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March 31, 2006


Working girl

Lily Tomlin on ‘Nine to Five,’ working for the man, and being out with Jane Wagner

Most folks can’t wait to punch out of their nine to five gig. Not Lily Tomlin. She’s actually been waiting for an opportunity to clock back in.

With the release of the all-new Sexist, Egotistical, Hypocritical Bigot Edition DVD of the 1980 comedy classic Nine to Five, Tomlin was able to do just that, reuniting with co-stars Dolly Parton and Jane Fonda to whip up a basket of extras including a new documentary and commentary track sure to bring a sly smile to any fan of this camp classic.

The over-the-top, exuberant performances by this dream team trio in Nine to Five, not to mention its outlandish revenge fantasy plot by gay screenwriter Colin Higgins, raised the film to gay icon status and also made the women heroines to all of working-class America.

After they’ve endured enough verbal abuse and humiliation from their “sexist, egotistical, hypocritical bigot” of a boss, Mr. Hart (Dabney Coleman), Violet (Tomlin), office manager at Consolidated Inc., Doralee (Parton), the vice president’s secretary, and Judy (Fonda), a recently divorced new employee, band together for revenge. After fantasizing gonzo ways of dispatching Hart during a memorable pot-smoking scene, they enact a vengeful plot, which leads to tons of complications involving rat poison, kidnapping, as well as, of course, vindication for the ladies.

Empowering yet wonderfully screwball, the film launched an ABC TV series; a massive chart hit for Parton--the Oscar-nominated theme song--and even inspired the name of a real-life empowerment organization, 9 to 5, National Organization of Working Women. Yet while the corporate landscape has changed since Nine to Five played in theaters--a mere eight years later the film Working Girl depicted a despicable female boss--Tomlin feels the film remains relevant today.

“There’s still not equal pay [for men and women],” Tomlin notes. “Some workplaces have daycare but it’s not prevalent everywhere. There are still fewer female bosses.”

Tomlin had her own days of working for the man to draw upon when cast in Nine to Five; during the 1960s, while looking for work as an actress, she temped in several offices and served a stint as waitress at the Howard Johnson’s in Times Square. Yet Tomlin reports that during this time she never had to wreak vengeance on a boss the way Violet and her friends did.

“No, they probably had to take out their frustration on me!” she laughs. “The only time I went off on a job . . . I used to work the Howard Johnson’s breakfast shift a lot. Is there anything you hate more at breakfast than getting that little hard block of butter to put on your already cold toast? The cook had a great big tub of softened butter he would throw on the grill, and I’d try and sweet talk him into swiping my toast with it so I could serve it to my customers in a more appetizing, thoughtful way. He wouldn’t do it, he was such a bastard, so I ripped off my apron and threw it down on the floor and jumped up and down yelling ‘I quit! The cook won’t even put soft butter on my toast!’ That’s the only time I ever lost it on a job like that.”

Tomlin pauses to reflect for a moment, and then thinks better of her response.

“Oh no, I did do lots of things,” she adds, amused. “I could talk forever. But I didn’t do it to the boss--only to the bossy women in the office like the secretaries who would run you to death.”

Luckily, Tomlin found a way out of offices--except for those constructed on sound stages--when she found fame on TV’s Laugh-In in 1969. There she created her enduring, obnoxious telephone operator character, Ernestine. By the 1970s, Tomlin was bringing home Emmy Awards for her TV specials, and in 1985 hit Broadway with her famed one-woman show (which later became a movie), The Search for Signs for Intelligent Life in the Universe.

Much of Tomlin’s performance work, including Intelligent Life, has been co-written by life partner Jane Wagner--including the Oscar-night banter between Tomlin and Meryl Streep.

But Tomlin’s 30+ year relationship with Wagner--and her sexuality for that matter--had remained ambiguous to the public until 2000, when Tomlin officially came out in Us magazine and a cable TV show, Gay USA.

Still, she insists that she dropped many sly queer winks and hints in her work over the decades, and that it was certainly no secret to fellow industry types.

“We were so much more out than you can imagine,” Tomlin says. “When I was making my Modern Scream album, I got a call from my publicist--this was 1975--that Time magazine would give me the cover if I would come out. They were doing a story on homosexuality or something, and they ended up putting Leonard Matlovich on the cover. Anyway, I was sort of insulted because I didn’t see [being featured in a cover story] as political. I saw it as them saying we’ll give you the cover if you do this. I wasn’t going to trade my personal life to get on the cover of a magazine. And [I don’t regret my decision because] I got on the cover two years later just for my performance.”

Nowadays, the Lily Tomlin/Jane Wagner Cultural Arts Center at the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center is a testament to the couple’s lasting, very out relationship. However, Tomlin isn’t sure they will ever actually get married. In fact, she says, “I doubt it.”

“I’d like the right to, sure,” she shares. “I absolutely think we should have the right. Whether I take advantage, I don’t know. You know, I do a line: ‘I have to tell you I’m worried about same-sex marriage. It could be a slippery slope. If homos start imitating heteros, what’s next? Monster truck rallies?’ It’s a kind of imitating [heterosexual culture]. I don’t really want to. I’m not that crazy about society anyway so I don’t care about whether society accepts me or not! I mean I love being an artist and performer so I guess I want people to accept me, accept my work, and I care about what I do and put out. And when I do work I mostly want to underscore the fact that humans are worth saving, worth being something glorious and noble. We should look more to that side of ourselves. We might do magnificent things someday.”

Which brings us to TV’s The West Wing. Since 2002, Tomlin has portrayed the president’s personal secretary Deborah Fiderer on the NBC series, which imagines the White House occupied by Jed Bartlet, a president with a strong moral core and deep intelligence.

“Many people dream that Bartlet was our real president,” Tomlin notes. “I don’t have to go to sleep to dream that. I’ve dreamed it from the beginning!”

As for what would be required for that dream to come true in the future, Tomlin muses: “If we could find a leader who’s really humane, had vision, was forward-thinking and wasn’t egocentric, narcissistic and troubled in some way. A grown, mature, brilliant person who can see the world as one place so that . . . it would be nice to find that person. But I don’t know who that is, frankly.”

As for what her own future holds? Tomlin and Meryl Streep play a pair of singing siblings in director Robert Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion this June. She’ll re-team with Streep--or at least her voice--in an animated feature, The Ant Bully. But Tomlin has one more gig she’d really like to clock in for: a Nine to Five sequel.

“There have been half a dozen written over the years,” Tomlin reveals. “One was going to be set in Washington. Violet was working as an aide to a senator, Doralee had gotten a job in one of the salons, and Judy married some big powerful guy. It was going to get into politics and we were going to use that underground train they have that goes between the buildings. I thought that was a great setting and premise.”

That failing, perhaps Tomlin could convince the producers of the upcoming Broadway musical adaptation (for which Parton is writing songs) to let her step back into Violet’s shoes.

“Why not me?” she asks with enthusiasm. “Am I too old? I’ll just sing extra-well! I studied singing for two months to do Prairie. Maybe this will be the big role I sing for!”

The Nine to Five: Sexist, Egotistical, Hypocritical Bigot Edition DVD is available from Fox Home Entertainment on April 4.


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