Lily Tomlin 'plugged into' radical feminist role in 'Admission'
By Steven Zeitchik
Published: Sunday, March 24, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Shortly before Lily Tomlin arrived on set to play an aging feminist in Paul Weitz's dramatic comedy “Admission,” she had a flash of inspiration. What if she had a breastplate made to cover her upper torso, tattooed it and then appeared in the film shirtless while chopping wood? The act would perfectly symbolize '60s radical feminism.
“It seemed like a fun idea, but it was a little more than anyone could handle,” Tomlin said, offering a laugh. “So I had an arm tattoo of Bella (Abzug) made instead.”
That tattoo is a clever aside in the film in which Tomlin evokes her feminist past to play the mother of the 40-ish Portia, a romantically challenged Princeton admissions officer played by Tina Fey. From the moment the former “Laugh-In” personality appears on screen — wielding a shotgun to scare off her daughter's potential suitor — Tomlin seems to be both drafting off and subverting the stereotype of the erstwhile campus ideologue.
“As a feminist from that era, I really plugged into the role,” said Tomlin, 73. “I had so many friends who were notable at the time, and then, the times changed. I had an inkling of what it meant to follow a doctrine to the letter and then have it bite you on the other end.”
There is plenty that's bitten about her character, who reared her daughter on her own after conceiving her in a moment of sexual liberation with an anonymous man on a New Jersey Transit commuter train. Portia still bears the scars of her mother's flippancy toward men and can't seem to make the right relationship choices. (“30 Rock” fans, take note: Michael Sheen once again plays an ill-suited Fey paramour, somehow even managing to up his unctuousness quotient.)
Portia's life is further complicated when a charming but drifter-y high-school guidance counselor (Paul Rudd) turns up with a promising student (Nat Wolff) who needs help getting into Princeton. The counselor comes bearing bombshells. The student, he says, is the son Portia gave up for adoption 18 years before, putting her in a convenient, but ethically compromised, position to help the child from whom she once turned away.
Although a genial comedy (written by Karen Croner) featuring likable actors, “Admission” percolates with serious themes about education, parenting and feminism. Tomlin's character has a lot to say about that last one, refusing to alter her devil-may-care attitude toward men even as she admits she may have made a mistake pushing those attitudes on her daughter.
It's a reckoning that the actress, who is also an activist for lesbian causes, says she has made in her life.
“When you're young, you want to make a difference in the world,” she said. “And you think the difference you're making is monumental, but in the overall scheme, you come to realize that it's not.”
A pioneer of female comedy — Tomlin was churning out stand-up albums at a time when few women did so — Tomlin says Fey is a worthy bearer of the mantle.
“Tina is sort of singular in what she creates,” the actress said, adding that when she sat down to lunch with Fey on set, Fey was eager to talk about Tomlin's landmark 1980s comedies such as “Big Business” and “9 to 5.” “She's a reserved, contained kind of personality, but you can just sense the intelligence.”
As for seeing more Tomlin on the big screen, don't count on it. Although she's taken small TV parts — she's had a recurring role on the ABC family comedy “Malibu Country,” in part, she says, because she's close with the show's star Reba McIntyre — Tomlin hasn't had a film role in four years and has no others on her docket. In that regard, at least, you can credit (or blame) her idealism.
“I can't be in a movie unless it has something that's interesting to express about the world,” Tomlin said. “Or, at least, it can't be debasing to my view of the world.”
Steven Zeitchik is a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- ‘Smaug’ a step up for Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy
- Black-and-white film ‘Nebraska’ a colorful tale
- DVD reviews: ‘Despicable Me 2,’ ‘Fast & Furious 6’ and ‘Adore’
- 3 Christmas movies cap a big year for African-American cinema
- ‘12 Years,’ ‘Hustle’ lead Golden Globes nominations
- Dark Braddock setting of ‘Out of the Furnace’ reflects a dying way of life
- ‘Gritty but vibrant world’ of Braddock lures director of ‘Out of the Furnace’