For the first time in a while the miniseries and movie categories have been split, however, the acting contenders from the two program types—along with writers and directors—are merged and must compete with each other, as they have for several years. This means that miniseries actors such as Chiwetel Ejiofor, Martin Freeman, Billy Bob Thornton and Idris Elba are competing with talent up for a single movie (Mark Ruffalo and Benedict Cumberbatch). Cumberbatch and his Sherlock costar also are rivals because Freeman nabbed a lead nom here for his work in the mini Fargo (and must compete against stablemate Thornton). You can see how it gets complicated. The actress race is equally split with six-time nominee Jessica Lange going against seven-time nominee Kristen Wiig for an oddball nom in the sort-of-funny mini The Spoils Of Babylon.
There also are some strong movie nominees in Cicely Tyson, Helena Bonham Carter and Minnie Driver, all previous Emmy contenders. Qualifying in the miniseries category is not without its controversies. Last year, Laura Linney managed a win for The Big C, a Showtime series for which she was previously nominated when it was in the comedy category. Because its final season was truncated, it somehow suddenly qualified as a mini. Then there’s the hubbub surrounding past American Horror Story winners Lange and Sarah Paulson, whose repeated recognition proves that the line between miniseries and regular series stars increasingly is becoming blurred. It may be time for the Television Academy to truly define what a mini really is. Until then, here is how this year’s race shakes out.
Benedict Cumberbatch, Sherlock: His Last Vow, PBS
Competing specifically for the third episode in the most recent Sherlock season, Cumberbatch could benefit from his overall work in the continuing series, which somehow grabs the “movie” label at the Emmys. A win may be overdue.
Chiwetal Ejiofor, Dancing On The Edge, Starz
Coming off his lead actor Oscar nomination for 12 Years a Slave, Ejiofor also received a 2014 Golden Globe nom for his role in this miniseries, in which he portrayed a jazz band leader in 1930s London. He’s holding a hot hand at the moment and could be a contender here if Thornton splits votes with his Fargo costar Freeman.
Idris Elba, Luther, BBC
Elba has three Emmy nominations in this category for the same role—no surprise since he excels as detective John Luther, and the TV Academy obviously loves him. But it will be tough to turn the love into a win this time around, as it’s always been for this British actor. Some do say the third time’s the charm….
Martin Freeman, Fargo, FX
Freeman is a rare double nominee this year—in addition to his lead acting nom for his role as Lester Nygaard in Fargo, he’s also recognized in supporting for Sherlock. He’s terrific in the role of an unassuming insurance man who develops a bad boy persona, but either will split votes or be pushed to the background by flashier costar Thornton.
Mark Ruffalo, The Normal Heart, HBO
If anything could upset Thornton it might be Ruffalo’s fine work as an activist journalist during the outbreak of the HIV/AIDs epidemic in 1980s New York. The Normal Heart itself is expected to be a strong contender for Emmy awards across the board. That sweep mentality further could help Ruffalo win his first major show business award.
Billy Bob Thornton, Fargo, FX
Fargo is another example of a miniseries that will continue next year, recently having been renewed for a second season. But this will be Emmy voters’ only chance to honor Thornton in his role as Lorne Malvo because, well, spoiler alert, it would be difficult to bring him back. Already the winner of the Critics’ Choice Award for the role, Thornton is the favorite.
The Winner: Billy Bob Thornton
Lead Actress in a Miniseries or a Movie
Helena Bonham Carter, Burton And Taylor, BBC
Forget Lindsay Lohan. Bonham Carter shows how to get to the essence of the diva Elizabeth Taylor, with all the bitchiness intact. This movie, set during the run of Taylor’s play, Private Lives, opposite Richard Burton, is more wickedly funny than it has any right to be, and Bonham Carter’s portrait goes way beyond impersonation. She’s a real dark horse here.
Minnie Driver, Return To Zero, Lifetime
Driver delivers a powerful performance as a woman whose pregnancies bring danger and heartbreak. This actress keeps you riveted in a much better-than-average Lifetime movie that cuts through the heart and goes straight to the soul. But it’s hard to watch at times and that could hurt Driver against her bigger-name competition.
