Lily Tomlin in Nashville (1975) - Supporting Actress Sundays

Each week, re-screening and clocking the relevant scenes for the Supporting Actress stats always proves at least a little revelatory. Not infrequently, the performance in question starts to look quite different for this extra attention. Tics and mannerisms become more conspicuous in concentrated consecutive doses. Same for nuances, for sidework, for the glancing moments in the in-between. But rarely has a performance so opened itself -- exploded with flourish like a time-lapsed blossom -- than that of...

...Lily Tomlin in Nashville (1975).
approximately 16 minutes and 2 seconds on-screen
11 scenes
roughly 10% of film's total screen time

Tomlin plays Linnea, an unassuming woman with a lot going on. She's the attentive wife (to a music-industry lawyer), the impeccable homemaker, and the devoted mother (to two vivacious pre-teen kids, who both happen to be deaf). She's also a gospel singer with a modest recording career. And amidst all of this, Tomlin's Linnea somehow also finds herself squarely -- pun intended -- in the salacious sights of a lonely horndog superstar (the improbably hot Keith Carradine). And Tomlin's Linnea manages all this with shocking aplomb.

An often rubber-faced comedian, Tomlin here instead opts to use her face as a mask of sorts, giving Linnea a kind-eyed, half-smiling mask of serene implacability. Prim, polite and well pressed, Linnea embodies the socially appropriate behaviors befitting her myriad responsibilities. Nevertheless, Tomlin efficiently conveys at every moment that Linnea's got a lot happening just behind that wan smile. It's a remarkable accomplishment really, especially considering the actress seems almost blithely unconcerned about letting the audience in on any of the whats or the whys. As a result, Tomlin's Linnea emerges as a magnetically compelling enigma, a cipher like her remote compatriot Barbara Jean but not nearly as lost.

Which is all the more remarkable considering that Linnea's "story" in this film is all about being sorta lost. Linnea fits nowhere. A vocalist who teaches her deaf children to sign "Sing". The white soloist of a black choir (adding to the incongruity, Tomlin's Linnea sings jubilee style in front of a contemporary gospel choir). The church lady being horndogged by a rock star. The married mother of two who's suddenly a single woman in a bar, ordering apple cider but asking that it be served in a wine glass. Tomlin's performance, however, derives the essence of Linnea's vivid inner life from this discordance, blazing the experience through her uncannily expressive eyes. Whether she's bored out of her mind while partychatting pointlessly about brain injuries, or beaming while her son tells her of his day, or deciding to not slam the phone on Carradine's Tom... Tomlin communicates the fact of her experience -- not necessarily what's happening, more that it's happening -- almost electrically through her eyes.

And Tomlin even does this in long-shot. Witness it here -- in what is certainly one of the most enthralling examples of actressing at the edges that Lulu knows, something that makes Lulu just love Robert Altman forever and ever -- when Tomlin's Linnea discovers what it feels like to have someone sing for her, to realize that she's the most important person in this crowded room...where Tomlin wordlessly conveys what is very possibly a life-altering moment of being for Linnea.

click image to be routed to video

And in her next scene, as Tomlin's Linnea reassembles herself after the banality of sex with Carradine (especially when he pathetically tries to make her jealous enough to stay), it's clear that Linnea's experienced something big (but it's not Carradine). As she quietly but efficiently extricates herself (and her panties) from the tumult of Carradine's bed, it's almost as if she's saying aloud: "Whatever it is I'm about to find, it's not you." Each beat in Tomlin's performance is like this: defiant in its privacy yet almost embarassingly open. So meticulously constructed yet so casually expressive -- it's uncommonly confident screen acting on the part of performer and director alike. And it's very nearly the perfect example of "actressing at the edges"...

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Tune back on shortly for
1975's Supporting Actress Smackdown!

1 comment:

jondoe888 said...

Very well written. Lily was such a revelation in this movie - one filled with great actors, characters, moments and situations. She and Barbara Harris were standouts - one the clown redeemed, the other the most real character in the movie.