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How Lily Tomlin Became a Leading Lady Again, Forty Years After Her First Big Screen Role

How Lily Tomlin Became a Leading Lady Again, Forty Years After Her First Big Screen Role


[Editor’s Note: This post is presented in partnership with 
Time Warner Cable Movies On Demand in support of Indie Film Month. Today’s pick, Grandma, is available now On Demand. Need help finding a movie to watch? Let TWC find the best fit for your mood here.] 

READ MORE: Here’s What ‘Grandma’ Star Julia Garner Learned From Working With Lily Tomlin

Returning to a leading role nearly 30 years since her last top-lining part, Lily Tomlin’s recent turn in Paul Weitz’s fast-talking, wisecracking “Grandma” offered the veteran actress a chance to prove that her chops — and her sense of humor and humanity — were as sharp as they’ve ever been.

Her young co-star, Julia Garner, puts it best: “The thing that I admire about her the most is just how present she is.
And I don’t only mean that in her work and her craft, but more her as a
person. She’s there, and it comes out in her work. You notice her on-screen because she’s a very present person.”

In other words, the thing that sets Tomlin apart isn’t just her talent, but how she uses her talent and personality in tandem to enrich her work (and, by extension, the work of those around her).

Tomlin’s turn in “Grandma” arrived long after her last leading role, in the 1988 twin-switcheroo comedy “Big Business.” After that Jim Abrahams-directed feature (which notably co-starred Bette Midler, one of the few Hollywood stars who can really match wits with Tomlin and make it look both effortless and fun), Tomlin mainly busied herself with a variety of parts, though none of them offered her the chance to lead an entire production.

But that doesn’t mean her choices weren’t top-notch; in fact, Tomlin’s run throughout the nineties and early aughts found her digging into plenty of compelling material, including parts in mainstream comedies like “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “Orange County,” not to mention more adventurous fare like “Flirting With Disaster” and “A Prairie Home Companion.” Along the way, the actress continued to pick up both audience and critical accolades, landing nominations and awards from voting bodies as diverse as the Emmys, the Independent Spirits, the Gothams and the American Comedy Awards.

As Tomlin’s career progressed, her interest in snapping up work that provided her room to show off her full range only seemed to increase, and Tomlin’s resume — which already included such impressive entries as “made feature film debut on Robert Altman’s ‘Nashville'” and “was overnight success on ‘Laugh-In'” — only continued to add more enviable sections. For Tomlin, it never seemed to be about being the leading lady or a project’s biggest star, it was about the work, and about being present in that work.

Still, it’s hard to deny the appeal of seeing Tomlin top-lining something as offbeat and bold as “Grandma,” which blends genres and tones with ease, all in service to Tomlin’s heartbreaking performance beside rising star Garner.

The basic plot of the film is seemingly crammed with controversy — Tomlin plays said “grandma,” who is dispatched to help her teen granddaughter, played by Garner, wrangle enough money to pay for a much-desired abortion — but Weitz’s film bursts with humanity and lots of heart, as it steadily works to address both the immediate needs of its leading ladies while also unfolding plenty of backstory. (If nothing else, “Grandma” plays home to the most heartbreaking scene involving Sam Elliott since his “Tombstone” days, along with a supporting role from Judy Greer that should effectively hush up naysayers who worry that her career has gone too mainstream.) The film is both very funny and very moving, and it’s all anchored by Tomlin’s wonderfully nuanced performance. 

Tomlin earned both a Golden Globe nomination and a Gothams nod for her work in the film, though Oscar glory has eluded her (yet again). She doesn’t seem bothered by it, in true Tomlin fashion.

Post-“Grandma,” Tomlin will continue her much-lauded work on the television series “Grace and Frankie” (currently gearing up for its second season and already primed for a third) while also starring in the road trip comedy “The Road Home” (about badly behaving wine country visitors). More Tomlin? That’s good for everyone.

READ MORE: Watch: Lily Tomlin Salutes Her Comedic Influences at ‘Grandma’ Tribeca Talk

Indiewire has partnered with Time Warner Cable Movies On Demand for February’s Indie Film Month. Enjoy exceptionally creative and uniquely entertaining new Indie releases (“Grandma,” “Youth,” “Room” and more) all month long on Time Warner Cable Movies On Demand. Go HERE daily for movie reviews, interviews, and exclusive footage of the suggested TWC movie of the day and catch the best Indie titles on TWC Movies On Demand.

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