Critic's Notebook: How Lily Tomlin Continues to Defy Expectations in Her Five-Decade Career

Stephen Dalton
The Hollywood Reporter

Deep into the blazing third act of her career, which will be celebrated with the lifetime achievement honor at the SAG Awards on Jan. 29, Lily Tomlin still offers screen performances that radiate an appealingly raw realism.

A chameleonic comedian, Tomlin has been a leading lady and character actor, a Broadway star and feminist icon, sharing stage and screen with legends including Meryl Streep, Bette Midler, Richard Pryor and Dustin Hoffman. Yet she retains an edgy counterculture aura that has brought her pangenerational cult kudos in her 70s. Like Bill Murray or Morgan Freeman, her presence on a project confers outlaw integrity - hence her latest phase as a punk godmother to younger writers and directors, a status reinforced by her notoriety for four-letter temper tantrums.

But for all her prickly reputation, Tomlin's work always is grounded in empathy. Her sinewy performances are acutely observed but never mean. Growing old (dis)gracefully alongside longtime friend Jane Fonda on the Netflix comedy Grace and Frankie, she still is playing fabulously foulmouthed broads at 77. In June, when THR asked Tomlin for the secret of her longevity, she shot back a one-word reply: "Denial."

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Tomlin cut her teeth in stand-up, first in Detroit, then off-Broadway. After a bumpy few years waiting tables between bookings, she found TV fame almost overnight at the age of 30 when she landed a regular slot on NBC's sketch show Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In. She struck a nerve with such characters as pushy phone operator Ernestine, who knew more about her customers than the NSA, and Edith Ann, a 5-year-old philosopher blowing raspberries at the adult world from her supersized rocking chair: "And that's the truth!"

Tomlin graduated from Laugh-In to star in her own TV specials, becoming a regular on Saturday Night Live and Sesame Street. But the actress stretched her talents when she kicked off a long partnership with director Robert Altman, making a successful (and Oscar-nominated)leap into film drama in his sprawling 1975 country music saga Nashville. She plays Linnea Reese, a mother of two deaf children who's entangled in a painful adulterous affair with Keith Carradine's womanizing singer.

Altman's freewheeling, exploratory methods created a safe space for Tomlin's febrile, mercurial skills. She reunited with him to do a cameo as herself in 1992's The Player before co-starring as a hard-bitten waitress in the 1993 Raymond Carver anthology Short Cuts and then appearing in the director's folksy final film, 2006's A Prairie Home Companion, as country singer Rhonda Johnson.

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Altman also was involved as producer on Robert Benton's 1977 odd-couple comedy The Late Show, which co-stars Tomlin as the young amateur sleuth who partners with Art Carney's down-at-heel gumshoe. Her performance veers on the kooky side, but the film holds up well as a kind of forerunner to The Big Lebowski, paying arch homage to the Chandler-esque pulp-noir L.A. of yesteryear.

But it was by teaming up with Fonda and Dolly Parton that Tomlin scored her greatest box-office success, the 1980 feminist comedy 9 to 5. She plays Violet Newstead, a straitlaced widow driven to murderous revenge against her male chauvinist boss. Tomlin's comic range perhaps was better deployed in Carl Reiner's 1984 film All of Me, as Edwina Cutwater, a haughty millionaire whose soul accidentally ends up sharing a body with Steve Martin's rubber-limbed lawyer. This is vintage Tomlin, finding seductive seams of mischief in a generally unappetizing character.

In parallel with her TV and film work, Tomlin produced a string of comedy albums and trailblazing stage vehicles, hosting the first-ever one-woman show on Broadway in 1977. She returned to Broadway in 1985 with a far more artistically ambitious production, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, written by her partner, Jane Wagner. Starkly dressed on a minimalist stage, Tomlin enacts a series of character studies: bag ladies, prostitutes, socialites, women left bereft by feminism. Her range is dazzling, her command of accents virtuosic, her observational skills forensic but always humane. This award-winning show became a film in 1991, and Tomlin revived it on Broadway in 2000.

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In middle age, when roles for women typically dry up, Tomlin found a new niche as the go-to choice for indie filmmakers seeking wisecracking, dope-smoking grandmothers. David O. Russell began this trend by casting her as Ben Stiller's free-spirited mother, a New Mexico acid-head living the hippie dream, in 1996's Flirting With Disaster. She later reunited with Russell to play "existential detective" Vivian Jaffe in 2004 comedy I Heart Huckabees, an ambitious misfire that earned notoriety years later when footage leaked of explosive fights between the director and star.

More recently, Tomlin has cornered the market in playing fiery, wiry old broads: The West Wing's sharp-tongued presidential secretary Deborah Fiderer, chain-smoking black-sheep sister Roberta Simonds on Desperate Housewives and brittle, Ruth Madoff-like Marilyn Tobin on Damages, a role that earned her a guest actress SAG nomination.

Tomlin's recent cinema roles include two collaborations with writer-director Paul Weitz. She played Tina Fey's shotgun-toting mother Susannah in 2013's Admission before taking the lead two years later in Grandma as Elle Reid, a gay poet on a mission to score an abortion for her teenage granddaughter. Written for Tomlin, the role made for an autumnal tour de force (and a Golden Globe nomination).

These days, Tomlin once again is playing to her bad-ass reputation in Grace and Frankie as a hippie-punk survivor with a penchant for soft drugs, hard liquor and Ramones T-shirts. Like all her best performances, this semi-autobiographical role feels like a thrilling middle finger to the straitlaced face of the adult world. And that's the truth.

This story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.