Jessica Lange, American Horror Story: Coven, FX
Lange is going for a second, unprecedented win for the same mini, but for a different role in a different season. And because she is, uh, Jessica Lange, don’t underestimate her chances of pulling an unexpected rabbit out the hat.
Sarah Paulson, American Horror Story: Coven, FX
Paulson is a terrific actress and she has settled into this miniseries with a fierce determination to prove her worth. After a nomination for a supporting role in Game Change two years ago, and a supporting one for AHS last year, Paulson now has moved up to the lead category but may be cancelled out by her illustrious Oscar- and Emmy-winning costar.
Cicely Tyson, The Trip To Bountiful, Lifetime
Forget the fact that this role already won Tyson a lead actress Tony in a recent Broadway run—the golden glow of Carrie Watts also won Geraldine Page a lead actress Oscar in 1986. Now it seems inevitable the Emmy will be added to the legend of this beautifully-written part by Horton Foote—the gift that keeps on giving to every actress who plays her.
Kristen Wiig, The Spoils Of Babylon, IFC
This nomination was a shocker. Wiig didn’t win an Emmy in her five previous attempts at bat for her work on Saturday Night Live, where she was knock-out brilliant. Does anyone expect her to win for this subpar put-on of a miniseries? Probably not.
The Winner: Cicely Tyson
Supporting Actor in a Miniseries or a Movie
Matt Bomer, The Normal Heart (HBO)
Bomer did what all award winners do by disappearing into this role of an early AIDS victim. Engrave his statuette immediately. He deserves it for an enormously moving performance.
Martin Freeman, Sherlock: The Last Vow (PBS)
Although Freeman’s John Watson is memorable, and the actor has another nom for his role in Fargo, it won’t be enough to nab a win. There will be other years.
Colin Hanks, Fargo (FX)
Hanks grabbed his first Emmy nom for his role in the rapturously-received Fargo. But this mini is facing stiff competition from four nominees in The Normal Heart. If they cannibalize each other, there’s hope for Hanks.
Joe Mantello, The Normal Heart (HBO)
This was another great performance, and perhaps Heart’s most underrated, but Mantello, like Parsons and Molina, will be overpowered by costar Bomer.
Alfred Molina, The Normal Heart (HBO)
This actor is great in everything he does, but he’s just along for the ride on the Heart bandwagon. No chance.
Jim Parsons, The Normal Heart (HBO)
Parsons was fine in recreating his Broadway role of Tommy Boatwright in HBO’s version of this play, but Bomer overpowers him. Parsons will win for The Big Bang Theory anyway. He can’t be too greedy now.
The Winner: Matt Bomer
Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or a Movie
Angela Bassett, American Horror Story: Coven (FX)
As a voodoo queen on AHS, Bassett killed it with a deliciously over-the-top performance. However, sentiment for her costars may rule her out here.
Kathy Bates, American Horror Story: Coven (FX)
Twelve nominations for 11 different projects has to be a record—if not an all-time Emmy record—for Bates, and yet she only has picked up one previous Emmy (for playing Charlie Sheen’s ghost on Two And A Half Men) to go with her Tony and Oscar trophies. Bates could surprise here because she was so good on AHS.
Ellen Burstyn, Flowers In The Attic (Lifetime)
Oscar-, Tony- and Emmy-winner Burstyn gets nominated just for blowing her nose (remember the 2006 nom for a 14-second appearance in Mrs. Harris?). Burstyn should thank the awards gods just to be nommed in this Lifetime remake of a marginal movie.
Frances Conroy, American Horror Story: Coven (FX)
Conroy’s four previous lead actress noms—for Six Feet Under—and one in 2012 for AHS means she’s overdue for a win, but her tough competition will make this an 0 for 6 run.
Julia Roberts, The Normal Heart (HBO)
Roberts simply soared as a polio-stricken doctor in the early days of the HIV/AIDS crisis—a role that won Ellen Barkin a Tony. Roberts is a real contender, but voters may penalize her for being such a huge movie star.
Allison Tolman, Fargo (FX)
Tolman pulled off a Critics’ Choice victory against stiff competition, and I have a feeling her irresistible turn in Fargo will also shut down fellow Emmy nominees (and former Oscar winners) Roberts, Burstyn and Bates. She’s that good.
The Winner: Allison Tolman