Film & Television

Don’t Mess with ‘Grandma’: Lily Tomlin Delivers in Her Latest Role

Grandma_Movie_PosterThis week, all the entertainment news channels carried the same sad story. Anne Hathaway, at the ripe old age of 32, is already losing parts to younger stars. “I was that 24-year old once,” she wistfully remembers. But, let’s not shed any crocodile tears for Anne (after all, the girl has enough critics already; The New York Times refers to them as “Hathahaters”). Hollywood’s ageism is nothing new, and neither is the grossly disproportionate lack of roles for women of any age.

Happily, both trends are being bucked right now in a wonderful little movie called Grandma.

Grandma draws from many familiar filmic traditions. At its core, it’s really a classic road movie — a couple of unlikely travel companions together on a quest (think Thelma & Louise, but without the Brad Pitt-stop or the epic ending). It’s also a meditative character study of a disillusioned poet. There’s some pretty heavy family drama thrown in, friendships that are tested, and an encounter with a mystery man. But, what stays with you most, I believe, is a sense of multigenerational sisterhood. It’s very much a woman’s story. Which is why I was fairly astounded to learn that Grandma was written and directed by a man.

Paul Weitz has an eclectic body of work behind him, ranging from the good (About a Boy) to the bad (American Pie) to the absolutely atrocious (The Little Fockers). Two years ago, Weitz worked with Lily Tomlin as Tina Fey’s mother in the critically underappreciated Admission. Apparently, he was inspired by the experience. In fairly short order, he wrote the script for Grandma specifically for her. In fact, it’s a little hard to tell where Tomlin ends and her character Elle begins. But, it doesn’t really matter. I recommend sitting back and enjoying the ride.

And what a ride it’s been! Tomlin began as a stand-up comedian in the 1960s and earned national fame as a regular on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In in 1970. There, she perfected such iconic characters as Ma Bell’s snorting operator Ernestine and the juvenile rocking chair philosopher Edith Ann. Movie work followed, including a dramatic turn in Nashville (for which she received an Academy Award nomination), the woman-powered revenge fantasy 9 to 5 (one of 1980’s top grossers), All of Me, The Incredible Shrinking Woman, and Prairie Home Companion. Most recently, Tomlin joined her 9 to 5 costar (and friend) Jane Fonda in the acclaimed Netflix series Grace and Frankie. In 1989, I was fortunate enough to see her celebrated one-woman show The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, written by her long-time partner and now wife, Jane Wagner.

Her prolific five-decade career has paid off in industry recognition as well as enthusiastic fans. Tomlin has received seven Emmys; two Tony Awards; two Drama Desk Awards; and a Grammy. Now, with Grandma, she will certainly earn another Oscar nomination and there’s a good chance she’ll walk away with the statuette.

In her own comedy, as well as many of her scripted roles, Tomlin has made a career of speaking her mind. She’s a truth-teller with charm and intelligence and a sort of guilelessness that makes anything she says okay — even when it’s something we don’t really want to hear. She’s matter-of-factly critical of the status quo, whether that’s women’s issues, consumerism or politics, famously observing, “Reality is the leading cause of stress for those in touch with it,” and “The best mind-altering drug is the truth.”

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