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This story first appeared in a special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
For most of the past 70 years, actors were seen as either “TV actors” or “film actors,” and the ultimate dream of the former was to become the latter. The reverse journey was considered career suicide and was traveled usually by marginal film actors who had less to lose. (See: Lucille Ball, Andy Griffith and Sarah Jessica Parker.)
But in the late 20th century, major movie studios were bought by multinational conglomerates, which increased the pressure to be profitable with every film release. Outside of Oscar season, film studios increasingly gravitated toward safe box-office bets (remakes, sequels, adaptations), few of which required the participation of “serious” actors. Concurrently, cable TV came of age, creating dozens more outlets desperate for content and talent. As opportunities for actors in film decreased, they increased in TV, and a growing number of those who’d felt displaced by the economics of the big screen were willing to consider the small one.
It took some time for TV work to become destigmatized among film actors. For years, they dipped their toes in via TV movies and miniseries, well-paying gigs that demand a limited time commitment and, often, offer a payoff in the form of an Emmy nomination or award. Then, in the wake of a major moment in 1998 — when Mad About You‘s Helen Hunt won the best actress Oscar for As Good As It Gets and then returned to her series — a few gutsy film actors took the leap and signed up for series, with varying degrees of success: Glenn Close (The Shield and Damages), Martin Sheen (The West Wing), Sally Field (Brothers & Sisters), Alec Baldwin (30 Rock), Geena Davis (Commander in Chief), Kiefer Sutherland (24), Holly Hunter (Saving Grace), Charlie Sheen (Two and a Half Men), Dustin Hoffman (Luck), Laura Linney (The Big C) and the list goes on.
The exodus of film actors today has resulted in a field of Emmy contenders that reads like a film academy who’s who. There are more than a dozen Oscar winners in the mix, including Kevin Spacey (House of Cards), Sissy Spacek (Bloodline), Frances McDormand (Olive Kitteridge), Jon Voight (Ray Donovan), Timothy Hutton (American Crime), Jane Fonda (Grace and Frankie), Mo’Nique (Bessie) and Jessica Lange and Kathy Bates (American Horror Story: Freak Show). And more than 30 Oscar nominees are in contention, including Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson (Empire), Clive Owen (The Knick), Viola Davis (How to Get Away With Murder), Don Cheadle (House of Lies), Richard Jenkins and Bill Murray (Olive Kitteridge), Lily Tomlin (Grace and Frankie), Maggie Gyllenhaal, Janet McTeer and Stephen Rea (The Honorable Woman) and Sam Shepard (Bloodline).
The critical (and Emmy) success of such prestigious shows as House of Cards (Spacey and Robin Wright), True Detective (Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey) and The Normal Heart (Julia Roberts and Mark Ruffalo) has shown that TV no longer is beneath any actor and often is more welcoming to, say, character actors, people of color and performers of a certain age (hello, Fonda and Voight).
In the coming months, new shows will debut that feature even more film stalwarts, including Scarlett Johansson, Keanu Reeves, Jennifer Lopez, Susan Sarandon, Meg Ryan, Jamie Lee Curtis, Greta Gerwig and, most imminently, the stars of the second installment of True Detective — Vince Vaughn, Colin Farrell and Rachel McAdams.
But does all this silver-screen star power help or hurt the Emmys‘ mission to be a “separate but equal” counterpart to the Oscars?
The impact is twofold. On the one hand, there ultimately might be fewer opportunities for unknown actors to break into major roles on TV since, to compete for eyeballs, networks will be under more pressure to cast already-known names as opposed to taking a chance on unknowns. (Could Friends, which launched the juggernaut careers of six relatively unknown actors, be so serendipitously cast today?)
On the other hand, there is generally more interest in the Emmys among viewers if they know that their favorite movie stars (paging The Comedians‘ Billy Crystal and Mom‘s Anna Faris) may be among those present to accept a TV Academy trophy. And higher ratings only increase Emmy’s overall value and visibility in Hollywood.
In any case, when young, aspiring actors rehearse their awards acceptance speeches in front of the mirror, they may very soon begin by saying, “I’d like to thank the Television Academy…”
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