Gut-wrenching dramas steal spotlight

A good rule of thumb for handicapping the most memorable performances in the miniseries and telepic categories year after year is that larger than life, emotionally wrenching, chew-the-scenery gigs never fail to get noticed. And this year should be no exception.

In the mini category, the name that keeps coming up is Judy Davis for her uncanny, powerhouse portrayal of Judy Garland in ABC’s “Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows.”

“I honestly expected the mini to be a morbid drag show, and that’s why I watched it,” says Joyce Millman, Salon.com’s TV critic. “It blew me away. I never saw a resemblance between her and Garland before this project, and she was absolutely brilliant.”

Millman is quick to point out that not only did Davis deliver an on-the-dot replica of Garland’s Carnegie Hall concerts, she has other factors working in her favor.

“She did have to put on the fat suit and go on drunken binges and Emmy voters just love those things,” Millman says.

If Davis gets nominated, it will be the third year that she’s been noticed in this category. She was previously up for consideration for “Dash and Lily,” “A Cooler Climate” and “The Echo of Thunder,” and she won the Emmy for her role in “Serving in Silence: The Margarethe Cammermeyer Story.”

Tammy Blanchard, the 24-year-old actress who played the young Garland, is also high on critics’ lists, but the fact that she’s a relative unknown may only get her a supporting actress nom.

A certain Oscar-winning actress’ name is also simmering in the Emmy soup this year. Emma Thompson, who had a brilliant turn in helmer Mike Nichols adaptation of “Wit” for HBO, is another likely candidate according to several critics. The Brit thesp brings a certain star quality to the role of an English professor who comes to terms with her own mortality when she’s diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

“I thought the film was a predictable staging of the Broadway play,” notes James Poniewozik, Time magazine’s TV columnist. “The writing was fine, but it was obvious. Thompson, on the other hand, was outstanding.”

Millman also notes that the voters will probably eat it all up, but adds, “I could never really shake the sense that I was watching Thompson go bald and puke. It all felt like now we’re going to make this Academy Award-winning actress suffer. Watch her get cancer, go bald and suffer humiliation. They’re going to love it.”

Another project weaving an arresting narrative out of suffering, tragedy and human dignity is ABC’s unforgettable four-hour mini “Anne Frank: The Whole Story,” which features a remarkable performance by the young Hanna Taylor-Gordon.

Several other supporting players in the production, Lili Taylor, Ben Kingsley and Brenda Blethyn, are also cited as contenders.

The horrors of the Holocaust cast a long shadow on several other telepics this past season. TNT’s Golden Globe-nominated “Nuremberg” featured award-worthy performances by Alec Baldwin and Brian Cox, but it’s HBO’s more recent “Conspiracy” that may generate more enthusiasm among voters.

“Stanley Tucci and Kenneth Branagh were really outstanding in ‘Conspiracy,’ which in my mind is the best TV movie of the past season,” says Poniewozik.

Penned by Loring Mandel and directed by Frank Pierson, the film re-creates the 1942 meeting at Wannsee where the German high command detailed the fate of the European Jewish population.

“The film has a powerful way of dealing with the Holocaust obliquely, and addresses issues that have to do with language, euphemism and bureaucratic doublespeak that anyone who’s had to sit through a 10 a.m. planning meeting at the office will be able to relate to it,” notes Poniewozik.

Billy Crystal’s paen to the boys of summer, “61*,” also produced two crackerjack performances, by Thomas Jane (as Mickey Mantle) and Barry Pepper (as Roger Maris).

When Allen Barra reviewed the film on Salon, he wrote: “Where did they find these guys? Jane and Pepper are so good they are able to suggest the loneliness of the long-distance swingers that the script can only hint at.”

Also inspired by the sports pages was ABC’s telepic “When Billy Met Bobby,” which starred Holly Hunter as tennis pro Billie Jean King and Ron Silver as Bobby Riggs. Both Silver and Hunter are bigscreen stars, and TV Acad voters love it when movie thesps do time on the small screen, especially when they’re playing real-life personalities.

Other performances that may strike a chord this year belonged to Regina Taylor (PBS’ “Cora Unashamed”), Sissy Spacek (Lifetime’s “Midwives”), Natasha Richardson (CBS’ mini “Haven”), Andy Garcia (HBO’s “For Love or Country: The Arturo Sandoval Story”), Judi Dench (“The Last of the Blonde Bombshells,” for which she won a Golden Globe), Elisabeth Shue (ABC’s “Amy and Isabelle”), Alfre Woodard (Showtime’s “Holiday Heart”) and tyke star Sam Smith (who played the title character in PBS’ miniseries “Oliver Twist”).

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