identities, and we often get bogged down in this propensity to over-emphasize one single aspect of our very complicated selves. Maybe it's our parents' ethnic heritage, our gender, our age, our hobbies, or our profession, but we all feel pressured to project an image that others can quickly grasp and understand.

I've never been very comfortable with that socially easy but individually limiting demand. I prefer the freedom that comes with frequent changes in costume and persona; mimicking the Greek god Proteus and his talent for metamorphosis. The life of a shape-shifter may frustrate outside observers, but it's in many ways the most reflective of the multi-faceted beings we inherently are.

Stare long enough in the mirror, and you might just see a variety of faces looking back. Some might find that a frightening prospect, but for me its the doorway to some interesting possibilities. Lily Tomlin has certainly stepped through the looking glass, taking us on a journey down the rabbit hole to discover people aren't always who or what they seem. It's been quite an enjoyable trip.
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