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L.A. Film Festival: At opening night tribute, Lily Tomlin shares career highlights

The theater went dark, the crowd hushed — but nothing played.

The audience was supposed to be watching a reel of highlights from Lily Tomlin’s career. But there was some sort of technical malfunction. Los Angeles Film Festival curator Elvis Mitchell ran to check on the problem, cracking a joke about how he had to go put “some cash in the machine.” And then, out of the blackness, a voice: “Let me act it out!”

Tomlin. Obviously.

To the crowd’s dismay, the retrospective soon began to play and the 75-year-old was not forced to give an impromptu performance. She was in downtown Los Angeles on Wednesday evening to receive the festival’s Spirit of Independence award, just an hour before her new film “Grandma” opened the eight-day event.

The movie, which will be released by Sony Pictures Classics in August, stars the actress as a salty academic on a mission to help her teenage granddaughter get an abortion. The pregnant teen is played by Julia Garner, 21, who was on hand Wednesday to give Tomlin the actual Spirit of Independence prize — a glass trophy that the elder actress joked could start a fire if you set it “near sheer curtains.”

Garner appeared endearingly anxious as she talked about Tomlin’s influence 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 impacted 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 firestarter, Tomlin settled in for a Q&A with 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 her. “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.”

— During “Shadows and Fog,” Woody Allen had Tomlin, Jodie Foster and Kathy Bates fly from Los Angeles to New York roughly five times for reshoots. “He would mostly change the dialogue,” Tomlin said. “And he could do that. He had that cachet that they would pay for our travel, I guess.” She added that she “wasn’t close” to Allen and initially thought he and Mia Farrow were “such a cute couple — so sweet and loving with each other” on set. But soon after production wrapped, she said, “the whole fracas was exposed” — meaning Allen’s relationship with Farrow's daughter Soon-Yi Previn.

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