Laura Dern, Recount
"The acting part of it was just delicious. Inappropriately fun. You couldn't believe you were having so much fun. But the research part I found terribly painful. Every day you felt like your mouth was wide open, just agape at all that was gotten away with." Laura Dern is describing playing Florida secretary of state Katherine Harris in the HBO TV movie Recount to New York magazine. While presiding over the 2000 recount of her state's presidential ballots, Harris was mocked by late-night comedians for her outmoded hairstyle, excessive makeup, and pompous bearing. Dern's challenge was to give the beleaguered politician a fair shake and endow her off-the-wall pronouncements with conviction. In one scene, she compares herself to the biblical heroine Queen Esther, who "sacrificed herself for her beloved Jewish people, and I'm doing the same thing," and Dern delivers the line with utmost sincerity.
Dern made the physical transformation from slender blonde to full-figured brunette by means of dyeing and padding. The look was so complete, she went trick-or-treating with her kids in costume, she said, and everyone who answered the door thought she was just a mom dressed as Harris. Dern told the Los Angeles Times that she studied videotapes of Harris' news conference and saw a woman who was simultaneously "dazed and intoxicated by her power." The actor never passes judgment on Harris but uses her eccentricities to explain her behavior: The makeup is like armor, protecting her from a hostile press corps. Toward the end of the film, there is a brief moment when Harris is alone in her pajamas looking out her bedroom window. Loneliness and exhaustion are written on Dern's face as Harris takes a short respite from the media madness.
This is not Dern's first foray into provocative material. She first drew the public's attention in David Lynch's shockingly graphic (for its time) Blue Velvet and played a pregnant woman dealing with both sides of the abortion issue in Citizen Ruth.
For this role, Laura Dern was nominated for an Emmy Award and won a Golden Globe. This is her first SAG Award nomination.
— David Sheward
Laura Linney, John Adams
In an early installment of the HBO miniseries John Adams, Abigail Adams (Laura Linney) tells her husband (Paul Giamatti) that while he and his cohorts argue about politics in Philadelphia, she is living the consequences of them in Massachusetts. Further, she says, the congressional delegates treat the citizens with the same contempt King George has. "You are harsh, Madam," John says. "I am cold," she replies. "And frightened."
Thanks to the existing letters between John and Abigail; The Adams Chronicles, PBS's earlier take on one of America's most prominent families; and David McCullough's John Adams, the biography upon which the HBO series was based, Abigail Adams' central role in the founding of the United States is now better known: She served as a goad and, often, as the conscience of her brilliant, arrogant, fulminating, patriotic husband — sometimes pushing him forward, sometimes reining him in, and other times letting the air out of his overinflated ego.
Linney's Abigail serves another important function in the seven-part series: She puts a human face on what at times can be a dense history lesson. Whether trying to scrape out a meager existence on the family's farm during the war, daring to use the unproven smallpox inoculation on her four children, or pining for her absent husband, Abigail illustrates the costs and consequences of a nation's birth better than any other character in the series.
Linney works well with Giamatti but is also riveting on her own, asserting her individual independence in various ways. Most telling are her subtle flirtations with Stephen Dillane's Thomas Jefferson. Though the attraction is barely noticeable and never consummated, the audience can take guilty pleasure in wondering what that coupling might have been like. The lasting impression of Linney's Abigail, however, is her strength. So commanding is she, one wonders if Massachusetts sent the wrong Adams to Philadelphia.
For this role, Laura Linney won an Emmy Award and a Golden Globe. She was nominated for a SAG Award in 2001 for You Can Count on Me, in 2004 as a member of the Mystic River ensemble, and in 2005 for Kinsey.
— Andrew Salomon
Shirley MacLaine, Coco Chanel
In the course of her five-decade career, Shirley MacLaine has successfully made the transition from gamine chorus girl to crafty character actor. After triumphing as a singer-dancer in musical films and TV specials and proving equally adept as a lead in countless comedies and dramas, she has cornered the market on acid-tongued grandes dames in such features as Terms of Endearment, In Her Shoes, Steel Magnolias, and Guarding Tess. She brilliantly essays another tough cookie in the Lifetime TV movie Coco Chanel, based on the life of the iconic fashion designer.
The film alternates between 1954, with Chanel attempting a comeback on the runway after a 15-year absence, and the early years of her career when she was starving in a garret while establishing herself in a man's world. The bulk of the movie is devoted to those tough times, with Barbora Bobulova as the young Chanel. MacLaine conveys Chanel's no-nonsense demeanor as she overcomes disastrous reviews for her first show, battles with a business partner (a frosty Malcolm McDowell) who wants to sell the company, and finally emerges triumphant with a second collection.
