Do you remember the first time you saw Lily Tomlin? Was it as Edith Ann on Laugh-in? Ernestine from the phone company? Violet Newstead, the super-competent office manager from Nine to Five?
Tomlin has been “doing up characters” since she was 5 and performing since the 1960s in bars, clubs, and on TV. And this month she’s sharing some of that with the world as she promotes her new movie, Admission, in which she plays Tina Fey’s indomitable feminist mom.
It’s hard to choose just one of the comedienne’s roles from her 30-plus-year career as her best: they’re all classics—feminist and ridiculous by turns. The producers of Admission have compiled a slideshow of some of her greatest hits, each of which shines in our memories now.
To that list we suggest adding her role The Atlanta Journal-Constitution as Susannah in the new film. Like Tomlin herself, Susannah is a veteran feminist who’s been on the front lines and is uncomfortable anywhere else. “As a feminist from that era, I really plugged into the role,” Tomlin told. “I had so many friends who were notable at the time, and then the times changed. I had an inkling of what it meant to follow a doctrine to the letter and then have it bite you on the other end.” She even designed the tattoo of iconic Congresswoman Bella Abzug for Susannah’s arm—although, as she told Salon.com this week, “young women don’t even know who Bella was!”
Admission is also one of the few films that Tomlin’s been offered lately that meet her artistic standards —those of an actress who’s worked with the likes of Robert Altman. “I can’t be in a movie unless it has something that’s interesting to express about the world,” she told The Los Angeles Times. “Or at least it can’t be debasing to my view of the world.”
As she makes the rounds—the View, Vanity Fair — she’s asked over and over when she’s marrying her partner of 42 years, Jane Wagner. That’s a question that this never-closeted woman would never have been asked when she started out. Instead, Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show asked her in 1973 when she was going to be a mom. “I like children but don’t want to bear them,” she replied back then. “By the way, who has custody of yours?”
In place of those babies are her artistic progeny—including her co-star Tina Fey, a comic powerhouse in her own right. “I admire [Tina] immensely,” she told Vanity Fair. “It was fun to be with her and to do something that would be recorded and around, and something that I could watch later. I felt like she was my daughter.”
Her progeny also include those of us who’ve watched, laughed at, and learned from her over the years. Now that she’s back, we really can believe spring is coming.
Above, Tomlin talks to Fox TV Houston about the film, working with Tina Fey, and a whole lot more.