Can an “Older Woman” Open a Movie? Lily Tomlin and Patricia Clarkson Steer Grandma and Learning to Drive to Success

Prev1 of 2Next
Use your ← → (arrow) keys to browse

“How fabulous that we have two films opening Friday that are driven by women north of 50,” Patricia Clarkson told me last week at an intimate breakfast for women in the arts and media at the Crosby Street Hotel, held to celebrate her new film, Learning to Drive.

The other film she referred to, of course, was Grandma, starring Lily Tomlin, her first starring role in 27 years.

“It’s interesting that we’re leading these two films and they’re opening us together on a weekend,” Clarkson admitted. She was a little nervous about the opening, but “worships” Tomlin and could not wait to see her film. With her long flaxen hair and throaty voice, Clarkson is a mix of 1940’s Hollywood glamour and Southern belle sass. Born and raised in New Orleans, she’s also steely, savvy and determined.

Learning to Drive took nine years to make and went through eight screenplays and as many directors. The film is a dramedy about a middle-aged Manhattan literary critic, Wendy, whose life is upended when her husband (Jake Weber) dumps her for another woman. Driving—among other things—is a metaphor for taking control and getting on with life. Wendy’s instructor, Darwan (Sir Ben Kingsley), a Sikh and a decent and devout man, is on the verge of an arranged marriage; he teaches her how to drive and she teaches him how to impress and treat a woman.

Sir Ben Kingsley and Patricia Clarkson in Learning to Drive. Photograph by Linda Kallerus

Sir Ben Kingsley and Patricia Clarkson in Learning to Drive. Photograph by Linda Kallerus

The Broad Green Pictures release was infused with estrogen. It’s inspired by Katha Pollitt’s New Yorker essay of the same name, written by two-time Oscar winner Sarah Kernochan, directed by Isabel Coixet (Elegy), spearheaded by producer Dana Friedman, and co-edited by Thelma Schoonmaker, who usually never leaves Martin Scorsese’s editing room.

While Clarkson promoted Learning to Drive in SoHo, Lily Tomlin chatted with journalists at the Warwick Hotel in midtown Manhattan. As soon as I walked into the hotel lobby, I heard Sam Elliott’s distinctive, growly voice. The 71 year-old actor, known mainly for his cowboy roles, is sure to get an Oscar nod for the 10 minute-scene he has with Tomlin as her hurt ex-lover. A departure for the actor, it gives him a chance to show sensitivity and rawness. (Elliott cemented his reputation as the older woman’s sex symbol in this year’s I’ll See You in My Dreams as Blythe Danner’s lover.)

Grandma, written and directed by Paul Weitz (co-director, with brother Chris Weitz, of American Pie and About a Boy), stars the 75-year-old Tomlin as Elle Reid, a feisty, cranky, brainy poet and academic, still mourning the death of Violet, her longtime partner who died a year and a half earlier. She has just broken up with her much younger lover when her granddaughter, Sage (Julia Garner), lands unexpectedly on her doorstep to ask for $630 to pay for an abortion scheduled later that day. Elle is broke. And she just cut up all her credit cards and made them into wind chimes as a sort of political statement—“I’m transmogrifying my life into art.” So Elle and Sage take off on a road trip in her dilapidated 1955 Dodge Royal (Tomlin’s own car) to visit Elle’s old friends, lovers and acquaintances and try to come up with the scratch. The three-generational comic-drama also features Oscar winner Marcia Gay Harden as Elle’s daughter, a driven lawyer who works at a standing desk walking on a moving treadmill, and is too busy to know what is going on in her own daughter’s life.

When the Sony Pictures Classics’ Grandma screened at Tribeca in the spring, I asked Tomlin on the red carpet about the prospect for more movies featuring older, three-dimensional, brainy, funny and complicated women. “It’s like anything,” said Tomlin, “If you have a success or it’s well done, then maybe someone else will try to add to it, or do another one, or get another shape. Like the young kids who have come up with feminist mothers—they’ve changed the landscape somewhat. Kids who had gay parents or knew someone in their family who was gay, they’ve changed the way Americans look at culture types.”

Lily Tomlin and Julia Garner in Learning to Drive

Lily Tomlin and Julia Garner in Grandma

Since the release of both films last Friday, box office numbers are encouraging, and if it’s not exactly a trend, they indicate there’s an audience for movies about older women. According to publicists for Broad Green Pictures, Learning to Drive grossed $67,417 in just four theaters over the weekend. According to Box Office Mojo, Grandma did even better and grossed nearly $116,000 in the same time period and number of theaters. I’ll See You In My Dreams, starring the 72 year-old Danner, grossed nearly $7.4 million so far in a limited release starting May 15. And Jonathan Demme’s Ricki and the Flash, starring Meryl Streep, has grossed over $21.7 mil after its August 7 release.

An interview with Lily Tomlin

Tomlin’s political, social and cultural contributions and significance to popular culture are as relevant in 2015 as when she first began her career five decades ago. She’s been a continuous presence in movies, onstage, on television and on records since Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In. Her solo Broadway show, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe (1985), won a special Tony. Movies include Nashville (1975) for which she received her only Oscar nomination, All of Me (1984), Nine to Five (1980), Shortcuts (1993), and A Prairie Home Companion (2006). Children know Tomlin from the animated series The Magic School Bus. And hip, young audiences discovered Tomlin’s gift for playing kooky characters in Lisa Kudrow’s online series Web Therapy, as Kudrow’s mother Putsy Hodge. She’s suddenly hot again with Grandma, and also for the Netflix series Grace and Frankie, which reunites her with Nine to Five co-star Jane Fonda, and just earned her an Emmy nomination.

