To say that Lily Tomlin is having a moment is missing the point. Sure, Tomlin is a double lead actress nominee in this year’s Golden Globe race for her film performance in Grandma (2015) and on television in Netflix’s Grace and Frankie (2015), but her long career has been filled with moments that are permanently etched in our collective pop culture unconscious. Tomlin socked it to us on Laugh In (1967) in the 60s. In the 80s, she took us to work with her in 9 to 5 (1980), and at the turn of the twenty-first century, she kept President Bartlett on task in The West Wing (1999).
In a time in their lives when many actors, particularly women, struggle to keep working Tomlin hasn’t slowed down. She also hasn’t compromised or shied away from playing her own age. In Grace and Frankie, she reunites with her co-stars from 9 to 5 and The West Wing, Jane Fonda and Martin Sheen, and Sam Waterston. The four are a virtual master class, but Tomlin’s Frankie is the emotional center of the ensemble, pulling each of the characters along even as she struggles to cope with their and her new reality.
Fonda, also doubly nominated this year for Grace and Frankie and for her supporting role in Youth (2015), has been a leading lady all of her life, but, for Tomlin, stepping into that spotlight has been a rare move until recently. Tomlin’s nominations, both for leading roles in the same year, are a testament to not only her staying power but also her fearlessness as a performer. Perhaps it is the character actress in her, but she does not shy away from the weird or the awkward or the old. Tomlin said it best herself to the HFPA when talking about what she and her Grace and Frankie collaborators were looking to accomplish with the show -- specifically to give people hope about aging: “In fact, we want people to stay ferocious and become more audacious, start acting up and doing everything you can to create a ruckus and to help the world, live and enjoy everything. It’s never too late to start over again.”
Picking just one episode of Grace and Frankie to watch is a tough assignment, but, for Tomlin’s performance alone, rewatch Season 1, Episode 6: “The Earthquake.” In the episode, Frankie has a major panic attack following an earthquake, sending her into a tailspin. Sol runs to her rescue, and their meeting forces them to face the facts of their relationship.
Steve Allen once said, “Tragedy plus time is comedy.” Frankie’s seismophobia is certainly played for laughs in this episode, but the core truth is pure tragedy. Frankie’s entire world has been fractured. She is coping as best as she can with Sol’s choice to leave their marriage. The outsized reaction to a small earthquake, as funny as it is, is also hard to watch. Tomlin and her character both use humor to deflect attention. Even as she is saying "look away," she is drawing the viewer in with her vulnerability. We feel Frankie’s pain even as we are rooting for her and laughing with her.
“The Earthquake” is a figurative breaking point for Frankie and her relationship with Sol. As Frankie tells Sol, “I hate this. We’re acting normal, and nothing’s normal.” Tomlin plays the moment with heart, sentimentality, wit, and pain, just as she has been doing throughout her career.