As evidenced by last year’s slate of Oscar nominations, the kinds of feature films that generate awards attention are still working within a distressingly narrow field of representation. All eight 2014 Best Picture nominees were fronted by a male protagonist, while in the case of every film not named “Selma,” the combined number of non-white characters could be counted on one hand. To add insult to injury, several prominent film writers framed entire articles around the clear competition imbalance between the male and female lead acting categories.
In the realm of limited series and TV movies, however, this past season has told a very different story. Not only is the Best Actress lineup ridiculously competitive — including the many (arguably) career-best performances from majority-film actors like Frances McDormand (“Olive Kitteridge”), Maggie Gyllenhaal (“The Honorable Woman”) and Queen Latifah (“Bessie”) — but the contending productions themselves reach far and wide in terms of the communities being represented and the stories being told.
ABC’s “American Crime” drew near-universal acclaim as an ambitious and complex portrait of contemporary race relations. From Oscar-winner John Ridley (“12 Years a Slave”), the 11-hour limited series has already been a hit on the awards circuit with several major Critics’ Choice Award nominations under its belt. But back when “American Crime” was announced and picked up to series last pilot season, curiosity around it had nothing to do with the nature of the material. Rather, this was consistently the main inquiry: Why, exactly, would Ridley turn to network TV as his first post-“12 Years a Slave” project?
Earlier this year at ATVFest, Ridley answered that question for Indiewire, saying, “There’s no better time, I think, to work in any medium than in what is covered as television right now.” Ridley, who also noted the advantage of being able to tell a story over a longer period of time, is not alone in that regard among his awards competitors. Lisa Cholodenko, who helmed the four-hour “Olive Kitteridge” for HBO, had last directed “The Kids Are All Right” to a Best Picture Oscar nomination, while Dee Rees won prizes from the Independent Spirit Awards and Gotham Film Awards for her debut feature “Pariah” before turning to “Bessie.”
Common among these three filmmakers is the fact that their work falls far outside of what Hollywood typically churns out. Of 2013 films, “12 Years a Slave” was the only major Oscar contender to feature a predominantly black cast. “The Kids Are All Right” centered on a same-sex couple as no other Best Picture-nominated film has since “Brokeback Mountain” in 2005. (Unless you count “Black Swan.”) And as for “Pariah,” well, there aren’t too many movies out there that are principally interested in confronting and conflating ideas of race, sex and class.
Is their shift to TV just a coincidence? While certainly explained in part by the medium’s burgeoning reputation, there’s also something to be said for the lack of opportunities for such “specialty” — that is, demographically varied — films in the theatrical model.
For years, Steven Soderbergh was set on a docudrama about the affair between Liberace and his young lover, Scott Wilson, as his next feature film. Not only was the Oscar-winning and prolific Soderbergh at the helm, but Oscar winners Michael Douglas and Matt Damon were attached to play the leads, and Soderbergh was requesting a mere $5 million to make the thing. Yet the film, to be titled “Behind the Candelabra,” was met with a staggering level of rejection: As Soderbergh told The Wrap, “We went to everybody in town… Nobody would do it. They said it was too gay. Everybody.”
When considering the variables — Douglas and Damon on camera, Soderbergh directing, a notable figure in Liberace being depicted — it’s beyond confounding that Soderbergh couldn’t gather $5 million to put “Behind the Candelabra” together. Of course, the film eventually wound up on HBO as the director’s first post-“retirement” project, winning raves from film and TV critics alike. (Not to mention record ratings and a very healthy Emmy haul.) But even still, Soderbergh’s recounting is a rare glimpse into these kinds of negotiations, and points to — at least in certain corners — a severely closed-minded business model.
In a similar situation, Ryan Murphy had an all-star cast gathered for “The Normal Heart” with the intention to release it theatrically (Participant Pictures was rumored to be in talks to distribute), only for it to wind up on the pay-cable network. If executives found “Behind the Candelabra” too gay, one could easily guess what they must have thought of Murphy’s proposal.
It’s safe to say that this is not uniformly reflective of this year’s contenders’ experiences. But Rees’ “Bessie,” for instance, had been in the works decades earlier as a $30 million studio project. While Latifah, long the film’s shepherd, has expressed gratitude at the opportunity to grow as an actress before officially taking on the role, it’s hard to imagine — given the destinations of “Candelabra” and “Normal Heart” — that a film unwilling to shy away from its black female protagonist’s bisexuality would have ever seen the light of day on the big screen.
The newly-acknowledged respectability of TV has irrefutably provided a venue to make such movies. As our predictions indicate, it is entirely possible that none of this year’s Best Limited Series nominees will be male-driven; along with the ensemble-driven “American Crime” and Starz’s “The Missing,” frontrunners include “The Honorable Woman,” “Olive Kitteridge” and the Jessica Lange-toplined “American Horror Story: Freak Show.”
And it’s not like the category is thin on quality. “Olive Kitteridge” premiered to raves at last year’s Venice Film Festival, presenting the kind of sweepingly humanistic story that American movies have all but abandoned. (Film critics from multiple publications said as much.) “The Honorable Woman” spun a mightily complex tale of geopolitics, and put it in the hands of Gyllenhaal’s flawed, strong but naive peacemaker, Nessa Stein. Overall in fact, aside from “Freak Show,” all four productions listed above — as well as next-in-line contender “Wolf Hall” — earned “universal acclaim” in aggregate, according to Metacritic.
The race for Best TV Movie is undeniably thinner, and that’s mainly a consequence of the Television Academy’s recent, premature decision to divide movies and miniseries into two separate categories. But along with “Bessie” competes the thrillingly unconventional one-person film “Nightingale.” Exploring a damaged war veteran’s downward spiral, the HBO production features David Oyelowo in a performance many critics have dubbed as equally impressive as his famously-snubbed work in “Selma.”
Oyelowo failing to make the cut for Oscar’s Best Actor lineup in January was less reflective of Academy bias than the fact that he, most unfortunately, was the only actor of color who stood a decent chance at recognition. And as was noted earlier, Best Actor was ridiculously dense in worthy performances. His snub, given “Selma’s” underperformance throughout awards season, wasn’t a huge surprise.
While it’s not worth comparing the commercial viability or overall quality of “Selma” and “Nightingale,” that Oyelowo is so impressive in both — and in such different ways — speaks volumes. Not only is he a lock for an Emmy nomination, but he’s out front for the win, having triumphed at the Critics’ Choice Awards a few weeks back.
Television is a more fluid medium than film; not only does its economy accommodate a greater range of content, but the structure of a network like HBO allows experimental projects like “Nightingale” to find an audience and earn substantial recognition. Put simply, the flexibility of TV has allowed “Nightingale” to see the light of day, and enter (and last) in the cultural conversation as a specialty theatrical release likely wouldn’t.
In that sense, here’s a situation that illuminates the main takeaway: Film’s loss is TV’s gain, and as TV movies and miniseries continue to expand in reach, it’s our gain, too.