Taking shots at ‘Grandma’
The mood is merry as a Lily Tomlin tribute and a screening of her film open the event.
The Los Angeles Film Festival opened Wednesday night with the film “Grandma” and a tribute to its star, Lily Tomlin. Here’s a report from the festival.
“It’s just great to have you here for the L.A. premiere of Paul Weitz’s ‘Grandma.’ And by that I mean the film, of course.”
In introducing the opening-night film of the Los Angeles Film Festival, Josh Welsh, president of Film Independent, made a variation of a joke on the movie’s title that would be heard a few times throughout the pre-show.
Written and directed by Weitz, “Grandma” is a rare starring vehicle for Tomlin, who plays Elle Reid, a oncenoted poet still grieving over the loss of her longtime partner. One morning, her granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) arrives needing money for an abortion appointment that day. Elle is broke herself, and the two set out in search of anyone willing to lend them the money, hoping to avoid going to Sage’s mother/Elle’s daughter (Marcia Gay Harden). In a last-ditch effort, they visit Elle’s old flame (Sam Elliott), whom she hasn’t seen in 30 years.
“I did a film called ‘Admission’ where Lily played Tina Fey’s mother. It was a supporting role, and I wanted to come up with an excuse for hanging out more with Lily Tomlin,” Weitz said by way of introducing the film.
“So I figured if I wrote a script where she’s in every scene, I could get some qual- ity time with Lily Tomlin,” he added.
All of the film’s main cast was there, as Weitz introduced Tomlin, Garner, Harden, Elliott and Judy Greer.
LAFF has for the last few years been centered at the Regal theaters at L.A. Live. The main house is among the biggest screens in the city, and a deliberately small, carefully calibrated character piece like “Grandma” could potentially be overwhelmed by the size of the theater. It spoke to the strength of the film’s performances and its subtle charms and observations that it managed to fill the room with emotional nuance and scaled power rather than loud explosions and splashy effects.
Before the feature, there was a short film financed by American Airlines extolling film production in Los Angeles. Directed by Film Independent fellow Ryan Velasquez, it featured various statistics as well as Weitz and filmmakers Ava DuVernay, Sean Baker, and others on the virtues of shooting in the city, including comments from Mayor Eric Garcetti.
After the movie, at a party across the street, talk centered not just on the performance by Tomlin but also on Elliott. His single, long scene is a powerhouse and finds the rugged actor displaying more emotional range and depth than he is often called on to do. Though it is only summer, there was much talk as to whether both Tomlin and Elliott might still be talked about come awards season.
“Grandma” comes to theaters in late August from awards-savvy distributor Sony Pictures Classics, in something of a pre-fall slot that could well position it to be remembered for year-end consideration.
Tomlin received the festival’s Spirit of Independence award, an hour before “Grandma” screened for the opening-night crowd.
Garner appeared endearingly anxious as she talked about Tomlin’s inf luence on her as a young girl. Yes, she’d seen “9 to 5” and “Nashville” — but it was Tomlin’s voice acting as teacher Mrs. Frizzle on “The Magic School Bus” that affected her most.
“She was my hero,” Garner said. “Every week, Mrs. Frizzle would take her students through the human body or outer space. I wanted her to be my teacher. … She always said to her students, ‘Take chances and make mistakes and get messy!’ And that’s exactly what I learned from Lily.”
After accepting her award, Tomlin settled in for a Q&A with LAFF curator Elvis Mitchell, initially recalling her early acting influences — Eileen Heckart in “The Bad Seed,” a school teacher who read her dialect poems, radio character shows.
Then there were the stories about all the legends she’s worked with. Among the highlights:
Before Richard Pryor agreed to participate in one of her variety specials, Tomlin revealed, he made her attend a porno movie with him. “I said, ‘I will go, but I will pay my own way,’ ” she said. “So we went to a porno movie, and it wasn’t that good.”
She tried to get out of “9 to 5” just days into production. “I saw the dailies and thought I was just horrible,” she said. “I thought, ‘I’m just so phony and awful.” She pleaded with a producer to leave, saying she didn’t need any money. Jane Fonda visited her in her trailer to try and “soften the situation.” And once she saw a few more dailies, she decided to stay.
On the set of “Nashville,” director Robert Altman smoked so much marijuana each evening that Tomlin worried he’d be too messed up to make it to set the next day. But to her surprise, he’d always be there at 5 a.m., “riding the crane.” Also: He apparently had “very beautiful, long, sensitive, artistic fingers.”
MARCIA GAY HARDEN of the film “Grandma” on the red carpet for opening night of the L.A. Film Festival.
LILY TOMLIN is f lanked by “Grandma” costars Judy Greer, left, Julia Garner.