The Television Academy, by splitting miniseries and movies for the 2014 contest, has made it easier this year for the made-for-TV movie to compete. Outside of the occasional HBO film, the genre is usually at a disadvantage at the Emmys. Forced to face off directly with the more lavish miniseries form, these two-hour one-offs have had a difficult time holding their own. (Acting, directing and writing categories are still combined for minis/movies). Occasionally a movie comes along that is so irresistible to TV Academy voters that it can’t be ignored. That was the case last year with HBO’s Behind the Candelabra, which swept both Primetime and Creative Arts Emmy ceremonies. In 2011, another HBO telefilm, Game Change, had similar success against the longform monsters, but it has not always been easy to beat the odds.
With those two wins, TV movies are enjoying a bit of a renaissance—at least at HBO, which once again has the 800-pound gorilla in the race with Ryan Murphy’s adaptation of Larry Kramer’s play, The Normal Heart. The time finally seems right for this drama set in the early days of the AIDS crisis. Written 30 years ago and long in development as a feature film and then TV movie, this provocative and moving study about the human and political consequences of the HIV/AIDS outbreak finally found its way in front of the cameras, thanks in large part to Murphy, who promised the 78-year-old Kramer this movie would happen. In the same year that another decades-in-development-hell drama about the early struggle against AIDS, Dallas Buyers Club, won three Academy Awards—including best and supporting actor statuettes—it seems like kismet-style timing for a Normal Heart Emmy run. The fact that the TV movie still remains relevant and timely enhances the chances of a big win, and its backstory of a long and troubled road to the screen will only help it with voters. Kramer’s well-documented journey with the material should make him a frontrunner in the writing category, and Murphy has a good shot in directing. A superb cast also should score major nominations, including Mark Ruffalo for miniseries/movie lead actor, Julia Roberts (as a polio-stricken doctor) in supporting actress, and a plethora of supporting actors, including Jim Parsons, Joe Mantello (both appeared in the 2011 Broadway revival of the play), Taylor Kitsch, Alfred Molina and Matt Bomer, who in particular really socks home the role of The New York Times writer who becomes an early victim of the virus.
The Normal Heart looks like the one to beat, but it won’t be an easy task. HBO also is pushing Larry David’s comedy, Clear History, and Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight, which has a stellar cast in Christopher Plummer and Frank Langella and details the toll on the boxing champ’s career when he refused to go to Vietnam.
The Female Factor
Don’t discount Lifetime’s splendid adaptation of Horton Foote’s moving The Trip to Bountiful, which should rack up several nominations for its cast, including frontrunner for miniseries/movie lead actress Cicely Tyson, reprising her 2013 Tony Award-winning role of an old woman longing to revisit the town where she grew up. Blair Underwood and Vanessa Williams could compete in supporting as well. The same source material also was the subject of a 1985 feature film that won its star, Geraldine Page, a best actress Oscar. An Emmy win for Tyson would complete the Triple Crown for this beloved character.
Lifetime in fact could really come to the plate this year with a variety of awards contenders, including Whoopi Goldberg as a woman trying to bring her family together in the compelling A Day Late and a Dollar Short. Coincidentally, Goldberg was nominated for a best actress Oscar in her 1985 film debut, The Color Purple, but lost out to Page. Another voter favorite, Ellen Burstyn, could singlehandedly lift the chances of Lifetime’s thriller, Flowers in the Attic, due to her bracing portrayal of an evil grandmother. However, the genre is not necessarily Emmy-friendly.
Lifetime’s trio of biopics, House of Versace, Anna Nicole and Jodi Arias: Dirty Little Secret, are the kind of ripped-from-the-headlines projects that attract the femme-friendly network. But against stiff competition these movies would seem to be long shots. And Lizzie Borden Took an Ax, with Christina Ricci portraying the woman acquitted in the 1892 murders of her father and stepmother, hasn’t generated much heat this season. The Gabby Douglas Story, on the other hand, is a nicely produced inspirational true story of the African-American Olympic gymnastics champion that could get a nom now that the miniseries competition is no longer a factor. Lifetime also could gain traction with Return to Zero, about a pregnant woman who gets devastating news. Star Minnie Driver could find herself in contention for miniseries/movie lead actress. Hallmark Channel doesn’t seem to have much of a contender this year, though it might try to make a run for it with the sentimental (what else?) Christmas in Conway.
More serious contenders, particularly for acting talent, would be National Geographic’s Killing Kennedy and PBS’ trio: Barrymore, Sherlock: His Last Vow and Turks & Caicos. Barrymore is a one-man show about legendary actor John Barrymore that Christopher Plummer first performed onstage; his TV reprisal is a signature achievement for the 84-year-old award magnet, who won an Oscar in 2012 to go with his previous Emmy and Tony victories. You can also bet on nominations for Emmy fave Sherlock and its stars, Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. In its last go-round with Emmy two years ago, the PBS update of the famous detective took 13 nominations, including two for its stars. There were no wins, but that could change this time around. As for Turks, it is the sequel to the superb Page Eight and once again features Bill Nighy in an Emmy-worthy turn (he was nominated for a Golden Globe the first time around in 2012). And could it be Emmy-time finally for Rob Lowe, who delivered a well-reviewed and credible portrayal of President John F. Kennedy, though the movie itself, based on Bill O’Reilly’s bestseller, was less critically received?
Finally, will playing Elizabeth Taylor bring Helena Bonham Carter more Emmy luck than it did for Lindsay Lohan? Don’t count her out for a witty performance in Burton and Taylor, which chronicles Taylor’s preparation for a 1983 stage performance opposite hubby Richard Burton (played by Dominic West).
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