Depending on what generation you grew up in, most people know Lily Tomlin as a timeless comedienne who happened to conquer just about every medium in her heyday. Most of us from Generation X know her from television and the stage (where her largest triumphs were), but we also know her from a few memorable comedic parts in movies. Most of that starts with the criminally forgotten “The Late Show” in 1977, even though some people forget she started out with a significantly dramatic character role in Robert Altman’s “Nashville.”
While she could have gone on to more dramatic parts, “9 to 5” is the movie we all remember that brought a chain reaction of borderline classic comedies alongside a few forgotten duds. If “The Incredible Shrinking Woman” and “The Beverly Hillbillies” remake were on the slightly lesser sides, “All of Me” and “Big Business” were star-making ventures, despite having to share co-billing with another comedian or comedienne. The former film may be one of the best examples ever of Tomlin able to work in near brilliant tandem with a fellow comedian: Steve Martin.
Once the 1990s arrived, those top-billed features slipped away, yet enabled Tomlin to gain traction as a fully employed comedic character actress in mostly ensemble pieces. Examples of that were Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts” and early Ben Stiller comedy “Flirting with Disaster.” In 2009, after doing some voice work in a couple of animated films, she took a break from acting.
It was the longest break Tomlin ever had in film, despite being more than ubiquitous on television. In fact, she’s been much more productive on TV than anywhere else for close to 20 years now. What, though, prompted Tomlin to take on playing the mother of Tina Fey in the new college movie comedy “Admission?”
Playing the mother of a new comedic legend in a film may not be easy, outside of Tomlin already playing one to Reba McEntire on the new ABC TV series “Malibu Country.” But as evidenced in past movies, she’s proven to work best alongside fellow comedians, particularly in eccentric type of roles. In “Admission” she plays a former 1970s feminist (with gray hair highlights) trying to fit into a different zeitgeist of today.
The above role is one that she recently said fit the criteria of what she looks for when acting in movies. Whether that means she’ll be cutting down her character actress parts to focus on television will be worth noting. With Tomlin not looking anywhere near her 73 years of age, she has the potential to pick up the pieces in doing more comedic indies that perhaps can build her to another star-billed feature.
If that happens, she’ll have reinvented her film career to a point that rivals all others in her age range. By most accounts of women in acting, staying busy in film should have ended 30 years ago. Her ubiquitous presence on TV likely helped all that as said medium increasingly bests anything seen in a movie theater.
Let’s only hope we can keep Hollywood from remaking “9 to 5” or “All of Me” so Tomlin doesn’t have to make cameos to remind everybody of the connection.