The Berlin Wall was a thing of chicken wire and Kleenex compared with the barrier that once stood between film and television in America.
Unlike British actors, who moved easily between stage, television and film, American movie stars were essentially instructed not to bother with TV. Oh, Brad Pitt might guest star on “Friends,” but everyone understood that that was just a favor to his then-wife. Anything more was an admission of failure; the trajectory of success went from television to film, not the other way around.
As recently as nine years ago, when “Angels in America” sent Meryl Streep and Al Pacino up the Emmy red carpet in 2004, journalists could not believe their eyes – “Is This the Emmys or the Oscars?” ran far too many headlines. A few years later, stars including Kyra Sedgwick, Sally Field and Holly Hunter took lead roles in television shows, but even then it was seen as a “female complaint.” Women of, ahem, a certain age could not find roles in film and so were forced to, bravely, stoically, with heads held high, darling, find work in (shudder) television.
Now, of course, that divide, like the one in Berlin, is but a memory. Oscar-winning films such as “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Argo” run on supporting casts pulled almost entirely from television, while small-screen credits regularly look like a chunk of sidewalk outside Hollywood’s Chinese Theatre.
Martin Scorsese and Steve Buscemi of “Boardwalk Empire,” Laura Dern and Mike White of “Enlightened,” Kevin Costner in “Hatfields & McCoys,” Jessica Lange and James Cromwell in “American Horror Story,” Laura Linney in “The Big C,” Claire Danes in “Homeland,” Jane Campion and Holly Hunter of “Top of the Lake,” David Fincher, Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright of “House of Cards.”
And it’s not just HBO (which for years distanced itself from its own medium with that “It’s not TV, it’s HBO” tagline) or even cable. Kathy Bates lighted up “Harry’s Law” until NBC saw fit to dis the show’s large but apparently demographically undesirable audience and cancel it. (Yes, NBC, Bates is not the only one still angry.) Last year, Vera Farmiga and Freddie Highmore headlined the cast of A&E’s surprisingly fantastic “Bates Motel,” Kevin Bacon signed on for Fox’s horror procedural “The Following,” with Hugh Dancy and Laurence Fishburne following suit on NBC’s “Hannibal.”
More movie stars this fall
Though both “The Following” and “Hannibal” received no Emmy nominations, the trend shows no signs of slowing. This fall, some stars are returning to their roots – Robin Williams in CBS’ “The Crazy Ones,” Michael J. Fox in NBC’s “The Michael J. Fox Show,” James Spader in NBC’s “The Blacklist.” And, of course, James Caan in “Back in the Game,” Greg Kinnear in the midseason “Rake” and Queen Latifah on her own talk show.
The shift is fueled in part by simple employment issues. In case you hadn’t heard, the film industry is having a tough time producing anything other than franchise fodder and Oscar bait, while high-production scripted television is busting out all over.
Actors will tell you they follow the stories, and it’s past arguing that some of the best stories are being told on television. But actors and writers and directors also follow the love. And right now, audiences are in love with television. Truly, madly, deeply, and in ways difficult to sustain in film or the theater.
Episodic television is regularly deconstructed in a way once reserved for Shakespeare or the Romantic poets. Meanwhile, the people creating the shows we’re all mad for are similarly lionized. TV stars are the new movie stars, so of course movie stars want a piece of the action.
This great migration may have some inter-industry downside for those who have long labored in TV. But likewise, TV’s growing prestige may raise the stakes in contract firefights, such as the recent battle between CBS and Time-Warner.
At this point, it’s difficult to imagine the trend reversing itself. The participation of good actors, directors, writers and cinematographers from film will only increase the quality and variety of television content. Filmmakers can only benefit from the growing artistic credibility of the stars it hires from television too.
And for viewers, who increasingly don’t distinguish between big screen, small screen and smartphone, it’s a win-win.
Even if the Brits did think of it first.