Will Lily Tomlin win an Oscar next year? The reviews of her latest film, Grandma, in which the 76-year-old plays a pot-smoking lesbian feminist poet, suggest she will at least be nominated, but Tomlin herself seems agnostic on the matter. Or maybe she’s just a good actress: our conversation begins with her dismissing the idea out of hand and ends with her talking me through her acceptance speech.
“The audience would be so lost, because it’s so obtuse,” she says delightedly, a slight, stooped figure perched on a sofa in a Soho hotel room. “I was thinking of mimicking Ruth Gordon when she won the Oscar for Rosemary’s Baby. Have you seen the video on YouTube? You’ve got to look at it. It’s delightful. She’s got her hair pulled up in a little knot on top of her head, and she says, ‘I can’t tell you how encouragin’ a thing like this could be.’ And she’s about 75 or 80.” She pauses for a moment: “My age!”
The last time Tomlin was nominated was almost exactly 40 years ago, for her role in Robert Altman’s Nashville, her first film. She played a married gospel singer, mother to two deaf children, charmed against her better instincts into the bed of Keith Carradine’s feckless folky. She turned up to the ceremony in a padded dress, white elbow-length gloves, a white fox fur and a tiara. “I went as a Fifties movie star,” she says, laughing. “I never wanted to take it too seriously. It was, in a way, a way of sharing my sensibility with the public. But I looked like Queen Elizabeth.”
Does it matter to her to be nominated this year? “Maybe if it were at a different point in my career,” she says drily, the natural tone for her flat Midwestern accent. “I’m not sure it makes a lot of difference now. There’s not a whole lot of places for me to go, unfortunately. I could get another part in something, but I don’t think it’s going to make me an explosive leading lady in films. I mean, I’ve never really been a leading lady. I almost never saw a vehicle that I thought I couldn’t have done as well as whoever did it, but I mostly got tapped to do comedic roles.”
Grandma nimbly treads the line between comedy and drama. The story sounds bleak, set over 24 hours in which Tomlin’s prickly poet, her work having fallen out of fashion and grieving for the death of her partner of 40 years, tries to help her teenage granddaughter muster enough cash to pay for an abortion. But even at her most acid – and Tomlin plumbs some deep wells of anger in the film – she can’t help but be funny.
David O Russell, who directed her in Flirting with Disaster and I Heart Huckabees, says that she has “a comedic sensibility that can cut something 10 different ways, just in the way she moves her head or says a line.” The two fought violently on Huckabees: scenes of him screaming obscenities at her on set leaked on to YouTube. Tomlin is beatific about the incident now, saying they made up 20 minutes later. But watching the video has an effect: Tomlin’s outer twinkle, her scrunched-up eyes and wide smile, is clearly not always matched by an inner serenity.
Like Russell and Altman before him, Paul Weitz, who directed Grandma, appreciates Tomlin’s protean quality. He wrote Tomlin’s part with her voice in his head, after working with her on Admission, a rom-com in which she played the radical feminist mother of Tina Fey’s uptight college admissions officer. “She really got under my skin,” says Weitz. “I knew she was so funny and so cynical, but at the same time she was also really warm, and dedicated to something which had nothing to do with success.”
Tomlin can date her fame precisely, to December 29 1969, the first time she appeared on a sketch show called Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. The characters she devised for the series – a truth-telling little girl on a giant chair, an unpleasantly intrusive telephone operator – endeared her both to mainstream America and to a more countercultural audience. She recorded TV specials and bestselling comedy albums throughout the Seventies, and appeared in a hit one-woman show on Broadway.
In 1977, her face appeared on every newsstand in America on the cover of Time magazine, and three years later she starred in Nine to Five, which would become the biggest hit of her career, alongside Jane Fonda and Dolly Parton.
She had to be talked into accepting that last role. “There were things in the script that I didn’t like,” she says. “Jane saying M&Ms when she means S&M – I don’t think stuff like that is funny. ‘Are you a woman or a wouse?’ I mean, it was just like…” She rolls her eyes. “And then I wanted to quit, like, two days after I saw the first day’s rushes. I just thought I was terrible and awful, and I called Bruce Gilbert [the producer] into my trailer and I said, you can replace me. I said, you don’t have to pay me, you can just replace me.”
