Distinction between film and TV acting fades away

Former Academy Award winners head to television for plum roles, opportunities.

07/17/2011 12:00 AM

07/17/2011 12:33 AM

LOS ANGELES — When the Emmy nominations were announced Thursday morning, viewers could be forgiven for thinking they were hearing about a different annual ritual: the Academy Awards.

A large group of Oscar winners turned up among the Emmy nominees, including Martin Scorsese, Kathy Bates, Kate Winslet and Curtis Hanson. Several Oscar nominees, including Laura Linney and Todd Haynes, wound up on television's most prestigious list as well.

Feature actors and filmmakers have been migrating to television for years, but it's reached critical mass in this year's Emmy nominations, underscoring how significant the trend has become. In the newly combined category of movie and miniseries, all but one of the nominees have directed acclaimed movies. In addition to Hanson and Haynes, nominated for "Too Big to Fail" and "Mildred Pierce," respectively, the list includes Olivier Assayas ("Carlos") and Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman ("Cinema Verite").

Observers say the Emmy trend is part of a larger shift in which entertainment resembles less a series of distinct organs than a permeable membrane, with actors and creators moving fluidly between different art forms. At the recent Tony Awards, for example, talent from TV (Trey Parker and Matt Stone) and movies (Frances McDormand, Scott Rudin) took top honors.

They also point out how television and film sometimes move on different trajectories. Studios have cut back their number of upscale dramatic projects, while many cable networks have shown an increased appetite for darker material.

Cable networks such as HBO "function more like studios used to, where certain shows deliver a certain amount of profitability and then they can make choices that take risks," Haynes said Thursday. "And it's happening as film studios, who are reaping record profits, have gone in the opposite direction and narrowed the range of what they do."

Even personalities who can still write their own tickets in the feature world — Winslet ("Mildred Pierce") and Scorsese ("Boardwalk Empire"), for instance — have gravitated to cable's freedom.

There are, of course, downsides to working for the small screen. Haynes pointed to production schedules and budgets that aren't as lavish as those in the feature world. And creating for television sometimes means crafting entertainment for a more casual viewer than "someone who might come out to the theater and be more savvy about things like my previous work," he said.

Performers say they have moved to TV for similar reasons as directors: They simply can't find the meaty parts in the feature world the way they once did.

Linney received a lead actress Oscar nomination three years ago for her role as the daughter of an ailing father in "The Savages" but has landed mostly smaller parts since. Hanson, known for prestigious dramas such as "L.A. Confidential" and "8 Mile," has not directed a feature since "Lucky You" four years ago. Older performers have particularly struggled in film. Bates won an Oscar in 1991 for her lead part as a creepy nurse in "Misery," but in recent years has been relegated to quirky smaller roles.

But the trend isn't limited to older actors. Evan Rachel Wood, who has spent much of her young career making movies, nabbed an Emmy nomination for her role as the venomous Veda in "Mildred Pierce." She says she took the part because it offered something akin to what a feature drama might offer. "(Veda) is a very dark person. She's warped. She doesn't have a lot of light in her life," Wood said. "Trying to find a way to make her human and sympathetic was hard."

The TV-film fluidity could affect even less prestige-oriented performers: Melissa McCarthy, who could well earn a supporting Oscar nomination for her offbeat comic role in "Bridesmaids," landed an Emmy nomination Thursday for her part in the sitcom "Mike and Molly."

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