The Emboldened Girls: A Candid Conversation with Jane Fonda & Lily Tomlin

Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, whose new series, Grace and Frankie, is now on Netflix. All Photos: Melissa Moseley / Netflix

Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, whose new series, Grace and Frankie, is now on Netflix.
All Photos: Melissa Moseley / Netflix

By: Chris Azzopardi*/Special to TRT—

Lily Tomlin is watching Jane Fonda weep.

As the showbiz icon releases a steady stream of waterworks – she’s “wiping tears away,” Tomlin notes – Fonda pauses slightly to collect herself before answering.

The question? Why gay men have forever revered older women even when the rest of the world – and Hollywood – have not.

“I find the question so moving that it makes me cry,” says Fonda.

It’s one revelatory moment among many during this candid conversation with the 77-year-old actress and Tomlin, 75, who appear together in the new Netflix original series Grace and Frankie. The beloved pair play two golden girls forced to start anew after their husbands drop a big truth bomb: They’re in love with each other.

This isn’t the actresses’ first time working together, of course.

In 1980, Tomlin and Fonda memorably joined forces with Dolly Parton to put misogynistic men in their place in Nine to Five. Decades later, the film is a feminist-celebrated comedy classic.

Will Dolly make a cameo on Grace and Frankie? During our freewheeling interview, the two longtime friends talked about the possibility of a Nine to Five reunion on their new series, but they revealed plenty more too. Fonda opened up about her own experiences dating high-profile gay men, one of whom proposed to her. Tomlin recalled the time she lashed out at Chita Rivera. But first, the crying.

Chris Azzopardi: You’ve both addressed aging in Hollywood, and this show deals a lot with aging as well. Historically, gay men – we love our “Golden Girls,” we already love Grace and Frankie, we love our Chers and Bette Midlers. Why do you think, despite Hollywood’s reputation for ageism, there has always been a place for older women in the gay community?

Lily Tomlin: I may be terribly wrong and cutting my tongue out for this: It’s like, well, we’re women of a certain age, and maybe we’re considered more audacious.

Jane Fonda: I find the question so moving that it makes me cry. I had never thought of it before, and it makes me so moved. I think Lily put her finger on it just now. Older women tend to be more audacious; they’re bigger and bolder and, god knows, gay men love big and bold, right?

Q. Does it go any deeper than that, do you think?

Lily: It’s like (drag performer) Lypsinka. I knew he was from Mississippi, and he’s like a little kitten in a way; his hair is so soft and pale red, and he’s got a big, high, very white-skinned forehead. When I first saw Lypsinka, I could just see this little boy – four or five years old in Mississippi – growing up around all these Southern women, and my family’s Southern too. I just saw him seeing through them and into their hearts. He saw the women being oppressed and being pigeonholed and how they act kind of audaciously just to free themselves. I just could see that little boy, and he satirized women’s behavior so brilliantly – all the stuff, the travails they have – and I just wept when I saw him because he was so brilliant. I think there are hinges between those two things. Jane is wiping tears from her eyes.

Jane: How she said that – that he sees through them into their hearts. And also: The notion of surviving.

Lily: And him making up this incredible creature who’s just so much fun to watch, and yet it’s painful. I could feel his little boy pain all through those years.

Q. You both have had a profound influence on the LGBT and ally movements. Can you share a moment in your lives as LGBT activists and trailblazers that stand out as particularly memorable to you?

Jane: Campaigning with Harvey Milk in the Castro District in San Francisco for Prop 6. He was the most joyous. He was like Allen Ginsberg. He was always smiling and laughing, and he was beloved and he was funny. The most lovable person. I was so happy when I was with him. And it was just so much fun going into those gay bars with him – oh my god!

Lily: I never got to meet Harvey Milk. I knew (LGBT activist and historian) Vito Russo; he was my good friend. I used to exchange so many stories with him. I was up on the Strip one night when I was not on Laugh-In yet. I was unknown and a woman that I was friends with who was a publicist had brought Chita Rivera to meet me, and Chita talked with a Bronx accent, and she’s talking really fast and you don’t know what she’s saying. I kind of zoned out for a minute because I could hardly understand her at that point, and then I suddenly heard her say, “purse nelly.” First she had said my “boy dancers” and the skin on the back of my neck bristled up, and that’s when she said “purse nelly” and then I just went ballistic. I said, “What did you say?!”

Q. You lashed out at Chita Rivera?

Lily: I lashed out. She said, “I dunno! WHADISAY?” I said, “You said, ‘purse nelly.’ I wanna know what that means. What you meant by that!” “I don’t know. Whadisay? Pursenelly? Personally.” She was saying “personally”!

Jane: Personally! (Laughs)

Lily: And I didn’t even cop to it. I was so embarrassed. I just doubled over laughing and fell on the floor.

Jane: I just went to my 60th high school reunion. I went four years to an all-girls boarding school, and in the days leading up to the reunion I kept wondering, “God, I wonder whatever happened to Pat Johnson?” Because everyone in the class knew that Patty Johnson was gay, or at least we thought that she was. But no one talked about it. Not even among ourselves. Nobody ever said anything. And she was at the reunion – there were only four of us at the reunion.

Lily: Four out of the whole class?! Awww.

Jane: And Pat Johnson was there, with an oxygen tank, mind you. It was the first time she’d been out to dinner in five years because she had some allergies to chemicals. And there she was with her wife! An amazing woman violinist! And I thought, well, this is very great. I never ever would have imagined back in the day that Pat Johnson would be able to get married to her lady friend.