The person who convinced her to take the part, and to keep going during the shoot, was Jane Wagner, who has written most of Tomlin’s material for the past 40 years. Wagner doesn’t have a public persona – “she doesn’t like to be in the spotlight,” says Tomlin, “and yet she wants to be acknowledged” – but everyone who has worked with Tomlin has been aware of the pair’s symbiotic relationship. “Although I hardly saw Jane’s face when we were making Nashville,” the late Robert Altman told an interviewer in 2003, “there’s no question in my mind that her soul was behind [Tomlin’s performance].”
For years Wagner was referred to in the press as Tomlin’s “collaborator” and “close friend”, both of which are true. But Wagner is also the love of Tomlin’s life. They eventually married on New Year’s Eve 2013. So was Tomlin asked to keep her sexuality secret, to protect her career? “No,” she replies flatly. “When I was doing television specials for a period, one of the female writers on the show, she was well-meaning, but she said” – here Tomlin affects a stage whisper – “’I think you and Jane should come to work in different cars.’ And I said, why would we do that? And she said ‘people are talking’. And I said, well, they’ll just have to talk. We’re not going to get in two different cars – and try to find two parking spaces.”
Don’t ask, don’t tell was the policy. “I never lied or pretended anything, but I was very nimble, and people liked me so much in those days that they protected me,” says Tomlin. “I mean, it was fairly well known in the business.” In 1975, Time offered Tomlin its cover if she would agree to use the opportunity to come out. “That just sort of rubs you the wrong way,” she says. “Turns out they just wanted ‘a gay person’ for some sort of gay discussion, and they put a person from the armed services on the front eventually. This was 1975, and it was very hard to get somebody to trade their sexuality for a magazine cover.” Two years later, she was on the cover on her own terms, billed as the “New Queen of Comedy”.
There is still something surprising in Tomlin’s long silence about her sexuality. She is a political creature. The first characters she created were satirical: her most famous, Ernestine, a bitchy, self-absorbed phone operator, was a sideways swipe at AT&T, which at the time had a monopoly on phone services in the US. When the company offered her $500,000 to reprise the character for one of its advertisements, she was so angry that she burst into tears.
Tomlin was always aware of a low level of sexism in the industry. “I mean, I wasn’t a sex symbol, so people weren’t hitting on me, exactly,” she says. “But I was a very attractive young woman. I used to have to put up with a lot of bullshit, guys pulling me on to their lap and rubbing me, male writers being very condescending about my material. But that was part of the culture, and I would slap it off.”
When she worked on Laugh-In in the early Seventies, she would refuse to do skits that she thought were offensive. “I’d go in to see the producer and I’d say, I can’t do this material, this is too homophobic, or this is sexist, or whatever feelings I would have,” she says. “And he’d say, you don’t have to do it, honey.” She starts to laugh. “And then he’d yell, Jo Anne! And he’d call her in and switch the part to her.”
She was a feminist in Hollywood long before it was fashionable. She turned down films that said “thoughtless things about women”. “They sent me two or three Neil Simon scripts over the years,” she says. “When you’re first in the business you’re so innocent and free, the script would literally leap out of my hands into the trash can. Then afterward you get to know more and more people and you make more compromises.” She is impressed with Jennifer Lawrence and Patricia Arquette, both of whom have spoken out about being paid less than their male counterparts. “We bitched about that for years,” she says, “but we didn’t have much effect.”
In the end, what kept Tomlin from making a public pronouncement about her sexuality was a personal consideration. “My mother would have died. Literally. If she’d lived to see me come out,” she says. “Bless her heart, she was Southern, basically fundamentalist, but she was very witty and sweet and kind and she adored Jane. She died 10 years ago. She was 91. So that was always kind of a dilemma for me.”
Tomlin didn’t blame her mother for her feelings; she finds it hard to judge people, she says, which is probably why she is able to make almost any character she plays to some extent lovable. The family lived in Detroit, in a working-class, racially mixed neighbourhood. Every summer they would go back to Paducah, Kentucky, to visit her mother’s family. “I would be shocked by how they would behave and what they would say about black people,” says Tomlin. “I would just be dismayed at how they would behave, and yet I loved them.”
When Tomlin read the script for Nashville, she felt there were half a dozen roles she could have played. “I probably thought I could play most anything,” she says. She has had a few flops – the most painful being Moment to Moment (1978), a May to September romance starring John Travolta, which effectively scuppered Jane Wagner’s career as a movie director – but her popularity has never really waned.
So could this be her year?
The day after we meet, I’m browsing her personal website, and happen to click through to the page about Grandma, the headline of which suggests a certain degree of confidence. It reads: “And the Oscar goes to…”
‘Grandma’ is released on December 11