Paula Schwartz, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): How has your life changed the most since you started out in show business when you were in your 20s?

Lily Tomlin (LT): Well I came out as a lesbian, which I didn’t do when I was in my 20s because the society has changed radically.

MM: When did you feel able to do that?

LT: Probably when Ellen came out. I was considerably older than she was and I lived through all those times that she lived through, too, but somehow she had the courage.

I wasn’t really closeted or anything but I never called a press conference. I was a fairly big television star—I got famous in the 1970s and that’s a long time ago—and it would have been treacherous for me to do that, so anything I could [use to] justify not doing it was a good thing. I was offered the cover of Time in 1975 if I would come out. They wanted a gay person. They didn’t want an artist, and I wanted to be known for my work. I wanted to be a performer, not a gay performer… I didn’t want to sell my sexuality to get on the cover of Time. I decided not to do it, although I always wondered what would have happened.

MM: Politically, are you optimistic about events unfolding today?

LT: I think the progress gay people have made in the past 10 years is pretty profound. I certainly never expected to see it in my lifetime. I think it’s because of all the people that went before them. Some young women don’t even recognize feminism. Many people don’t even know who Bella [Abzug] is and that just really shocks me because I adored Bella.

MM: Last year you married your partner Jane Wagner. What was the wedding like?

LT: We did it very last minute. We went to a friend’s house, who’s a lawyer and she had clerked with Ruth Bader Ginsberg and she has credentials, so she married us and it was just sweet and funny and we had a good time. Her dog was our ring bearer.

Tomlin plays Elle

Tomlin plays the feisty Elle in Grandma

MM: Did you have any input in Paul Weitz’s script after he gave it to you?

LT: Very minimal. Who knows what turns somebody toward you in such a specific way? We did Admission together and that character was loosely sort of same character, a feminist who had some notoriety and drifted out of the zeitgeist, although [in other ways] she was really different.

MM: Your 10-minute sequence with Sam Elliot has so many reversals of emotion. Did you rehearse and how did you shoot it?

LT: The scene with Sam just rolled out. It was just written so well. We didn’t rehearse it or anything. We didn’t even talk about it very much. We just went along with all those changes, tonal changes: our smoking the joint, trying to set him to loan me up $500… he kind of goes along with it. And then he says he wants something in return. He says, “I want a kiss.” I say, “Like a peck?” He wants a real kiss and he wants me to sleep with him or have sex with him. I say, “Let’s get this over with.” It just plays. It just plays.

MM: Is it getting better for older women in film?

LT: If you look at all the product, it’s not quite as rosy as it would seem, but I think there’s a little change, a shift in people’s consciousness about women of an age. I don’t know about men of an age. Sam’s over 70 and it’s better for them. He isn’t of an age yet. [Laughs]

MM: Elle still engages in sex and drugs and is very much alive. Was that the draw in playing the part? Usually when there are women Elle’s age in a film they are about to get cancer and die.

LT: Or else she’s going to be real ditzy and wear a tracksuit… I think the fact that she was a feminist and she was going to impart her knowledge and her philosophy to her granddaughter, and teach her granddaughter to stand up for herself—not that she’s naïve to believe everything is just cut and dry…  I just felt like Paul knew what he was doing. He wanted to do it in a certain way and I just had my trust in him.

MM: Why are women over 50 so rarely seen in Hollywood films as sexual? It seems almost like a taboo subject.

LT: Women are not seen as sexual at that age because they’re no longer totally objectified. Because most men don’t want them. They’re too old! There’s a saying that haunts me and has haunted me since I was a teenager, which is behind every [older] beautiful woman is a man who doesn’t want to fuck her anymore, and that’s true of any star you can think of.

MM: Yet how do you account for some of the interesting movie roles we’re seeing for women over 50?

LT: Somebody’s making room for it. Somebody’s creating a little space for it and it might become a trend. [Laughs] You know how much of a truism that statement that I made is? It’s something men can’t change unless they have a complete reversal of a psychological point of view.

Tomlin during a promotional stop for Grandma in spring 2015. Photograph by Brad Balfour

Tomlin during a promotional stop for Grandma in spring 2015. Photograph by Brad Balfour

MM: Last year when you were awarded Kennedy Center Honors, President Obama mentioned “Juke and Opal,” your 1973 skit with Richard Pryor about two black people hanging out at a diner. He said it dealt with race and class in a way that made it just as timely today. How difficult it was  getting that skit the censors?

LT: Jane Wagner wrote that for Richard. Richard was on my first two shows. She wrote it for the first show he was on, and we had a co-producer then, a bona-fide guy who was Ed Sullivan’s son-in-law, and he didn’t even send it over to the network for them to OK it. I said, “How is ‘Juke and Opal?’” and he said, ‘They’re not going to let you do that.’ [I said,] ‘How do you know if you don’t send it to them?’ The second time we didn’t have a partner so we pushed it through ourselves. We got to do it although we had to sweeten it…

I adored Richard and I sought him out to be on my show. He made me go to a porno movie with him once. I said, “I’ll go, but I’ll pay my way.” He had a real affection for me.

Prev1 of 2Next
Use your ← → (arrow) keys to browse

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.