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Boozy grandmas add humor to TV, films

By Breeanna Hare, CNN
  • Susan Sarandon plays hard-drinking Grandma Lynn in "The Lovely Bones"
  • Kelly Bishop played drinking grandmother Emily Gilmore on "Gilmore Girls"
  • Expert says these grandmas are "exact opposite of the stereotypical grandmother"
  • Movies
  • TV Stars

(CNN) -- In the same way a Christmas playlist is incomplete without a tipsy, eggnog-drinking grandmother having an unfortunate accident with reindeer, the melodrama of certain shows and films improves when a boozy grandmother is written in.

The minor role is normally reserved for television, but it makes the jump to movie theaters this year in "The Lovely Bones," Peter Jackson's cerebral thriller based on Alice Sebold's 2002 novel, with Susan Sarandon playing the hard-drinking Grandma Lynn.

"She's such a strange grandmother," Sarandon told the Australian press about her first role as a family matriarch. Although Sarandon, 63, said she's old enough to play one, her Grandma Lynn isn't "a granny grandmother."

"She's the comic relief in this very deep, very hard movie; she comes in and the movie gets lighter," said movie reviewer Kit Bowen. "She's trying to vacuum while ash is falling from her cigarette."

Television critics say it's hard to nail down when this character first made an appearance, but the anti-grandmother role we know today was more than likely inspired by the spirited older women on "Golden Girls," and has since become a television staple.

Kelly Bishop played a version of the difficult, drinking grandmother for seven seasons as Emily Gilmore on "Gilmore Girls," and Holland Taylor has taken her vodka neat as Evelyn Harper on "Two and a Half Men" and as Peggy Peabody on "The L Word."

The Upper East Side hour-long melodrama "Gossip Girl" has the scheming Celia Rhodes -- whose signature scent is Chanel No. 5 with a top note of gin -- and Jessica Walter has perfected the role as Lucille Bluth on "Arrested Development" and Tabitha Wilson on "90210."

"These women, they're not knitting -- they're more interested in mixing their drinks than watching kids," said Entertainment Weekly's pop culture writer Tim Stack. "They're more inclined to offer a witticism or a barb than to give you sweet advice. These ladies aren't cooking -- I don't think they even eat. They drink their lunch. And their dinners. And their breakfasts. ... Maybe they eat the olives."

They're the exact opposite of the stereotypical grandmother, said's senior editor Mickey O'Connor.

"They're supposed to be the truth-tellers -- whether it's liquid courage or lowering their inhibitions, I don't know," O'Connor said.

"But everyone can relate to having an older relative that embarrasses you to some degree," he added. "Shelley Long just did a drunken grandma on 'Modern Family.' There was a wedding scene where she got drunk, gave a toast and ended up kicking the cake over. It's about the universality of how we deal with our older relatives. If you make them drunk, there's some way to at least codify what embarrasses us about them, or to excuse their outrageous behavior."

With O'Connor's own grandparents, though, "it's less often an indication of how much they've had to drink and more often just who they are."

Because it's a role that's virtually paint-by-numbers -- drunk grandmothers are nearly always wealthy, white and cruelly witty, with poor parenting skills -- it demands a strong actress who can keep the potentially two-dimensional from falling flat.

Case in point for film reviewer Bowen is the difference between the Grandma Lynn in Sebold's novel and Jackson's cinematic version.

"I loved the book, but the funny thing is that I don't remember the grandmother," Bowen said. "She definitely is more memorable in the movie, and I'm glad her character is in the movie because it adds another layer to it.

"Which, of course, has everything to do with Susan Sarandon," Bowen added.

The talent of the women who have taken these minor roles and turned them into iconic characters is what has kept the "drunk grandma" role from veering into cliché territory, O'Connor said.

"Even with the criticisms people had of '90210,' they liked Jessica Walter and what she was doing," O'Connor said. "She brought some reality. The teen drama tends to be a little stylized in terms of its emotional truth, and she's kind of there to cut through the artifice."

Stack, who also lists Walter's "Development" character as one of his favorites, thinks these roles are always such a hit because, regardless of what series they land in, they always manage to "punch it up." (Need proof of Walter's comedic timing? Do a search for "Lucille Bluth Chicken Dance" on YouTube.)

"They're the Tabasco to a Bloody Mary," Stack said. "Walter was sharp, funny, mean and heartless --- and at the same time, she was fabulous in a Chanel suit like it was always happy hour somewhere. She made it look like such a blast."

While their alcohol-induced shenanigans are obviously trumped up for comedic effect, the idea of a grandmother who's independent, technologically savvy and having fun isn't the foreign notion it used to be, said Mary McHugh, the 81-year-old author of "How Not to Become a Little Old Lady." McHugh herself has spent her post-child-rearing years traveling the world.

"When people think of a grandmother, their eyes glaze over. But now, many of us are doing things we love doing. We're not sitting somewhere and rocking in a rocking chair," said McHugh, who herself enjoys a glass of wine or two to cap off her evenings.

But, despite the truth that these characters are reflected in the real world more than ever, television and film still doesn't have anything close to the godmother of the grandmother character, "Golden Girls."

"Hopefully, it's not the drunk grandmother [character] that have made it better for older actresses, but you never know," O'Connor said. "Maybe it's become, play a drunk grandmother and you get to work past the age of 60."