Judys set high bar for minis, telepics

'Garland' win a high water mark for longforms

Blame it all on the two Judys.

Judy Davis’ Emmy-winning portrayal of Judy Garland from 2001 casts a long shadow over all of this year’s contenders in the mini and telepic thespian races. Ask any TV critic or media observer about this year’s possibilities, and they are likely to come back with, “Well, there was nothing like Judy Davis in that ABC Judy Garland movie from last year.”

Yet like 2001, many of the notable performances on the small screen were by thesps portraying real-life heroes and personalities: from James Franco in TNT’s “James Dean” and Kenneth Branagh in A&E’s mini “Shackleton” to Albert Finney in HBO’s “The Gathering Storm,” and Sam Waterston and Stockard Channing as grieving parents in NBC’s “The Matthew Shepard Story.” And don’t forget Angela Bassett in CBS’ “The Rosa Parks Story.”

Franco, Branagh and Finney will almost certainly garner consideration for actor, as might Jeremy Irons, in Showtime’s F. Scott Fitzgerald pic “Last Call”; Michael Gambon, HBO’s LBJ biopic “Path to War”; and three relative newcomers to the scene, Damien Lewis and Ron Livingston (HBO’s “Band of Brothers”), and Ryan Gosling (Showtime’s “The Believer”).

Besides Bassett and Channing, the actress field could include Julianna Margulies and Anjelica Huston, from TNT Arthurian mini “The Mists of Avalon”; Kim Dickens, Showtime’s “Things Behind the Sun”; Linda Lavin, PBS’ “Collected Stories”; Kathy Bates, CBS’ “My Sister’s Keeper”; and Gena Rowlands and Laura Linney, Showtime’s “Wild Iris.”

A giant

Even though many believe that the level of performances this year wasn’t quite up to those of last year, when “Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows,” “Wit,” “62*” and “Conspiracy” were in the running, the feeling among many helmers and scribes is that cable continues to be a gold mine for character studies and offbeat telepics.

“The explosion of special effects and technology has driven all the quality material to cable,” notes Mark Rydell, who directed TNT’s “James Dean.” “With the exception of indie films, real matters of substance are embraced by cable outlets like TNT and HBO.”

Henry Bromell, who wrote and directed Showtime’s “Last Call,” echoes Rydell’s opinion. “In general, Hollywood studios aren’t going to make movies about characters. Writers are always characters, and that’s why you see ‘Last Call,’ and something like “Dash and Lilly” (A&E’s 1999 Emmy-nominated telepic about Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman) finding their lives on cable.”

The critical response to some of this year’s biggest broadcast network mini and telepic events supports this pro-cable assertion.

“If they gave out Emmys for the worst acting in a TV movie or miniseries, it would certainly go to the ABC mini ‘Dinotopia,'” says TV Guide critic Matt Roush. “It truly offered some of the worst performances of the year.” In retrospect, maybe they should have asked Judy Davis to voice one of the dinosaurs.

Indeed, critics found a lot more to like, performance wise, on cable. “Nobody can really touch James Franco in ‘James Dean,'” says Roush. “He’s won a couple of awards since the film aired last year. He brought a sensitivity to the performance that moved it beyond simple impersonation.

“Albert Finney was also strong in ‘The Gathering Storm,’ because he gave us a humanizing portrait of Churchill, who was always larger than life.”

Roush also singles out three of the actors in megaseries “Band of Brothers” for their strong, layered performances. In addition to Lewis and Livingston, who were nominated for Golden Globes, Roush adds Frank John Hughes to the list of the war epic’s topnotch performers.

“The project didn’t sell itself like a cheap melodrama, and it consciously worked against creating showboating performances, so in that sense, it may have a hard time with Emmy voters,” he notes.

Shaky American accents by British actors emerged as the biggest annoyance for People magazine critic Terry Kelleher. “Michael Gambon’s accent was lousy in HBO’s ‘Path to War,’ and Jeremy Irons had an accent problem as F. Scott Fitzgerald in Showtime’s ‘Last Call.’ ‘Band of Brothers’ was very impressive, but it was very hard to tell one guy from the other in that miniseries.”

Among Kelleher’s dark-horse picks in the mini and telepic field are Beau Bridges, in Lifetime’s “We Were the Mulvaneys,” based on the popular book by Joyce Carol Oates, and Brit actress Juliet Stevenson, in the PBS entry “The Road to Coorain,” who has been a critic’s darling for her roles in “Truly, Madly, Deeply” and “The Politician’s Wife.”

Publicity challenged

“Ted Danson also gave a strong performance in the CBS mini ‘Living With the Dead,'” he adds, “but the (psychic-themed) project’s substance and scope are certainly dwarfed by the competition.”

PBS may have a couple of potential nominees, but the pubcaster faces visibility problems when it comes to the massive publicity machines of networks and cablers.

Rebecca Eaton, executive producer of “Mobil Masterpiece Theater,” says she has her fingers crossed for two edgy performances from this past season’s contempo adaptation of “Othello.” “It has the earmarks of a first-rate television movie,” she explains. “But

the hidden secret is that it’s Shakespeare, not his words, but the plotline. Eammon Walker stars as London’s first black police commissioner and Christopher Eccleston plays Ben Jago, his fatally jealous friend.”