Is Lily Thomlin’s performance in Grandma worthy of an Oscar?

Lily Tomlin in Grandma.
Lily Tomlin in Grandma.
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There is a buzz around Paul Weitz’s comedy-drama and its leading lady. Film Critic Tony Earnshaw spoke to the director and star.

She’s the take-no-prisoners grandparent we all secretly wish we had at our back. And, for writer/director Paul (About a Boy) Weitz, Elle Reid (aka Lily Tomlin) was someone he brought to life based on his own perspicacity.

“It was based on a perception that I had about Lily and how great it would be to light a fuse in the movie, and that was accurate,” observes the 50-year-old New Yorker.

Elle’s feistiness is reminiscent of Tomlin’s in-your-face style of humour and is perhaps rooted in her early years as a stand-up comic and stage performer. It’s something she’s brought to her 20-plus movies over 40 years.

But as the sharp-tongued heroine of Grandma, steering her granddaughter through the choppy shoals of raising money for an abortion, the 76-year-old comedienne relied more on her acting chops than her history as a funny lady. The films have been relatively few in number, starting with an Oscar-nominated turn in Robert Altman’s Nashville. She reunited with Altman for Short Cuts and, at the very end of his career, A Prairie Home Companion.

Then there was Shadows and Fog for Woody Allen, All of Me for Carl Reiner and Paul Schrader’s The Walker. The film output has been intermittent because the quality has been variable.

Grandma was in a different category. Awards are already being mooted. “I used to get scripts and I didn’t even have to say ‘screw you’, they would just leap from my hands into the garbage can,” she laughs. “They would be big prominent comedies. It was in the early days when I was just when I was coming off Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. But if there was anything in the script at all that I disagreed with, I just couldn’t do it. I didn’t like to lend myself to anything that defamed humanity.” So what was the appeal of Weitz and Grandma? “The words were magical, they just carried me. The scene with Sam Elliott… it was just dynamite. It all seemed to flow.

“Somehow it was close enough to me that it wasn’t an effort. It just fell into place. We used my old car, which I bought back in ’75. I thought, ‘Maybe I kept that car for this movie in some strange, circuitous way.’ Then I wore my own clothing.And so I was just very comfortable. I don’t feel it was a collaboration because even though we talked about stuff it’s not sitting down and writing a script. That’s the real challenge. And Paul did that.”

The reference to Sam Elliott is crucial to understanding Elle, a gay woman mourning Vi, her partner of 38 years, and her descent into a distant past when she reunites with former boyfriend Karl. Thus the plum role in Grandma is also a romantic lead, as Weitz points out. “It was really important to me that Lily’s character is getting over the loss of a long-term love but it also felt like she had a romantic life. She’s got Sam Elliott, who’s been carrying a torch for her since they were 21 years old.”

Tomlin is less convinced by the argument. “I didn’t think of anything in the past as a romantic lead or this necessarily as a romantic lead. I just felt that this was about a human being.”

Grandma (15) is on nationwide release.