For just about as long as the Emmys have been around, the Television Academy has had a history of giving statuettes out to movie stars. They just love, love, love giving Emmys out to any A-listers or even B-listers who deigned to grace the small screen — and their humble little awards ceremony — with their presence. It was pretty much a given that if Al Pacino or Matt Damon or Julia Roberts appeared on TV in some capacity in a given year — usually in a prestige TV movie on HBO — they were a lead-pipe cinch for an Emmy.
The reason was simple: the TV folks had an inferiority complex. No matter how good shows on TV got, there seemed to still be a separation between movie stars and TV stars, with the big screen stars being seen as bigger and better than their small screen counterparts, even if the perception was different than the reality. And even during this most recent “golden age” of television, the presence of a current movie star in the nominations list got the Academy members all aflutter. After all, last year’s best lead actor in a drama was Jeff Daniels, who put in a good performance in “The Newsroom,” but not one that was better than the others who were nominated.
However, Monday night’s Emmy ceremony showed that the inferiority complex is finally and mercifully coming to an end. Yes, two former Oscar winners, Kathy Bates and Jessica Lange, won for their turns in “American Horror Story: Coven.” But both of their days on the big screen are long in the past. This year, there were plenty of current A-listers on the nomination list, in major categories, and none of them came away with the statuette.
The three that come to mind immediately are Matthew McConaughey of “True Detective,” Billy Bob Thornton of “Fargo” and Julia Roberts of “The Normal Heart.” The first two on that list were considered to be shoo-ins in their respective lead actor categories of drama and miniseries/movie. McConaughey was such a slam dunk that Jimmy Kimmel hilariously hijacked the show before he presented his award to chide McConaughey about crashing the television party and taking all the big awards for himself. “All right, all right, alright already,” Kimmel said, riffing on McConaughey’s signature line.
Another sign that McConaughey was a shoo-in: When Roberts read the nominees for lead actor in a drama, she damn near cheered when she read the names of McConaughey and his “True Detective” co-star Woody Harrelson, while reading the other four names as if she was reading from an insurance policy. Roberts herself had already been beaten out by Bates and saw Thornton lose to Benedict Cumberbatch of “Sherlock,” so she may have been pulling for her movie buddies a little harder. But there was definitely some palpable disappointment and surprise in her voice when she read the name of Bryan Cranston.
Of course, that makes absolutely no sense. If there was anyone who should have been a slam dunk for the lead actor in a drama award this year, it should have been Cranston. It was the final season of “Breaking Bad,” with Cranston — who, by the way, won for the show three other times — playing his iconic, career-defining role of Walter White as both cancer and his meth empire closed in around him.
The run of episodes leading up to the “Breaking Bad” finale were some of the most remarkable episodes of television many critics had ever seen, and Cranston was excellent in all of them. The fact that McConaughey was overshadowing him was more of a case of the Academy’s rules quirks that allowed “True Detective” in the drama category in the first place. If the show had been submitted as a miniseries, McConaughey would have gone up against Billy Bob, and everyone would have just waited for the coronation of Cranston much like they waited for the inevitable Emmy to Julia Louis-Dreyfus.
All of this, though, is a good sign for the television industry going forward. It shows that they’re proud of their own and they’re not going to get stars in their eyes when a movie star does TV, even in as memorable a performance as the one McConaughey gave in “True Detective.” As the ranks get increasingly mixed over the next few years, the distinction between who’s a “TV star” and who’s a “movie star” will go away. But for now, the voters in the Academy are telling audiences that this golden age of television is for real, and it’ll take more than a big name or a shiny new Oscar to sway their votes.