Lily Tomlin has the role of a lifetime in “Grandma,” the first stand out hit of the Tribeca Film Festival, which had had its New York premiere Monday night and is eligible for the Audience Award. At 75, Tomlin is the first actress of 2015 with Oscar buzz that should stick right through the season. Her only Oscar nomination was for Robert Altman’s “Nashville” in 1975, so maybe there’s a lucky number thing. (Tomlin should have been nominated for “The Late Show” with Art Carney, and for “All of Me” with Steve Martin.)
Written and directed by Paul Weitz, Tomlin’s performance as a feisty, foul-mouthed, brainy poet still mourning her partner, Violet, of 30 years, should easily garner her an Oscar nomination this year.
Still lanky, limber and hysterically funny, Tomlin spoke to everyone on the red carpet, including the 17-year-old reporter from her high school blog way too young to remember Tomlin’s triumph in her solo show, “The Search for Intelligent Life in the Universe” nearly a quarter of a century ago.
I was the only person old enough to see the show, which I did twice.
Are you coming back to Broadway I asked?
“Yeah, I’m hoping to. Oh, I hope to!” Tomlin told me. “I am trying to get Jane, my partner, to write me a new show.”
Jane Wagner, Tomlin’s partner of 30 years, who she married in 2013, wrote her Broadway hit and was working on a reboot she told me.
But back to “Grandma,” which features three-dimensional brainy, witty, warm, deeply flawed women coping with complicated issues. Tomlin plays Elle, an academic and middling poet, still grieving the death of Violet, her partner of 30 years. Elle has a rocky relationship with her daughter (Marcia Gay Harden), a driven lawyer, who works at a standing desk walking on a moving treadmill. Elle’s granddaughter Sage is in trouble. She’s pregnant and needs $660 dollars for an abortion schedule for the end of the day but she’s flat broke. She’s afraid to go to her mother, so she turns to her feisty grandmother, who is short on cash and has just gotten out of debt and made wind chimes out of her cut up credit cards, a sort of political statement.
To raise funds for the abortion, Grandmother and granddaughter go on a gynecological road trip in Elle’s vintage Dodge Royal – Tomlin’s real-life car – in search of people who can give the duo a loaner. Sage’s deadbeat boyfriend (Nat Wolff) has no money but he does have great pot, which Elle finds in his sock drawer. In the hilarious scene in which they try to get him to pay half of the cost of the abortion, he threatens to “f…k” Elle up with his hockey stick and she wrestles it out of his hands and hits him in his privates with it.
In one of the most moving scenes in the film Elle revisits an old friend (Sam Elliott) whose relationship is unraveled gradually over a shared joint. But the stroll through memory lane turns painful, particularly for Elliott’s character, who is still scared by past events they shared even as he’s gone on to five wives and 10 grandchildren. Elliott, known for his cowboy and tough guy roles, turns in his best performance on screen and could also be a supporting actor Oscar contender.
But back to the red carpet where I asked Tomlin how much of herself was in the acerbic, feisty character of Elle.
“Quite a bit because her attitude is probably in me. But then I have a much kinder disposition,” she laughed.
I told Tomlin she looks like she’s having so much fun playing Elle. “I was. It was so much fun. And all the kids that are in the movie are so great and I love my granddaughter. She’s such an adorable, beautiful actress. I just hope she has such a fantastic career.”
Tomlin is also doing the web series “Love Therapy” with Lisa Kudrow. “I loved that,” she said. “We’re going to do another season. She’s doing ‘Comeback’ now.”
Next up for the 75 year-old-legend is “Grace and Frankie,” the Netflick show co-starring Jane Fonda, which premieres next month.
“Jane Fonda and I play women of our own age,” she told me. “She’s married to Martin Sheen and I’m married to Sam Waterston. We have great casting. They’ve been law partners for 40 years. They take us to dinner and we think they’re going to retire and we’re going to get rid of each other cause we don’t like each other. Jane’s very up tight, Republican and well dressed.”
Republican? “Kind of.”
“We’ve even toyed around with her teaching Sunday school at one point,” Tomlin laughed. “I’m kind of funky, down dressed, big wild hair, and I paint, and so we don’t get on so well but we’ve been thrown together for 40 years. And so we’re hoping our husbands are going to retire and we’re going to get rid of each other. Then they tell us they’ve been partners for forty years and that they’ve been having an affair with each other for 20 years. We’re devastated.”
Wait! The wives don’t notice anything?
“No we haven’t noticed it. She wouldn’t notice it cause she’s so uptight. I don’t notice it because I’m so tolerant and so easy going. And Sam and I have a great relationship.”
“There’s so much and it’s very dramatic to. You have to treat it seriously, we’re women in our seventies who are abandoned by their husbands. They just pull the rug out from under us, you know,” she said. To get past it, she said of their characters, “We had to learn how to levitate. We didn’t know what else to do. We had to reinvent ourselves.”
In “Grandma” Weitz has given audiences the gift of creating three dimension women who are brainy, funny, complicated and flawed. How can we get more films like that made I asked her.
“It’s like anything, if you have a success or it’s well done than maybe someone else will try to add to it or do another one or get another shape and just like the young kids who have come up, who have feminist mothers. They’ve changed the landscape somewhat and kids who had gay parents or knew someone in their family who was gay, they’ve changed the way Americans look at culture types in certain parts of the country. My family’s Southern, they’re from Kentucky, and my relatives, my generation is much more embracing and inclusive. My mother’s generation, all her sisters and brothers – there were a lot of them – they’ve all died now, but they would be very shocked and horrified and that’s because of biblical stuff, their religious training.”
So what would Ernestine think I asked?
“Oh she likes it,” Tomlin said, channeling the nosey telephone operating, she pursed her lips and showed she can do the character better than ever.
During the Q&A following the screening, someone from the audience said they saw the film in Sundance. “ “This is a movie you can see twice and really enjoy,” the speaker noted, adding “Lily Tomlin you’ll win your Oscar finally!” the audience cheered and applauded.
“That would be nice,” Tomlin purred softly.
Another asked about the film’s rehearsal process.
“I had to rehearse breaking Nat’s balls,” Tomlin cracked.
“Lily, how does it feel to be a goddess?” another member from the audience asked.
“Goddesses don’t speak. They just smile,” she purred.