Rising from the sea in Lifeguard, the furry-chested, mustachioed Sam Elliott has been a sex symbol ever since 1977. His sun-streaked hair held platinum promise. His So-Cal vibe even out-swaggered Tom Sellack, that era’s Marlboro Man, whose thick ‘stache lacked Sam’s bushy intrigue. In recent movies, Elliott has been regularly cast as a sage from the Old West. In TV commercials his voice is instantly recognized for its sonority, but also its sensuous, comic authority — what more could you ask of a bedroom voice? Now, with the indie release Grandma, Elliott’s finally switched back to heartthrob status.
The film stars the irresistible Lily Tomlin as Ellie Reid, a retirement-age poet, who mourns the loss of her lesbian lover. Ellie must help her granddaughter going through a pregnancy crisis. But Elliott’s presence as Karl, Granny’s ex-husband from way back in her hetero days, is part of what gives the film its gay bona fides.
The road-movie/abortion-search plot plays-out writer-director Paul Weitz’s routine, indie-movie platitudes. Surely it’s to Tomlin’s credit that the platitudes aren’t hit too hard. Ellie’s exasperated, “Where can you get a reasonably priced abortion these days!” adds a well-balanced satirical tone (the tone deriving from Tomlin’s comic grace) that staves off controversy. When Ellie confronts her bisexual past — embodied by Elliott’s Karl — she mixes regret with affection. It’s a characterization that enriches the big-screen concept of female sexuality and lesbian humanity. Ellie’s warmth is matched and confirmed by Elliott’s still compassionate, erotic resonance. In a gray T-shirt matching his perennial salt-n-pepper sexiness — Lifeguard’s poster was a major movie icon — Elliott is the Silver Fox of the silver screen.
Ellie and the oft-married Karl share a rich backstory. Ellie was the first of his many wives, and she wrote a poem titled “The Orge’s Seed” describing his potency. “You’re a patriarch,” Ellie sighs, referring to Karl’s 11 grandchildren. “I’m Biblical,” he comes back with a studly twinkle in his eye.
Ever the seducer, Elliott’s Karl has gone California green, coaxing Ellie and her granddaughter, “Want some zucchini? How about some corn that’s boiling?” These entrees are entreaties. Both sound like innuendoes coming from Elliott using cartoon pitchman’s notes. That deep growl has a tactile, arousing vibrato. Elliott delivers his lines musically, almost seductively — as when he tells Ellie: “The older I get, shit just bubbles up out of the tar.” It’s the Silver Fox line of the year.
Parker Stevenson & Elliott in 'Lifeguard'
Few actors age with such mellowness. Elliott’s tempting characterization gives depth that compliments Grandma’s open-hearted approach to manhood, womanhood and sexuality in general. Old flames Karl and Ellie attest the endurance of human passion just as Effie’s granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner), whose Marilyn Monroe-blond ringlets make her a lesbian dish, idealizes youthful sexuality — and foolishness.
Like one’s favorite aged matinee idol, Elliott personifies glamorous experience. By embodying seasoned masculinity, Elliott proves he’s still got some lifeguard in him; he saves this movie, too. Grandma guarantees an Oscar nomination for Tomlin, but there should also be an Oscar for Elliott’s Silver Fox.
Grandma opens in theaters Aug. 21.