Recent Emmy nominee Lily Tomlin is having a good — maybe great — year. Her hit Netflix series Grace and Frankie has already been renewed for a second season, and now there is talk of an Oscar nomination for her title role in Grandma, a new film from Paul Weitz, which opens Friday in South Florida.
After working with her in 2013’s Admission, in which Tomlin played Tina Fey’s mother, Weitz wrote the role of Elle, a semiretired gay professor and poet, with the 75-year-old actress in mind.
When we meet Elle, her longtime lover has died. Feeling tethered to the past, she tries to purge her life. She cancels her credit cards and ends a brief relationship with a younger woman (Judy Greer). Then her granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) shows up pregnant and needs money for an abortion scheduled for later that day.
The dramedy pulls no punches about the subject, and neither does Elle later in the film. Since Grandma is temporarily cash poor, the pair begin an odyssey around Los Angeles, hitting up Elle’s old friends for money. The car they used was Tomlin’s own ’55 Dodge Royal Lancer, which she bought in 1975.
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“I stopped using it around ’95, though we still run it down to the store every once in a while to keep it running,” she says.
And those were also Tomlin’s clothes in the movie.
“I met with the costume designer and tried a couple of things, but nothing felt as right than what I wore every day.”
Grandma was shot in just 19 days, with a stellar cast including Oscar-winning actress Marcia Gay Harden as Elle’s daughter, Sam Elliott as an ex-lover and Orange Is the New Black’s Laverne Cox as a tattoo-artist friend.
Tomlin made her movie debut in Robert Altman’s Nashville in 1975. Until then, audiences had known her for creating unforgettable comic characters such as Ernestine, the telephone operator, or the precocious little girl Edith Anne on Laugh-In.
She went on to do both serious and comedic films, 9 to 5 with Jane Fonda and Dolly Parton being the biggest, as well as more television and stage work. She has won numerous awards, including a Grammy, two Tonys, six Emmys and two Peabodys. She also received the prestigious Mark Twain Prize for Humor in 2003 and was a 2014 Kennedy Center honoree.
Tomlin still goes on the road with her one-woman show.
“I’ve never been a conventional stand-up. I didn’t want to be tied to one character like Joan,” she says, referring to her friend, the late Joan Rivers. “Instead of doing a mother-in-law joke, I’d rather play the mother-in-law.”
She also knows she’s been a feminist all her life, even before she understood what it meant. Tomlin remembers being a 13-year-old usher at a movie theater that was playing Gentlemen Prefer Blondes when a woman came huffing out. Meanwhile, her husband hung back watching Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell jiggling on screen. “Come on, they don’t have any talent anyway,” the wife said. “They don’t need any,” the husband retorted.
“I was struck by that little moment,” says Tomlin. “I didn’t know what it meant exactly or why I was so affected by him saying that.”
Tomlin’s sexuality was a longtime open secret in Hollywood. She has been together with writer Jane Wagner for 44 years. With the change in the laws, the two were finally married Dec. 31, 2013. In 1975, Time magazine wanted Tomlin to come out as gay, but she didn’t want to make a splash.
“I wasn’t going to lie, but I didn’t really want to deal with it,” she says. “But no one ever challenged me about it.”
Tomlin says she’s dumbfounded but happy about what has happened in the gay community during the past decade.
“It’s like being on a roller coaster — very positive, but I’m amazed that this next generation has been so demanding of being acknowledged.”
Daily News, Los Angeles