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Lily Tomlin’s best movies and TV shows

Seatbelts, everyone!

Lily Tomlin smiling
Image via Netflix

Now that everyone has calmed down and realized that the actual reason Lily Tomlin was trending this morning was in celebration of her 84th birthday, let’s all take a deep breath, remember that all is right with the world, and think about what we’re grateful for. 

The Magic School Bus

Image via PBS

It takes a unique warmth and enthusiasm to make The Magic School Bus seem like a children’s entertainment program and not a nightmare about next-level, superhuman child endangerment par excellence. Like, say what you will about Hogwarts keeping a willow on staff that beats their students to death, but if Ms. Frizzle had had access to that tree, she would’ve made Ralphie put on boxing gloves and go ten rounds with it “for science.” Remember when she took the children to Pluto and a kid took his helmet off in the vacuum of space? How his head froze solid and his body experienced immediate rigor mortis and it fell on the rest of his classmates to resuscitate him? And how the next week, she took the rest of the children on a tour of the inside of his body without his permission?

None of that occurs to you as a kid. Part of that is because it’s all happening in a cartoon, and most children would tune in to watch the Starr Report if it was animated and on after school. Most of it is because Ms. Frizzle never came off as anything but exceptionally psyched to teach you, the viewer, all about bees or how cake gets made or whatever. The character is an icon, thanks in no small part to Tomlin’s performance.

Grace and Frankie

Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin in 'Grace and Frankie'
Photo by Saeed Adyani/Netflix

If we’re being completely honest, Grace and Frankie probably could have been a movie. The pilot felt like a movie — a really good one, too. The rest of the show frequently felt like the slightly less thought-out sitcom based on the movie, in the same vein as My Big Fat Greek Wedding or Ferris Bueller, but with the whole original cast returning.

Even on its bad days, though, Tomlin absolutely owned. The pothead ex-wife of a long-closeted gay man trying to navigate a retirement that she couldn’t have imagined, she is a constant force for chaotic good, elevating every line she’s given by orders of magnitude. Stoned, confident, and frequently behind the wheel of a car, she is perfect.

The West Wing

Image via NBC

Putting aside the absolutely wild roller coaster of audience approval ups and downs that The West Wing has experienced over the last 20 years, it’s safe to say that Kathryn Joosten’s Mrs. Landingham was a tough act to follow. It was borderline hubris to even try replacing her with a new applicant to the position of the President’s Executive Secretary.

But Deborah Fiderer’s impish charm, dry humor, and take-no-B.S. attitude carried the day, thanks to a characteristically excellent performance by Tomlin across 35 episodes. 

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Image via Marvel Studios/Sony

It was one of those casting decisions that made you wonder why nobody had thought of it before. Lily Tomlin stepped into the role of Aunt May like a custom-fit podiatric comfort shoe, whipping Miles Morales into shape with words of encouragement and insight. Her absence in the bonkers sequel Across the Spider-Verse is as close as the movie comes to requiring any notes.

So many things with Robert Altman 

Lily Tomlin in 'Nashville'
Image via Paramount

If you don’t know Robert Altman, here’s the “Shakespeare-was-the-first-rapper,” chair-flipped-backwards, cool teacher synopsis: He was sort of the reason that the MCU exists. His famously improvisational directorial style was what Jon Favreau emulated during the making of Iron Man, since constant script changes made it easier to give his actors the freedom to riff than wait for new pages. The result was one of the first times that a superhero came off as a relatable human being on the big screen, all thanks to the decision to direct like Altman.

Lily Tomlin was one of Altman’s regular favorites. She had her motion picture debut in the auteur’s 1975 musical epic Nashville, for which she received Academy Award, Golden Globe, and BAFTA nominations. In 1992’s The Player, which remains one of the snarkiest, bleakest looks at show business ever captured on film, she plays herself. She shared a vignette with Tom Waits the next year in Short Cuts, and got a Satellite Award nod for her work in Altman’s final film, A Prairie Home Companion, working alongside a cast of, conservatively, everyone.

Tom Meisfjord
About the author

Tom Meisfjord

Tom is an entertainment writer with five years of experience in the industry, and thirty more years of experience outside of it. His fields of expertise include superheroes, classic horror, and most franchises with the word "Star" in the title. An occasionally award-winning comedian, he resides in the Pacific Northwest with his dog, a small mutt with impulse control issues.