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Emmys: ‘Big Little Lies,’ ‘Feud’ Highlight Competitive Limited Lead Actress Race

This year’s Emmy race for lead actress in a limited series or motion picture made for television is set to be a scrappy competition on par with the Oscars skullduggery dramatized in FX’s “Feud.”

Indeed, Ryan Murphy’s saga about Golden Age fixtures Joan Crawford and Bette Davis warring over Hollywood recognition for their work in 1962’s “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” is one of two programs that have multiple shots on goal this year. Both Jessica Lange (as Crawford) and Susan Sarandon (Davis) are sure to be in the thick of it.

What’s interesting is how the two performances in some ways mirror Crawford and Davis’ own on-screen work; while Sarandon gets to chew the scenery, Lange’s is the more reserved and layered portrayal. It’s not necessarily more complex — both Crawford and Davis, as characters, are working through quite a lot with their careers winding down here — but it makes you wonder how TV Academy voters will respond, particularly with such a glut elsewhere on the ballot.

HBO’s “Big Little Lies,” a seven-part series from director Jean-Marc Vallee wrapping up Sunday night, also features multiple actresses that will be in the mix — three, in fact. Reese Witherspoon, in full Tracy Flick mode, tackles the role of a feisty Monterey Bay mother with ease. Nicole Kidman, meanwhile, goes to some dark places as a woman in an emotionally (and physically) volatile marriage. Like the “Feud” duo, one performance (Witherspoon’s) is showier than the other, but each actress is sure to generate a lot of support. And not to be forgotten, Shailene Woodley, as a woman haunted by the rape that made her a single mother, is competing in the category as well.

That’s four strong contenders for nominations already and we’ve only addressed two shows.

Felicity Huffman is a already a two-time nominee in the category for ABC’s “American Crime.” After playing a grieving mother and a conniving school principal in the previous two seasons of John Ridley’s series, she stars this time as a woman married into a tomato farming business who slowly learns the disturbing truths behind her family’s success.

Sticking with networks, Fox’s “Shots Fired” presents one of the most electrifying performances in the field, from actress Sanaa Lathan. Reggie Rock and Gina Prince-Bythewood’s event series, which taps into the zeitgeist with the story of a deadly officer-involved shooting in a small North Carolina town, provides Lathan with a with a great opportunity to shoulder much of the proceedings as a special prosecutor assigned to the case.

And don’t forget “Fargo.” FX’s series is back this spring with actress Carrie Coon (“Gone Girl,” “The Leftovers”) out in front. Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman and Kirsten Dunst have received lead recognition in previous seasons.

Meanwhile, we haven’t even touched on the movies. Two HBO films have major star wattage: Oprah Winfrey in “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” and Michelle Pfeiffer, opposite Robert De Niro’s Bernie Madoff, in “The Wizard of Lies.” And the consistently laureled Viola Davis is a lingering threat for Lifetime’s “Custody” if she goes lead.

Beyond that, other contenders worth mentioning are Freida Pinto’s determined revolutionary in Showtime’s “Guerrilla,” Lauren Graham in Netflix’s resurrected “Gilmore Girls: A Day in the Life,” Jodie Comer as Elizabeth of York in Starz’ “The White Princess” and Bryce Dallas Howard for her wonderful work in an episode of Netflix’s “Black Mirror,” which netted her a Screen Actors Guild nomination last year. ABC is also pitching Mary Louise-Parker and Emily Skeggs in the lead category for “When We Rise,” though actors like Guy Pearce and Michael Kenneth Williams are probably more likely to get traction. And given that “American Horror Story” has been a force in the past, it’s worth mentioning reigning champion in the category, Sarah Paulson, as well.

That’s quite the roll call. Who’s going to be left without a seat when the music stops?

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