Q. Let’s talk about your friendship with each other. Was it smooth sailing from the very beginning?

Lily: Yeah, we hit it off right away. I was so excited when Jane came to see one of my shows way back in the day

Jane: This was pre-Nine to Five! [pullquote]Homophobia. I lived in the South for 20 years, and, unfortunately, homophobia is all too alive and rampant, but because there are so many more gay men and women in mass media and they’re very lovable – and more and more people are coming out – Americans know somebody who’s gay and lesbian. —Jane Fonda[/pullquote]

Lily: Yeah. I was all excited. She came backstage and was very complimentary, and then next thing I knew…

Jane: I was offering her a role in Nine to Five, which was originally going to be a serious movie until I saw Lily’s one-woman show called Appearing Nightly. I decided I didn’t want to make a movie about office workers until she was one of them. And it had to be a comedy. It took me a year to convince her and Dolly to be in it! During that year we kind of saw each other because we’d be talking about different ideas and stuff, and so we kind of became friends before Nine to Five.

Q. What is different about working with each other on _Grace and Frankie_ compared to when you worked together on Nine to Five 35 years ago?

Jane: We’re together more! I mean, it’s four months, almost every day for almost 15 hours, which is a real treat for me. You know, Lily is very unusual. She has a real funny bone. So, watching her take on not just the scripts but life is a pleasure.

Lily: Thank you, Ms. Fonda!

Q. After doing the first season of Grace and Frankie, what advice do you have for women who are romantically involved with a gay man?

Jane: Try to stay friends. You know, it happened to a friend of mine when I lived in Atlanta, and she told me about it and it was very hard for her because she really loved him a lot. Because she loved him, she was able to understand that he needed to become who he really was, and they remained very, very close friends and they still live in the same building. I think that’s the way to do it. Compassion, empathy, love, understanding – we need more of it.

Q. Have either of you dated a gay man before?

Jane: Oh yes! Oh my god. When I was young, I was the female that gay guys wanted to try to become heterosexual with. A very famous actor who’s gay – and I will not name names – asked me to marry him. I was very flattered, but I said, “Why?” This was 1964. And I mean, he wasn’t the only one. It’s very interesting. And I lived for two years with a guy who was trying to become heterosexual. I’m intimately acquainted with that.

Q. Did that come to mind as you were shooting this show, where you are married to a gay man?

Jane: (Laughs) No! Not until you made me think of it right now.

Lily, have you had any similar experiences?

Lily: No, I didn’t; but I had girlfriends who dated gay guys in college and they couldn’t understand why so-and-so didn’t, you know, take them into their arms and sweep them away. Because they danced together so well! They were beautiful, tall blonde people! They were just kind of breathtaking, and they did make a nice looking couple, but that was about as far as it would go – looks. I had a girlfriend and we got into a big fight about being gay when I first moved to New York. She was watching Lust for Life with Anthony Quinn, who is so macho as Gauguin in that movie, and I said something like, “Look how macho this guy is – he’s unbelievable!” She said, “If I were gay, I’d beat down the door of the nearest psychiatrist.” I said, “If I fell in love with my refrigerator, I’d give it lamb chops!”

Q. Netflix has really been a pioneer in reaching beyond LGBT stereotypes and being LGBT inclusive, and it’s done it again with Grace and Frankie. How do you feel about the state of gay characters on TV as a whole? And what is it about this platform that allows Netflix to tell LGBT stories without getting gimmicky or exploitative?

Lily: I think it’s been a long time coming. Although, it’s happened because of so many things that have gone before, and this culture has changed. Large parts of the culture have changed. Not the culture as a whole. You know, there’s still a lot of –

Jane: Homophobia. I lived in the South for 20 years, and, unfortunately, homophobia is all too alive and rampant, but because there are so many more gay men and women in mass media and they’re very lovable – and more and more people are coming out – Americans know somebody who’s gay and lesbian. Once that happens, it’s a lot harder to remain homophobic.

Q. Did you ever think that gay marriage would be a reality in your lifetime?

Lily: No, I did not.

Jane: No, I didn’t either.

Lily: I mean, I began to suspect. The last generation or two that have come along, they so demanded to be visible and they’ve taken for granted everything that the gay community had fought for so hard for a long time – it was wiped away from their minds that they were not accepted or not loved. I mean, they may have known it but they didn’t own it.

Jane: I agree, and I’m very optimistic. I found what Justice Kennedy said – that it should be looked at as sex discrimination – cause for optimism.

Q. I remember when this show was announced, everyone was really hyped about you two getting back together, but they were also hoping for a Dolly Parton cameo. Has that been discussed as a real possibility amongst showrunners?

Lily: Well, it’s been discussed because so many people inquired about it and thought about it. Of course Dolly’s a good friend and the three of us really like each other and we’ve been friends all these years, but because Grace and Frankie is set apart, we want to establish our identity before we think about dragging the Nine to Five life into it.

Jane: It’s a different style. It’s a different animal. We wanna keep it that way. For now, anyway.

Q. What do you think your Nine to Five characters, Judy and Violet, are up to these days?

Jane: Violet’s probably heading up a Silicon Valley company! Maybe we’re married!

*Chris Azzopardi is the editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBT wire service. Reach him via his website at

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