Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Birthday Take: Lily Tomlin in "Nashville" (1975)

Lily Tomlin in Nashville
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Lily Tomlin
Born: September 1 1939 (76 years old)
Nomination: Best Supporting Actress (nominated) for Nashville as Linnea Reese

The Take

There are a few names that should come to mind when you think of highly influential female comedians. You will likely mention Carol Burnett or Lucille O'Ball. You wouldn't be wrong, but there is a vast amount of funny ladies out there that are worth mentioning. Thanks to a recent resurgence, to mention Lily Tomlin will not meet you with the same bafflement that it likely would have even three years ago. She has never gone away, but 2015 marks an interesting time for Tomlin. With a good Netflix series called Grace & Frankie as well as the independent film Grandma - which has many calling a great performance -, it does seem like she's here to stay, at least for a little bit.

Like a handful of actors that came to prominence in the 70's, there's likely the notion that most didn't receive Oscar nominations. You may ask yourself about Mary Tyler Moore (Ordinary People), Judd Hirsch (Ordinary People), or even Alan Alda (The Aviator). It's one of the great mysteries as to why they aren't remembered so much for them despite being high profile movies. In the case of Lily Tomlin, it kind of does make sense why Nashville isn't considered her crowning achievement. It isn't that she is awful in it, but one of the perks of director Robert Altman is that he puts way too many people in his films. And that's fine. The ensemble is what makes his films work. Despite feeling claustrophobic by the wall-to-wall faces, he makes each of them matter and gives each a moment to shine.

Even if you're not for country music, there's plenty to admire about this film that came out in the year of America's bicentennial. It was about more than the music. It was about how it could bring us together and show the patriotic side of us all. Thankfully, the songs are good enough to compensate. So while Tomlin is only in for a fraction of a time, it is a testament to her craft that she is able to be memorable at all. She was only six years into her career at that point and was making a name for herself on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In. She was the comedian who answered phones. It's a shtick that wasn't the most unique, as Bob Newhart also made a career out of it. Yet thankfully, she was able to work through and show her range.

It could also be that Nashville is very early in her career considering the 40 years since the film's release. In that time, she has managed to revitalize her career over and over, even starring in iconic comedies like All of Me9 to 5, and Flirting With Disaster. Despite all of this, she was more frequently represented at the Golden Globes for her work. She would work with Altman again on Short Cuts and on his final film A Prairie Home Companion. Even then, she is better known, for good reason, for being funny and bringing life to any event that she is at. She is confident, smart, and even in old age has dignity in her humor. That is probably the one attribute that should be noted, especially during this momentary resurgence of her career.

The one hope is that Tomlin will eventually be given universal recognition for a long and storied career like many of her peers. We definitely think of people like Alan Alda having noteworthy careers, but I feel like Tomlin sometimes gets ignored for whatever reason. The one thing to note is that she was funny without being pandering. She was also versatile, proving that she could do comedy and drama. Nashville may not be a reflective Oscar of a career, but it shows how well she can work with a massive cast while complimenting them and standing out. She is a legend, and one that definitely deserves the spotlight on her birthday.

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