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Emmy Watch: HBO Dominates TV Movie Race with Cinema Verite, Mildred Pierce

Emmy Watch: HBO Dominates TV Movie Race with Cinema Verite, Mildred Pierce

The Emmy race is under way. And Amy Dawes will be covering it in her new weekly Emmy Watch column.

The unveiling of HBO Films’ Cinema Verite at the Paramount lot premiere Monday night was more than just a film event – it also kicked into focus the Emmy awards race in the made-for-television movies category, where HBO tends to dominate. 

Given that the Television Academy has now combined made-fors and mini-series in the awards race – with six nominations to be doled out in the joined category – the quest for gold becomes a tad more complex. Mildred Pierce, which wrapped its initial broadcast Sunday night in a combined airing of parts 4 and 5 – will surely be the miniseries to beat (here is Caryn James’s review).  But it’s up against PBS’ much-raved about Downton Abbey, the new version of PBS’ beloved Upstairs Downstairs, and its Masterpiece Classics entry Any Human Heart.  And they must all now compete for recognition with the original movies.

[Trailers are below]

Cinema Verite, a dramatic re-telling of re-telling of events at the heart of the 1973 PBS media phenomenon An American Family, stars Diane Lane and Tim Robbins as Pat and Bill Loud, the Santa Barbara couple who, along with their five children, saw their privacy ripped away and their lives changed when they agreed to let camera crews film their everyday life for an experimental documentary series that radically presaged – and in many ways bested — the present-day “reality tv” format. 

Briskly paced and teeming with rock music and ‘70s style details, the energetically-told tale drills down efficiently to the core dramatic event captured by the series – the dissolution of Bill and Pat’s marriage.  Despite what this telling reveals, as Pat’s best efforts to avoid letting it unfold on camera (she asks her son Grant to tell him first, but the teen backs out), the cameras are indeed rolling when Pat tells the jovial, shielded Bill that she wants him to pack up and leave, after mounting evidence of his infidelities becomes too much for her. The scene where Pat first breaks the news of the divorce to her children is almost unbearably painful.

It’s a meaty role for Lane, but a tricky one, as the need for her to constantly needle and accuse Bill makes her come off as a little crazy and shrewish in the first half.  Dimension is provided via her relationship with Craig Gilbert (James Gandolfini), the documentary filmmaker who conceived the project and who encourages the breakup.  While Gilbert’s motives can seem self-serving, Gandolfini is a great match for the role, packing plenty of heat and force into his defense of his vision for the film – which others – notably camera and sound team Alan and Susan Raymond – found unconscionably invasive. [Here’s more on Cinema Verite and American Family from Caryn James]

Prior to Cinema Verite, which premieres April 23, HBO had only one original movie in this year’s Emmys race – The Sunset Limited, an intense two-hander adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s stage play in which a spiritual man and a deeply cynical one battle for philosophical supremacy, with one man’s life at stake.  With Samuel L. Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones in the roles, the production boasts some serious thespian firepower, and for my money, it’s some of the bravest and most rigorous television I’ve seen all year.  But its bleakness apparently limits its appeal – anyone who’s read McCarthy (or seen film adaptations of his work such as No Country For Old Men) can guess which side of the coin he favors.

Still to come from HBO – and not to be discounted – is Too Big To Fail, directed by Curtis Hanson and starring William Hurt as Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson in an insider dramatization of events surrounding the 2008 Wall Street meltdown.  HBO raised the bar for tv movies in 2008 with Recount, which won the Emmy in the category that year – and this project, with its sprawling cast and political immediacy – seems to mirror that effort.  It even breaks late in the season – premiering May 23, as Recount did.    On the other hand, Cinema Verite, while not as masterful as Recount, recalls another HBO project, Grey Gardens.  That one was also built around a famous documentary – and it won the category in 2009.

Other contenders will likely come from PBS and Lifetime, which tend to show up regularly as nominees.  This year PBS is getting behind individual entries from its Masterpiece thriller trilogies Sherlock and Wallender,  while Lifetime is touting Amanda Knox: Murder on Trial in Italy, Taken from Me: The Tiffany Rubin Story, The Client List (all for Lifetime) and the Lifetime Movie Network film Lies in Plain Sight.  Showtime is sitting out both the original movies and miniseries categories this year.

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