Her hat flopping, her glasses riding low on her nose, the reporter is a study in adenoidal intensity. "Lily," she demands, "what do you feel when you see yourself on TV?"
A model of silky noncooperation, Lily answers with a question of her own: "What does a chameleon see when it looks into a mirror?"
Lily is Lily Tomlinof course. The reporter is Lily Tomlinof course. And the chameleon is Lily Tomlin too. Indeed, if someone were to ask the real Lily Tomlin to stand up this week when she opens her one-woman show on Broadway, there would be either dead silenceor a forest of waving hands.
The first arm to rise would belong to Ernestine, the Mussolini of the switchboard. "This is the telephone company," she might announce. "We are not subject to city, state or federal legislation. We are omnipotent." Or: "Here at the telephone company we handle 84 billion calls a year, serving everyone from Presidents and kings to the scum of the earth."
Then there would be Edith Ann, a 5½-year-old demon even the devil could not exorcise. Edith Ann's idea of playing with dolls is to put one under her dressand tell everyone she's pregnant. "I don't usually get a cold," she confides. "I have leprosy."
Tess the Bag Woman would be next. She sells potholders, rifles garbage cans and chats with little guys in flying saucers. "Tell them the world is cracked," one of them commanded her a while back. "Boy," she sighs, "did I know that." If nobody believes her when she says the world is cracked, her friends from space instruct her, she should take the message to the National Enquirer. "Even if they don't believe you," the saucerites say, "they might run it anyway."
The Lilys go on and on. Down there in the front row is Lupe, the world's oldest beautician, whose face seems more left than lifted. "Lines, lines, go away," she says. "Pay a visit to Doris Day." At the back of the theater, sitting in a wheelchair, is Crystal the Terrible Tumble weed. A quadraplegic, Crystal has been crossing the country in her wheelchair, the CB-equipped Iron Duchess; when last seen, she was on her way to hang-glide off Big Sur, Calif. Swaggering down the aisle, belching and downing a beer at the same time, is Rick, the ex-football bruiser turned singles-bar cruiser. Sitting in the front row is his natural enemy, Mrs. Beasley, the perfect housewife from Calumet City, Ill. Mrs. Beasley's brain is a pincushion of anxiety. "These days it's not enough for a housewife to be loving and neat as a pin," she frets. "We must be creative. There are some things you can make so cleverly that it is virtually impossible for anyone to tell if you have talent or not."
Lily Tomlin, at age 37, the woman with the kaleidoscopic face, is just about that clever herself. She becomes the embodiment of Edith Ann, Lupe, Rick, Tess and a dozen or so others so quickly and flawlessly that she fools even the pros. "I don't think Tomlin really acts," says Robert Benton, who directed her in the year's sleeper film hit, The Late Show. "Her imagination is so vast that she just assumes the personality of the character."