Here, in a nutshell, is one of my problems with awards. Six performers have been nominated for an Emmy Award as outstanding lead actress in a drama series:
- Taraji P. Henson as Cookie in Empire
- Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison in Homeland
- Robin Wright as Claire Underwood in House of Cards
- Viola Davis as Annalise Keating in How to Get Away with Murder
- Elisabeth Moss as Peggy Olson in Mad Men
- Tatiana Maslany as Alison, Cosima, Helena, Krystal, Rachel, and Sarah on Orphan Black
I’ve seen four of the six performances, and as far as I’m concerned they’re all outstanding. Considering how marketing works these days, the fact of having been nominated will continue to be mentioned throughout each of their careers. What’s the purpose of choosing one as a winner? The answer seems to be that there’s no fun in naming six people who’ve done excellent work; the fun comes from picking one as best and letting people argue over it. This suggests that awards exist, at least in part, to entertain us. It’s as if acting—or writing a novel, or producing a film—were a form of sport or even a battle. The tendency is long established: the annual theatrical festivals in ancient Athens awarded prizes, and the Old Comedy playwrights sometimes wrote claims for themselves into their texts.
What’s distinctive about Tatiana Maslany’s work, as you will have noticed from the list, is that she’s nominated not for one role but for six. She’s been playing multiple characters on Orphan Black, most of whom are clones, since its first season (the nomination is for her performances in the third season), and she has rendered something like 9 or 12 different people in total. As I mentioned in this post, playing different characters isn’t special in itself—it’s what actors do. But Maslany’s work on Orphan Black deserves to be recognized because of its technical difficulty: scenes in which she ultimately appears with herself have to be shot numerous times, with hair, makeup, and costume changes, careful blocking, motion-control cameras, and after-the-fact compositing. As another actor remarked to me on Twitter, “I think Maslany’s work is remarkable in the sheer volume of scenes she has to play to no one.” Her mimicry is good enough that someone else speculated on Twitter she might really have played all the other best-actress nominees as well.
Orphan Black lost me when it introduced a whole new set of clones, men this time. As Jill Lepore wrote in an online New Yorker post, “Armies of men, soldiers or civilians, in suits and ties, with guns and without, they’re already on every other channel: the oldest of clones.” But I remain a fan of Maslany’s. Here’s an image of her I worked up earlier this year, based on a scene in the Season Three premiere. It’s also on Flickr, at full size. Incidentally, the Emmy Awards will be announced September 20.