I cannot remember a time when I did not love Lily Tomlin. I grew up with her, watching her wait through the "ringy dingies" as the telephone operator. I loved watching her slide into that enormous chair and play the little girl Edith Ann. But my love wasn't relegated to small screen adventures like Laugh In and Sesame Street. By the time she played Violet Newstead in 9 to 5, and mixed poisonous revenge and cool-headed strength with animated fantasies, Tomlin was one of my favorite actresses.
I adored The Incredible Shrinking Woman, and loved watching her fight for supremacy with Steve Martin in All of Me. Whether partaking in kids fare or adult adventures, I was hooked. Tomlin had that right mix of humor and strength that made her irresistible on the big screen.
But I always felt alone in my love. Add Big Business to the films I already listed, and that was the extent of her cinematic career in the '80s. Fandom existed in nostalgia rather than a healthy and continual offering of features. The number of projects increased as Tomlin head into the '90s, but it as a bi-polar mix of fare that never gave her a set path in Tinseltown. The biggest clash descended in 1993, which saw the release of the ridiculous The Beverly Hillbillies, but also one of her most impressive pieces of work, Doreen Piggotin Robert Altman's critical hit, Shortcuts.
Though momentary blips proved Tomlin's talents outside of fare like Getting Away with Murder -- she played a prostitute in Woody Allen's Shadows and Fog, and an archaeologist in Franco Zeffirelli's Tea with Mussolini -- the actress was never given a solid chance to exercise those muscles further. By the new millennium, Tomlin had completely faded from the spotlight. And that's when she offered her best role yet, reuniting with Flirting with Disaster's David O. Russell for I Heart Huckabees.
When a name fades from the spotlight, it's easy to think that their career is over, or maybe they don't fit into a modern sensibilities. But alongside Dustin Hoffman as an existential detective, Lily Tomlin slid onto screen with finesse, charm, and perfect comedy. There wasn't a scene she was in, whether being straight-on deadpan or all-out slapstick, that wasn't funny. From seriously explaining her job to diving into a backseat window head-first, Tomlin's Vivian is the perfect mix of sophisticated professional, insane theorist, and existential court jester. Where Dustin Hoffman opts for a more spazzy existential detective, she's cool and straight-laced, giving the proceedings an air of humorous reality and believability in an otherwise manic and crazy plot.
Her performance is even more stunning given the drama behind the scenes. As if they were reuniting to act out the title of their first collaboration, Flirting with Disaster, the filmmaker and actress had some well-documented blow ups during filming, where both let loose on the other with fiery rage and aggravation. Was the tenseness behind the scenes what made Vivian's terse, no-funny-business attitude so perfect? I'm not sure. But the mix was magic.
After Huckabees, I hoped that this would mean a wonderful comeback for the actress. While she did find steady work on television, including 34 episodes of The West Wing, the cinematic roles are few and far between. As Betty White finds a wild comeback, I can't help but hope that Hollywood also recognizes the talent that it's had for years, from the waitress who accidentally hits a child and struggles in a partnership with Tom Waits, to Vivian's search to find meaning for the confused folks of the world, Tomlin is a talent we should embrace as long as we can.
And Happy Birthday to Ms. Tomlin, who celebrated her 71st birthday on September 1.