The lead acting movie and limited series categories often offer plenty of juicy opportunities for Oscar nominees and winners to add a Primetime Emmy Award to their mantels. This year is no exception with the contest boasting a past Oscar nominee and two winners. Five of the six names on the ballot are first-time Emmy contenders, while the sixth—Ricky Gervais—found his way in when Netflix classified one of his Derek programs as a “special,” even though it comes from a show that actually was nominated for Outstanding Comedy Series in 2014. It is the kind of ploy that has worked in the past for such series stars as Ashley Judd and Laura Linney, who wound up in these categories on a technicality. At any rate, the range of talent and big movie names is always impressive here.
OUTSTANDING LEAD ACTOR IN A LIMITED SERIES OR MOVIE
Adrien Brody Houdini (History)
In this two-part History Channel movie Brody, a lifelong magic buff, was easily the best thing about it and actually pulled off much of the magic and stunts himself—including the magician’s famous escape from a straight-jacket and the Chinese water torture bit. The show itself got a mixed critical response, but Brody was well received in the role, perhaps a bit better than Tony Curtis in the 1955 big-screen version. If voters are sufficiently impressed, Brody, who won an Oscar for The Pianist on his first nom in 2002, might be able to pull off the same feat of showbiz magic with his first Emmy nod, too.
Ricky Gervais Derek Special (Netflix)
This short-lived British series picked up by Netflix for U.S. airing nabbed Gervais a Lead Actor in a Comedy Series Emmy nom last year. In a bit of a tricky move, Gervais now has a place in this category for a “final” 60-minute special that actually drew mixed reviews and continued drawing controversy over the comedic way it treated mentally unbalanced people. This obviously has not deterred Emmy voters from nominating Gervais in one of its most prestigious categories, and it is largely due to name recognition and pure popularity. This is the actor/writer/director/producer’s 22nd Emmy nom with two wins. I doubt he’ll be adding a third for this one.
Timothy Hutton American Crime (ABC)
It has been 35 years since Hutton burst onto the scene, winning a supporting actor Oscar for Ordinary People in 1980, the youngest male actor, at 19 years old, to ever win an Academy Award. A limited amount of film stardom followed, but in recent years he has spent most of his time in the TV grind, most recently in Leverage. John Ridley’s multi-nominated American Crime has won him his best notices since the early part of his career, and the series is a force this year with 10 nominations overall. As Russ Skokie, the father of a murdered young man in this racially charged 11-part anthology series—which will be returning for a second season next year—Hutton gets to push all the buttons. If there is a lot of support for the series, I suspect he could pull off a victory. He’s in the hunt with his first Emmy nom.
Richard Jenkins Olive Kitteridge (HBO)
Jenkins is an actors’ actor, beloved by his fellow thesps, which might be a key reason he landed his first Emmy nomination this year. He is considered one of those long-overdue, always reliable journeyman actors. He pulled of a major feat by getting a lead actor Oscar nomination in 2009 for his touching role in The Visitor and never seems to give a bad performance. As the loving husband of troubled Olive Kitteridge, played by Frances McDormand, Jenkins delivered his usual understated fine work, although McDormand is more likely to take the gold for this one.
David Oyelowo Nightingale (HBO)
As Peter Snowden, a war vet who comes home and experiences a number of different emotions and mental states, Oyelowo won strong praise in a role very different from the one he brought to life as Martin Luther King Jr. in last December’s Oscar-nominated Best Picture, Selma. Oyelowo famously was snubbed by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for that role. But now the TV Academy has made things a little better with this Emmy nom. Actually, all the publicity he got for not getting an Oscar nomination could bring a strong focus to this project and help him pull off a win. Oyelowo already scored one from the TV Broadcast Critics, so he’s a strong contender.
Mark Rylance Wolf Hall (PBS)
If I were any of the other contenders in this category I would be most worried about Rylance. With the juicy role of Thomas Cromwell, Rylance has won near-unanimous raves, as has the six-part limited series, which is just the kind of British import the Emmys have traditionally showered with statuettes. With a simultaneous adaptation showing on Broadway, this is a very high-profile and prestigious contender that nailed eight other nominations. And Rylance, a multi-Tony winner, surprisingly is only getting his first Emmy nom of his career here.
The Winner: Mark Rylance
OUTSTANDING SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A LIMITED SERIES OR MOVIE
Out of the six-pack of great actors portraying equally great characters this year, only Bill Murray is a household name, nabbing his first ever acting Emmy nomination—and first since a nom in 1979 as part of the Saturday Night Live cast. Murray is fine and amusing, as usual, as the widower neighbor who befriends Olive Kitteridge in HBO’s four-parter. Of course, American Horror Story always can be counted on to offer rich roles. Both series regular Denis O’Hare—with his second nomination, for playing con-man Stanley—and AHS newcomer Finn Wittrock, as psychotic killer clown Dandy Mott, totally deliver. In this face-off, though, give the edge to Wittrock. Michael Kenneth Williams does nicely as Bessie Smith’s husband in Bessie, but it is Queen Latifah’s show all the way. This race could come down to American Crime’s street hustler Hector Tonz, played by former gang member Richard Cabral—whose own life story provides a compelling narrative for voters to consider—and Emmy-winner Damian Lewis, who is the only past actor Emmy winner here, in his first outing since leaving Homeland. Playing a vibrant and younger King Henry VIII than we have seen before in PBS’ Wolf Hall, Lewis could nab another Emmy win for a wildly different role. It seems to be in the cards for him.
The Winner: Damian Lewis