Film & TV

What Could Beat Cruising With Grandma Star Lily Tomlin?

It's a perfect summer afternoon in Los Angeles, and Lily Tomlin wants to do everything: drive to Neptune's Net in Malibu, explore the L.A. River, tour Koreatown, grab cocktails in West Hollywood. She jumps in her 1955 Dodge Royal Lancer — her other car, a Prius, balances out its ecological impact — and, while she debates our final destination, we head south from the Valley into the canyons.

The car, Dora Bannister, is named after a character in the 1953 noir Wicked Woman, which Tomlin saw as a fourteen-year-old usherette at the Avalon Theatre in Detroit. “My first job in entertainment!” she laughs. Like a good girl from the Motor City, Tomlin loves classic, all-American metal. Her father worked at a brass factory and would bring home bits of what he'd made that day to show off. When Tomlin started making her own cash, she bought real steel and chrome, a couple old Ford Thunderbirds, and, in 1975, Dora.

"Well, I've got an old car — and it's kind of snazzy-looking."

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“I hated new cars,” she says. Dora was originally pink and cream, Dodge's La Femme model, which came with a matching calfskin purse, lipstick case, and raincoat. “I'd like to have that,” sighs Tomlin, glancing down at her white leather high-tops. Not that she subscribes to rigid gender roles. Today, Dora has been repainted black. And, alongside her owner, the 60-year-old classic just made her movie debut, in Paul Weitz's Grandma, in which Tomlin plays a widowed lesbian poet who spends a day much like this one, powering her old car across Los Angeles. That poet's mission: to help her teenage granddaughter (Julia Garner) scrape up the cash for an abortion. Weitz wrote the part for her — it's Tomlin's first lead film role in 27 years — without even knowing she owned the perfect set of wheels. “One day he said, 'I'm going to go look at an old car for Elle to drive,' ” says Tomlin. “I said, 'Well, I've got an old car — and it's kind of snazzy-looking.' ”

Grandma is an almost ironic title. Tomlin's character Elle is a loudmouth, a proud feminist who refuses to act elderly. Her girlfriend (Judy Greer) is half her age and four times as demure. Smoking a joint with an ex, Karl (Sam Elliott), from her brief flirtation with heterosexuality, Elle beams, “I like being old. Young people are stupid.” But that doesn't mean Elle likes watching her Los Angeles become stiflingly polite. Aghast to find that the neighborhood's free women's health clinic has become a coffee shop, Elle blurts to the barista, “Where can you get a reasonably priced abortion these days?”

Like Elle, the Dodge Royal is loud. Tomlin frets that my tape recorder might not pick up her voice. Once, researching a part about prostitution, she picked up working girls while disguised in drag as Pervis Hawkins, a fictional black r&b singer she used to play on Saturday Night Live. She paid the women $50 to get in her limo and have their conversations recorded, and only later discovered that she couldn't hear a word.

Tomlin is full of stories. She moved to Los Angeles to co-host Music Scene, a proto-MTV that broadcast Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix concerts and counted down the week's top hits. To take the gig, she turned down Laugh-In. “I wanted to go on a hip show,” she cracks.

She arrived in L.A. on August 9, 1969 — the Saturday that Sharon Tate's body was found. “The night after the Manson murders!” Tomlin exclaims. “I went to a party that night at some house, and all of my friends who were writers working on different shows, they were making parodies of what had happened — or what had been reported as happening — the night before. It was kind of eerie.”

Soon after, ABC canceled Music Scene. “Parents didn't like what they considered to be longhaired dopers on at prime time,” Tomlin clucks. So she finally said yes to Laugh-In — the show that would embrace her lunatic character-driven comedy and make her a star — and settled in to California living.

Her first house in L.A. was a shack on the beach. It had no heat and, years later, washed away during a storm. Her second was in West Hollywood, underneath a high-rise apartment dubbed the Divorce Hotel. “It looked right into my backyard,” she groans. In fact, we're driving by that house right now. The Dodge Royal makes a hasty left.

“Ugh, look what they've done to it!” gasps Tomlin. No wait, wrong house. Dora inches up the street. “Here it is! It's for sale?” Actually, no — still the wrong house. Finally, we're in front of a tasteful mud-colored manor festooned with vines. “I painted that house blue and people on the block were just appalled,” says Tomlin. George Cukor was a few houses down and Phil Spector was around the corner.

“We'd hear gunshots at night,” says Tomlin, nodding toward Spector's yard. “Seriously.” She and her partner of 44 years, Jane Wagner, moved to Los Feliz. They were still there during the L.A. riots (“I could look down and see all the smoke”), and then decided to keep moving. “As soon as I sell a house, it doubles in price,” says Tomlin with a mock-tragic grimace. Just a year and a half ago, on New Year's Eve 2013, she and Jane were married at a friend's house in town. Do they feel like newlyweds? Tomlin giggles. “Kinda!”

The Dodge heads back down to Sunset. Tomlin recalls driving past a billboard for one of her albums in the Seventies. “I just got sick to my stomach,” she shudders. “It just seemed so trying to sell something, you know?” Tomlin prefers to steer her own career. And then Tomlin navigates Dora toward Beverly Hills on a quest for coffee milkshakes. Forget the final destination. Life is all about enjoying the ride.

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Amy Nicholson was chief film critic at LA Weekly from 2013 to 2016. Her first book, Tom Cruise: Anatomy of an Actor, was published in 2014.

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