First-rank thesps play second fiddle

Ongoing series draw Emmy buzz, not long-form fare

As the Emmys approach, Hollywood buzzes over who will snag drama and comedy series actor and actress awards. Yet thesps such as Drew Barrymore, Kevin Bacon and Ian McKellen hardly draw a glance their way.

Some of the most powerful performances of 2008-09 — lead actor or actress in a miniseries or movie — get little Emmy lip service. Presentation of their awards comes under threat of marginalization.

And when it comes to watercooler chatter, people seem more preoccupied with “Jon and Kate Plus 8” than, say, Kenneth Branagh’s turn as a self-destructive cop in PBS’ “Wallander.”

“That’s the difference between … the amount of attention we’re able to draw,” says “Wallander” exec producer Rebecca Eaton, “compared to the attention that can be drawn to an ongoing series.”

Tanya Lopez, senior veep of original movies for Lifetime (which has Emmy-nommed “Coco Chanel” and “Prayers for Bobby”), believes “it’s easier for a series to become watercooler conversation, because you are not just talking about the current episode but about anticipated episodes as well.”

“For me, the equivalent for movies is the word of mouth,” Lopez adds. “For ‘Prayers for Bobby,’ viewers told their friends to watch it, and every time we aired it, we got a number. The watercooler element came in the letters and e-mails we received from viewers having experienced the pain of isolation from their families or the support they found from their families.”

Another factor in the lack of Emmy interest for the minis and films category is where these projects air. Of this year’s 11 nominees in the miniseries/movie lead acting categories, three turned in their perfs on cash-strapped public television, seven on cable networks and only one (Kiefer Sutherland) on a broadcaster (Fox).

While cable series have worked their way into Emmy hot-topic talk, it’s still an uphill battle for recognition. Even film studios are loath to try niche pieces.

“Studios are too cautious to do something like this,” says “Grey Gardens” nominee Jessica Lange. “Backend, opening weekend, all that stuff that seems to motivate them limits the kind of film that a lot of actors are looking for.”

Starting from such a low profile, mini and movie thesps often have their work cut out for them at kudos time.

“Certainly, some of it depends on how creative and aggressive the networks are with their Emmy campaigns,” Lopez says.

The lack of publicity at Emmy time doesn’t seem to stop performers from seeking out these roles that challenge both audiences and themselves. Sigourney Weaver, for instance, signed on to “Bobby,” to play homophobic Mary Griffith, a Presbyterian who drove her gay son to suicidebefore becoming a Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays spokeswoman. Not the most audience-friendly premise.

“When I first read the story, all my ideas and misconceptions about the religious right were popping around,” Weaver says. “That was the purpose of telling this story: to put you into this situation and have you make the same mistakes (as Mary). So I had to get out of my own way politically… and I didn’t know how to do that at the beginning of the movie.”

Likewise, though classical theater hasn’t made for chart-topping television in a long time, PBS’ “King Lear” and “Cyrano de Bergerac” offered nominees McKellen and Kevin Kline challenges rarely found in typical films or programs.

“We don’t have effects, we don’t have locations, we don’t have the techniques of movies,” says executive producer David Horn. “What you see is what you get… a great actor is a great actor.”

And though such great performances can get overlooked by awards pundits, it doesn’t mean they don’t have an impact.

“With our audience’s support, we have helped passed laws and pushed for change and awareness of issues on many levels,” says Lopez. “I think many of our films are meant to speak to the topics that are on women’s minds and in their hearts. It is important to our network to make a difference in women’s lives.”

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