“Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In” was one of the most popular and topical television shows of its era. In the middle of the third season, just as the show was about to lose Goldie Hawn, one of its most popular stars, a savior appeared in the guise of Lily Tomlin. She joined the NBC show and became an almost instant sensation with her variety of characters that she had long spent developing in various comedy venues. With six Emmy wins under her belt, she now has another nomination for her ongoing role on “Grace and Frankie” with “9 to 5” co-star Jane Fonda.
With that newest recognition in mind for television, let’s take a look back at her accomplished film career which began in the 1970s. Take a tour of her 15 greatest movie performances, ranked worst to best, in the photo gallery above. It includes her Oscar-nominated work in “Nashville” plus “All of Me,” “The Late Show” and more.
15. SHADOWS AND FOG (1991)
Tomlin was among the ensemble of Woody Allen’s comedic thriller. Allen plays his typical nebbish character, only this time he isn’t a New York City neurotic but instead a bookkeeper in some unidentified European country where a serial killer is on the loose. Tomlin plays an intellectual prostitute who is among the cast of characters both trying to evade and catch the killer.
14. I HEART HUCKABEES (2004)
This film is probably best known for the behind the scenes video that leaked years after its release in which Tomlin and director David O. Russell fiercely clash. Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman play existential detectives who investigate the meanings of their clients lives. They manage to create a unique comic duo despite the obvious problems the film had being made. (In truth the fireworks in the behind the scenes video are a bit more interesting than anything going on in the film).
13. ADMISSION (2013)
Tomlin provided a deft comic turn as Tina Fey’s unconventional outspoken feminist mother in this story about a Princeton University admissions director who thinks one of her applicants may be the son she gave up for adoption. The film is a bit uneven but Tomlin clicked with the director Paul Weitz so well he eventually wrote the film “Grandma” for her.
12. SHORT CUTS (1993)
This Robert Altman film tells the interconnected story of a group of Los Angeles residents all united by an incident where a woman hits a boy with her car. Tomlin plays the woman, a waitress in a dinner who endures her tedious job as well as an alcoholic and abusive husband played by singer Tom Waits. Altman received a Best Director Oscar nomination for bringing together the all-star cast.
11. FLIRTING WITH DISASTER (1996)
Russell’s first major Hollywood film features Ben Stiller as a New Yorker driving across country in order to meet his biological parents. What he finds is Tomlin and Alan Alda as hippie LSD sellers who admit they had to give him up for adoption due to their being in prison.
10. BIG BUSINESS (1988)
This screwball comedy affords both of its stars (Tomlin and Bette Midler) the luxury of playing duel roles. Each actress plays one of a set of twins who were mixed up at birth. One set of twins grows up in New York City while the other grows up in the rural south. Tomlin who was never a stranger to playing multiple characters here gets to play one character who is shyer and demurer and another who is quite bold and career driven.
9. A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION (2006)
Tomlin teamed again with Altman for this behind the scenes look at the popular radio show “Lake Wobegon Days” by Garrison Keillor. Meryl Streep and Tomlin play two chatty sisters who sing on the show. Tomlin has said she enjoyed trying to surprise Streep with her improvs and that Streep was able to role with just about anything Tomlin threw at her.
8. TEA WITH MUSSOLINI (1999)
“Tea with Mussolini” is a lost gem of a film that never really got the praise or audience it deserved. A semi-autobiographical story from director Franco Zeffirelli, it tells the story of a young boy who is raised by a group of his late mother’s friends. Set in Italy as the Nazi’s are taking over, the film offers juicy roles for all its stars. Tomlin plays a fierce archeologist who fights hard to save her British friends who are being held as enemies of the state.
7. THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING WOMAN (1981)
Tomlin and Wagner put their own spin on the classic science fiction film “The Incredible Shrinking Man” in this comic take on the story. The lead character is an ordinary suburban housewife who starts to shrink after being exposed to various chemicals and perfumes. The film is reminiscent of a lot of Tomlin’s television specials from the era and has an almost sketch comedy tone to it.
6. GRANDMA (2015)
Tomlin received a Golden Globe Nomination as Best Comedy Actress for this film. It depicts a day in the life of a grandmother who is trying to raise money for her granddaughter who wants to terminate a pregnancy. The film features an especially strong confrontation scene between Tomlin and Sam Elliott who plays an old boyfriend of Tomlin’s who has bitter feelings about their past relationship.
5. ALL OF ME (1984)
“All of Me” was a showcase for Steve Martin and his amazing ability with physical comedy but it also provided Tomlin with one of her more interesting and sensitive roles and a Golden Globe nomination. Tomlin plays a wealthy but sickly woman whose soul is accidentally placed in the body of her lawyer (Martin.) The two then inhabit the same body leading to physical struggles over who gets to control the body. For most of the film Tomlin is only seen when Martin looks in the mirror but she still manages to present a lovely character and give one of her best performances.
4. THE SEARCH FOR SIGNS OF INTELLIGENT LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE (1991)
While the shear brilliance of Tomlin’s one-woman Broadway show didn’t totally translate to film, this is a nice preservation of the phenomenal play that transfixed theater goers during its two Broadway runs in 1985 and 2000 as well as on tour around the country. Tomlin and Wagner had previously produced an acclaimed Broadway show called “Appearing Nightly” that was a highly acclaimed series of sketches. This time the two united the sketches and some of Tomlin’s popular characters into a full-length play with a complete narrative as Trudy, the bag lady takes a group of aliens on an introductory trip to introduce them to mankind.
3. 9 TO 5 (1980)
Fonda says she got the idea for casting this film as she was driving home from seeing Tomlin in her stage show “Appearing Nightly” and heard a Dolly Parton song on the radio. The story of three put upon secretaries who inadvertently end up holding their boss captive become a landmark film in changing attitudes as women began entering the work force in the 1970s.
2. NASHVILLE (1975)
“Nashville” was one of the most acclaimed film of its time and considered to an Altman masterpiece. The story involves numerous characters in a seemingly random plot but ultimately amazingly brings all the characters together for the film’s riveting and shocking finale. Tomlin plays a gospel singer and wife of a political operative who has a deaf son.
1. THE LATE SHOW (1977)
After having success with his screenplays for “Bonnie and Clyde” and “What’s Up Doc?,” Robert Benton turned to directing. His second feature film is this excellent comedic thriller starring Tomlin and Art Carney fresh off his Oscar win for Best Actor for “Harry and Tonto.” It tells the story of an aging private detective investigating the murder of his partner. Tomlin plays an eccentric woman working on the fringes of showbiz who wants to hire Carney to investigate the disappearance of her cat.