For Your Consideration: Lead Actresses – America Ferrera and Mary McDonnell

[In Week Four of Cultural Learnings’ 59th Annual Emmy Awards Nominations Preview, we’re looking at possible contenders for the Lead Actress awards in both drama and comedy. Today, we present our third set of candidates. For complete listings for the Supporting and Lead Actor candidates from the past four weeks, check out our For Your Consideration index]

Lead Actress in a Comedy Series

America Ferrera (Betty)

Ugly Betty

There isn’t much that hasn’t already been said about America Ferrera’s breakthrough performance as Betty Suarez on ABC’s hit dramedy. Ferrera waltzed away with the Golden Globe earlier this year, and chances are good that she’ll walk away with an Emmy in hand in September as well. It would be easy, then, to take her actual performance for granted: her nomination is so assured at this point that people have stopped even speculating about it. Delving deeper, however, you do find a quality comic performance beneath the hype. Betty is a character we need to believe as both hopelessly awkward and yet a good-hearted, intelligent, smart individual. Ferrera, despiting being made “ugly” for the role, never appears less than radiant as Betty. She goes to extreme lengths to display Betty’s inner beauty, and it never feels clichéd. There is something about Betty that makes her a worthwhile star in the series; as the season progressed and her character became less picked upon, Betty became a complex and intriguing character capable of supporting physical comedy, romantic comedy, drama and just about everything else in between. And that diversity is the work of America Ferrera, and it is work worthy of Emmy consideration.

Beginning the series as a walking fashion disaster working for a fashion magazine, Betty is immediately a sympathetic character. However, she was not yet a sympathetic heroine, and it was Ferrera who really allowed that to blossom. I think that it is a result of how much responsibility lies on Betty’s shoulders: she had to balance supporting her family emotionally and financially, her strange and awkward boyfriend, her new job, her mean co-workers, and in the process she always kept a smile on her face. However, I found Ferrera best when that smile was wiped off and we saw her either at her lowest or at her most resilient. Those moments where Betty could have quit, could have been run down, could have given up; those were the times when Ferrera’s acting shone. Every time I see the show’s opening title, with braces-laden Betty smiling awkwardly, I am annoyed; really, Betty isn’t that cliché and showing her as such does the series little good. Ferrera is at her best when just plain happy, not happy in spite of others.

Episode Selection: “Pilot” (Aired September 28th, 2006)

I am resisting changing this selection because it is a strong performance from Ferrera and is perhaps her most comic. And, let’s face it, it won her a Golden Globe. However, I have serious issues with the Ugly Betty pilot on the whole, and they extend to Betty herself.

The pilot spends too much time attacking Betty for comic value: in fact, it got so played out that it basically stopped after the show’s third episode. Producers realized, much as I did, that doing so would only make everyone else look like complete assholes compared to Betty, which won’t sustain an entire series.

And I like Ferrera more when she is interacting with those new co-workers on a non-confrontational basis. I’d actually be tempted, then, to highlight one of those episodes. However, the “buzz” worthy elements of her character are how she has bad fashion sense and smiles through it all, so the Pilot highlights what voters will be looking for…but I don’t think it does her true acting ability justice.

YouTube“Pilot”

Lead Actress in a Drama Series

Mary McDonnell (Laura Roslin)

Battlestar Galactica

I believe that President Laura Roslin is perhaps one of the best characters to rise out of the 2004 reimagining of Battlestar Galactica, which is saying a lot considering the amount of great ones that have been part of the series. What I love about Mary McDonnell’s portrayal of the character is that, without fail, you are always rooting for Laura Roslin to succeed except for those moments where she is clearly wrong. In those cases, McDonnell makes you want to see Roslin get let down as easily as possible, in order to ensure that she isn’t too damaged in the process. After becoming President from the lowly position of Secretary of Education, Laura Roslin had to learn the ropes and find her own middle ground on a variety of issues. This year has really been one where she had to face the consequences of those actions, and one where she was forced to deal with the growing problems facing the people under her command. All the while, her own personal demons came back to haunt her, and her journey forward into the show’s final season is perhaps its most interesting. Through it all, Mary McDonnell has delivered a subtle, visceral performance that is certainly to be considered for an Emmy nomination.

This season hasn’t been an easy one for Laura Roslin; she began it as a Kindergarten teacher on New Caprica, was arrested and interrogated by new President Gaius Baltar who she lost to in an election she tried to rig, was almost assassinated, reassumed the presidency, and found herself in charge of a fleet still searching for their purpose, their land, their home. McDonnell was great at being Presidential: her return interrogation of Baltar after his arrest for Treason was incredibly compelling television, and her completely and she was a strong figure when she needed to be. However, perhaps it’s the old softie in me, but I liked Roslin best when she was vulnerable, open to this world around her that she clearly fears more than anything else. Her tender moments with Admiral Adama were both major internet shippage and some great acting, and seeing her on New Caprica as a simple teacher showed the level to which Roslin is forced to “act” as President in a fashion. McDonnell’s grace in balancing these two aspects of her life, a common theme in my potential nominees it seems, is certainly something to be considered when selecting potential Emmy nominees.

Episode Selection: “Crossroads, Parts 1 & 2” (Aired March 18th and 25th, 2007)

While McDonnell perhaps had showier episodes in terms of her Presidential abilities, I like this decision for a multitude of reasons. First and foremost, it features Roslin without any control over the fate of Gaius Baltar’s trial. She is not able to influence it any further, and her attempts to do so are real and strained; she is struggling with her lack of power in this scenario, as she basically just wants to kill him outright.

However, more importantly, Roslin herself is put on the stand to answer her own questions about the situation. Faced with interrogation from Lee, who smelled something within her tea, she is forced to give up her ‘secret’: she is once again taking Kamala extract, as her cancer has returned. That realization stuns even Lee, but Roslin’s reaction to the entire situation is just impeccable. McDonnell portrays her as strong, defiant, powerful; she knows that any sign of weakness will destroy her, and she reacts accordingly. It’s a great performance, and one that I only hope Emmy voters have a chance to see. However, since that clip isn’t on YouTube, here’s her kicking Baltar’s ass instead. Which she smartly didn’t submit, since it would scare voters to death.

YouTube “Roslin v. Baltar”

 

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Filed under ABC, Award Shows, Battlestar Galactica, Emmy Awards, Television, Ugly Betty

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