The screenwriters rather lazily used Chanel quotes for much of MacLaine's dialogue ("In order to be irreplaceable, one must always be different" "A woman wearing the wrong perfume has no future"), so the actor relies on silent reactions to convey Chanel's inner journey. Every financial struggle and failed love affair registers on her face as she drags on a cigarette and disapprovingly glances at a seamstress's work. As the haute couture crowd grumbles with disdain at the first show, MacLaine's features seem to fold in. When Chanel wows them with her second attempt, the actor's face becomes a map of conflicting emotions: joy, relief, exhaustion, and anger over having had to wait so long for the rest of the fashion world to appreciate her.
For this role, Shirley MacLaine was nominated for a Golden Globe Award. This is her first SAG Award nomination.
— David Sheward
Phylicia Rashad, A Raisin in the Sun
Though Phylicia Rashad had to scale down her Tony-winning performance as matriarch Lena Younger in the ABC movie adaptation of the 2004 Broadway revival of Lorraine Hansberry's landmark drama A Raisin in the Sun, she lost none of her intensity. Filling the small screen rather than a New York theatre, she refined Mrs. Younger's expressions of joy in her family's triumph over discrimination and of heartbreaking despair when they encounter a potentially devastating setback.
One of Rashad's more interesting choices occurs when Lena challenges her son Walter (Sean Combs) to convince his wife (Audra McDonald) not to go through with an abortion. Instead of taking the conventional route of anger or indignation, Rashad delivers the lines with a quiet smile, indicating she knows her son will do the right thing and that she is proud of him. When he turns and walks out of the tenement apartment without a word, her disappointment is palpable as her smile fades and she hurls the line "You're a disgrace to your father's memory" at Walter's back.
In another wrenching scene, Lena is given center stage when Walter reveals he has lost the family's insurance money to a con man. In the Broadway production, Lena almost struck Walter and theatrically broke down in tears. In the TV movie, Rashad has her dramatic moment, horrifying in its nakedness, but then she embraces Walter tightly, revealing that even in her lowest moment this woman loves her children fiercely.
After years of small parts in Broadway musicals and being known mainly as Debbie Allen's sister, Rashad rocketed to fame as the mother of the Huxtable clan on The Cosby Show and continued as the eponymous comedian's spouse on his follow-up series, Cosby. Since then she has concentrated on theatre. In addition to A Raisin in the Sun, she has delivered distinguished performances on Broadway (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Gem of the Ocean, Cymbeline) and off (The Story, Helen, Everybody's Ruby). How terrific to see this performance reaching a TV audience.
For this role, Phylicia Rashad was nominated for an Emmy Award. This is her first SAG Award nomination.
— David Sheward
Susan Sarandon, Bernard and Doris
Susan Sarandon does imperious well, and in Bernard and Doris, a rather fanciful imagining of the relationship between fabulously wealthy heiress Doris Duke (as in Duke University) and her enigmatic Irish butler, Bernard Lafferty (played by the also-nominated Ralph Fiennes), she certainly gets to prove it. But award-worthy performances cannot live by one note alone. Vulnerability, even tenderness can be glimpsed as her relationship with the gay, alcoholic, repressed Lafferty becomes more intimate, even as such emotions coexist with a lingering mistrust from a woman who believes that everyone in her life must be interested in using her.
Sarandon doesn't shy away from her character's ferocious appetites, in particular laying bare Duke's sexual aggressiveness and exhibitionism. And no matter how reasonable, friendly, and approachable she may appear, the viewer is always aware that at any moment she can turn on a dime and coldly dismiss even a long-term confidante from her life forever (although she may regret it later).
The film is really a pas de deux for Sarandon and Fiennes, and no doubt their vivid, layered work has in part been choreographed by director Bob Balaban, himself an accomplished actor. Watch in particular what happens between the lines as Duke's effect on Lafferty liberates both his behavior and his physical appearance, culminating in a touching, nearly wordless scene in which they celebrate her birthday during a candlelit dinner at which Lafferty dresses in full women's makeup and his employer's finery. Everything you need to know about this unique relationship is right there on the screen before you in that moment.
Bernard and Doris is as much about the toll that great wealth takes as it is about the license it allows. As Ginia Bellafante wrote in her review for The New York Times: "Doris Duke's very existence was a jobâ€Ś. Ms. Duke hated domestic improvisation — never the Deco coffee pitcher, only the Christofle — but Ms. Sarandon plays her with such finesse that the exacting demands almost seem necessary, as if she were simply the chief executive of a stately corporation dictating to middle management in the Beijing office." Finesse: That's the word exactly.
For this role, Susan Sarandon was nominated for an Emmy Award and a Golden Globe. She won a SAG Award in 1996 for Dead Man Walking and was nominated in 1995 for The Client.
— Erik Haagensen