Oscar Buzz

‘Grandma’ “Ill-Tempered Lesbian” Plus 12 More Fabulous Lily Tomlin Looks

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We love Lily Tomlin. Buddy comedy Grace and Frankie, co-starring Jane Fonda, is a hit on Netflix, and the new Paul Weitz dramedy Grandma is earning Oscar buzz for Tomlin’s portrayal of what the Hollywood Reporter labels an “ill-tempered lesbian.”

That got us thinking about other Lily Tomlin looks, and how in her best work they’re like elaborate masks. Tomlin doesn’t move her face a lot, like a rubbery Lucille Ball, or Tomlin’s Laugh-In co-star Goldie Hawn. All the action is in the eyes and around the mouth and at micro-scale, and it draws you in like a shared confidence. The look gets your attention for another, more intimate performance.

Here are “Ill-Tempered Lesbian” and 12 more fabulous looks by Lily Tomlin. Grandma opens Friday.

1. 70’s Feminist Icon
Laugh-In made Lily Tomlin a star with characters like Ernestine the operator and that baby in the giant chair, but her other role on the variety show, as “herself,” was Feminist Icon: modern, independent, free-thinking and free-loving.

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2. The Tasteful Lady

One of Tomlin’s Laugh-In looks. The Tasteful Lady dispensed advice on gracious living in a pillbox hat, here with a swinging and late-career Rita Hayworth.

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3. Cheating Housewife
Tomlin blew up with an Oscar nom for Robert Altman’s Nashville in 1976, as a mother of two deaf kids who’s making it with Keith Carradine. This look is perfect for the phone.

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4. Track-Suit Nonconformist
In neo-noir The Late Show, Tomlin plays a quirky nonconformist on the fringes of Hollywood who smokes weed and hires Art Carney to find her cat. She’s outspoken: “This car is not only a toilet, but you are the attendant.”

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5. Working Girl
Tomlin’s corporate drag for 9 to 5 is one of the iconic examples of the popular 80’s look, see Melanie Griffith and Sigourney Weaver. As well, Violet smokes weeds on her journey.

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6. One Woman Show
In 1986, Tomlin debuted on Broadway in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, written by her now-wife Jane Wagner, and featuring Tomlin in many voices. They all come together in this self-possessed look.

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7. Waitress
For Robert Altman’s arthouse-Earthquake, Shortcuts, in 1993, Tomlin pulls her hair back for a waitress-life look, and runs over a kid with her car.

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8. Pot-Smoking Mom
Tomlin plays Mary Schlichting of the great name, and Ben Stiller’s real mother, in David O. Russell’s Flirting With Disaster. You have a feeling this look may be how she hangs with Jane.

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9. Ice Queen
In David O. Russell’s I Heart Huckabees, Tomlin plays existential detective Vivian with a severe look, or she’s just tired of fighting.

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10. Orange Jumpsuit
Tomlin’s contribution to the current women-in-prison look craze comes via Lisa Kudrow’s Web Therapy as her spiraling mom.

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11. 70’s Feminist Icon Today
Looks kill when Tomlin plays an ardent feminist and Tina Fey’s mother, in that order, in Paul Weitz’s Admission.

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12. Hippie Art Teacher
Tomlin adds grey and resignation to her look for Odd Couple comedy Grace and Frankie with Jane Fonda. Good with her hands.

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13. Ill-Tempered Lesbian

For Weitz’s Grandma, Tomlin runs into old friends and grievances on a quest for her granddaughter’s abortion money. This look could earn Tomlin her Oscar.

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  • Iowa Rex

    The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe was not Tomlin’s broadway debut. She debuted with Appearing Nightly in 1977.

  • SFHandyman

    This is spot on: “All the action is in the eyes and around the mouth and at micro-scale, and it draws you in like a shared confidence.”

    One time I was standing in a restaurant in L.A. waiting for take out and there was a woman in a straw hat with big round sunglasses standing about 3-4 feet to my right. I glanced over and realized it was Lily. She noticed that I’d figured out who she was. She turned her head slightly towards me, dropped her chin a bit, lowered her sunglasses just so I could see her eyes, squinted and nodded very slowly, almost imperceptibly, as if to say “Yes it’s me. Let’s keep this as a secret between you and me.” Then pushed her sunglasses back up, and turned back to the front.

  • Alan David Smith

    i haven’t seen her in as many movies as others. but i love her. she was the 1’st celebritie woman crush i had. back when. us gayboys have them. i was in love with violet newstead. she is so cool. and always will be.

  • ingyaom

    No “Incredible Shrinking Woman”?

  • Maude

    One of the smallest ‘rooms’ in Greenwich Village, NYC, is called “The Bitter End”. It’s a dingy place in an old building on Bleeker Street. It became famous for being a place for unknowns to, maybe….become famous.
    Lilly performed there for about a week. She was already a ‘name’ personality, Why she chose to perform for such a small audience is beyond me, but I’m sure glad she did.
    The seating consisted of 4 rows of benches about 10 feet long without backs, and the stage was just a 2 or 3 foot platform…But as everybody knows, Lilly doesn’t need anything except her many attitudes.
    She did all her famous characters, and the show lasted just 45 minutes. IMO, She was then, and still is now….among the best of the best of comedians…Male and Female.

    My date and I went there to see Lilly’s show.

  • Maude

    Some how the page above got away from me before I was finished. Sorry.

    My date and I went there to see Lilly’s show, and we got a good deal more than we expected…
    On stage she’s loose and free with remarks that can not be said on TV….Ranks among the best theater, or club nights I’ve ever spent.

  • gaym50ish

    Why is “Tea With Mussolini” such a “forgotten” film? It never gets mentioned in these recaps of Lily’s career, even though it was a great movie with a great cast including Cher, Maggie Smith and Judi Dench.

  • Maude


    You’re right, it is a great movie. It should not be missed. See it on Netflix, or buy the DVD.

  • ibernard

    I fell in love with Lily Tomlin through Laugh-In. I have all three of her vinyl records from the 70s, strangely never put out on CD. Lily remains the classiest, smartest, most professional and hysterical comediennes of my entire life. She never had to curse on television to get you to have tears coming out of your eyes, and your stomach hurting so much from laughing. Kudos, too, MUST be given to Jane Wagner, her companion of forever and a brilliant writer. Definitely soul mates.

    I really want to see Lily Tomlin live before I die. She, however, will live forever.

    The best. Period.

  • topsyturvy

    My sister got This Is a Recording for Easter in the 70s. I loved it and found it on CD a few years ago. I also had the Modern Scream album. It’s on iTunes, along with Recording and And That’s the Truth.

  • PamelaMcIntosh1234

    ???? Start your home business right now. Spend more time with your family and earn. Start bringing 78$/hr just on a c0mputer. Very easy way to make your life happy and earning continuously. Start here….++++


  • dvlaries

    @ibernard: Actually, Tomlin put out four albums in the 70s, all of them fantastic:
    “This Is A Recording” (all Ernestine), 1971
    “And That’s The Truth” (all Edith Ann), 1972
    “Modern Scream” (multi-character), 1975 and
    “On Stage” (multi-character), 1977
    The first three were on Polydor, the final one was on Arista.
    Tomlin, Pryor and Carlin represented the absolute high priesthood of comic genius the babyboomer generation produced. All three could work some bracing adult material, but all three could also Dial-soap their acts to a squeaky-clean ‘G’ rating and take them to Sesame Street or the Muppet Show and stay just as uproariously funny. That is a marker of true talent.

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