New Tricks for Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda

7 minute read

It’s late afternoon in a West Hollywood Hotel, and Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin are talking about–what else?–soup.

“Was your soup good?” Fonda asks Tomlin.

“Yeah, but I had it yesterday,” Tomlin says. “It’s quite bland. I like bland food for the most part.” She pauses, considering. “They didn’t put a broccoli at the bottom of it.” Then, bitterly: “Which I was sort of planning on.”

Fonda finishes her rock shrimp. “Mine was so good, I might eat that piece I dropped on the floor,” she says.

They aren’t the only stylishly dressed older ladies dining in this restaurant, quibbling about the cuisine and sniping affectionately with each other. But unlike many women in their age bracket who have long since retired, Fonda, 77, and Tomlin, 75, are still hard at work, reunited in their first co-starring venture since the 1980 comedy 9 to 5, which matched them with Dolly Parton as three women taking revenge on their sleazy boss.

Their new project is a very different kind of misandrist fantasy. In Grace and Frankie, premiering May 8 on Netflix, Fonda and Tomlin play the respective title roles as longtime frenemies who bond after their law-partner husbands (Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston) fall in love with each other, leaving their wives to get married. “We can do that now,” Robert (Sheen) announces in the show’s opening scene, as the husbands break the news to their wives over dinner.

“I know!” Frankie says. “I hosted that fundraiser!”

There are familiar elements here–like the faces of the iconic actors leading the cast and the loose, pleasurable comedic sensibilities of Marta Kauffman, co-creator of Friends, who executive-produces Grace and Frankie with fellow TV scribe Howard J. Morris. But there are fresh forces at play too. The show deals with a startling frankness with the sex lives of septuagenarians and the complicated politics of coming out as gay late in life. Moreover, the series will stream on Netflix, which is making a bid for the CBS demographic after winning over audiences starved for innovative programming with original shows like Orange Is the New Black and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.

“You’d think we’d be over the hill and out of touch, and here we are on Netflix,” says Fonda. “I feel blessed, myself.”

“[It’s a] place to go in the morning,” Tomlin says of shooting the show. “Instead of down to the mission.”

For actresses in their 70s, even ones as esteemed as Fonda and Tomlin, opportunities like this are rare. “It’s very hard to get people like us to be in those tentpole movies with all those special effects,” Fonda says. “They’re so expensive. They play it safe. The good writing is on television.” She hesitates. “And it’s much more forgiving for older women.”

“When you say it’s forgiving,” Tomlin says pointedly, “do you mean it’s a small screen?”

A Gay Old Time

Grace and Frankie is part of a recent wave of stories about older people grappling with their sexuality. Amazon’s series Transparent follows a Los Angeles family as their 60-something patriarch begins to transition into a woman; the show earned rapt critical acclaim and two Golden Globes. In 2011, Christopher Plummer won Best Supporting Actor at the Academy Awards for his portrayal of a man who comes out as gay at age 75 in Beginners. A recent 20/20 interview with Bruce Jenner, 65, in which the former Olympian and Kardashian stepparent publicly identified as transgender, drew 17 million viewers.

Kauffman’s pedigree, the inventive story and the star wattage of her two female leads, who signed on after hearing the pitch, made Grace and Frankie an easy sell. Netflix ordered a full season on the basis of the pilot script. But the idea had long been gestating. “She said, ‘I’ve always wanted to do a show on women in their 70s and sexuality,’ so I was really happy she called me,” Morris laughs, recalling when Kauffman first told him about the show. “As Jane tells us, the biggest segment of our population is aging baby boomers. They’re underserved and marginalized.”

That’s why the show’s premise is such an intriguing gambit: it plays directly to older viewers with a story line about a gay couple. Though support for recognition of same-sex marriage has reached an all-time high, with a 2014 Gallup poll showing that a majority of Americans favor gay marriage, there’s still a generational gap. While 78% of millennials support marriage equality, just 42% of those 65 and over feel the same way.

Kauffman hopes that older viewers, tuning in to see actors they’ve loved for decades, might be affected by the show’s depiction of a gay couple. “We think once they do watch, they’ll fall in love with these people,” she says.

Although Sheen and Waterston get plenty of screen time–and yes, they’re a very cute couple–Grace and Frankie is ultimately about the ex-wives, who are at once grieving and liberated, navigating the uncharted waters of single life for the first time in decades. “There are so few mass-media stories about older women,” Fonda says. Viewers “might want to watch because they see themselves.”

“Older people aren’t thought of as sexual,” Kauffman says. “It talks about not just what it is to be gay and coming out, but to redefine yourself at a certain age. A fresh start. Coming out in whatever way.”

Family Affair

Fonda and Tomlin are already hoping for a second season–after all, it’s a rare privilege to get to work among old friends. “We couldn’t have asked for a better pairing,” Tomlin says of acting with Sheen and Waterston. “They’re both desirable as our husbands and desirable as a gay couple.”

“We all have Aaron Sorkin in common,” Fonda says. (She and Waterston appeared on Sorkin’s HBO drama The Newsroom, while Sheen and Tomlin were both players on NBC’s long-running political soap The West Wing.)

“He should probably get a royalty,” Tomlin says.

Those shows, though, had the distribution muscle of big networks behind them. If Grace and Frankie resonates with viewers, it will mark yet another coup for Netflix, which has had both hits and misses with its slate of original programming. Though the streaming service doesn’t disclose information about the demographics of its subscribers or the viewership of its shows, the percentage of cord cutters is on the rise, and cable subscriptions have continued to dip. Now, companies like Netflix face a new challenge: how to develop original programming that will draw in all types of audiences, even those looking for a conventional half-hour comedy–the kind that draws huge ratings on broadcast TV.

It’s a tough needle to thread. The spikier subject matter of Grace and Frankie runs the risk of alienating the same older viewers the show is courting, while the traditional sitcom execution could feel stale to millennials used to more provocative fare. But for its stars, the potential to reach across generations is what makes the show special.

“It could have been–what’s more common–is two women get left for younger women,” Fonda says. She smiles. “But that’s not as edgy.”

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