Grand Dames Reborn in Primetime
Show business traditionally hasn’t been kind to mature actresses, even those with Emmys, Oscars and Tonys tucked under their collective belts.
Often, roles that are offered tend to be less than challenging, making it easy for the public to forget just how good these actresses are until they get cast in meaty guest star spots.
In her first appearance on HBO’s “The Newsroom,” Jane Fonda’s conservative cable news channel CEO Leona Lansing — a hybrid name that melds Leona Helmsley and Sherry Lansing — commandingly prevails in a confrontation with Sam Waterston, underscoring the gravitas Fonda brings to the role.
“I’ve rarely been as challenged by a writer as I’ve been with Aaron Sorkin,” says the Oscar and Emmy-winning actress, who will return to “The Newsroom” next season with a new twist to her character, which she describes as “Rupert Murdoch marinated in a little Ted Turner.”
She also pointed out that Turner, her ex-husband, taught her “not to be intimidated by people,” which helped in formulating her character.
The performance has paid off in good reviews. In the meantime, Emmy and Tony winner and ’60s TV pioneer Diana Rigg (“The Avengers”) has wowed critics and fans of Game of Thrones with her portrayal of matriarch Lady Olenna Tyrell.
“These are people who are very familiar to a section of viewers, but there’s a huge audience out there who don’t know who they are,” says TV critic Gail Pennington of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “’The Avengers’ was a very long time ago. And for those who watch Fox News, Fonda is still Hanoi Jane instead of a talented actress.”
And Shirley MacLaine’s brief appearance on the cultural phenomenon “Downton Abbey” secured her spot in the watercooler conversations about her acting prowess rather than her after-life views.
Barbara Hershey made a huge splash in the 1960s. Although she has worked and achieved recognition through the years for her performances, she didn’t get that mass of attention until she appeared in the popular ABC series “Once Upon a Time” as the even-more evil mother of the evil queen.
“Sometimes these guest roles not only make them pop, but make them hip in a way they haven’t been in a long time,” Pennington says. “It not only puts them back on the radar with viewers, but with producers and directors and casting people who thought, ‘Wow. I forgot about her. Now I’m going to cast her in something better.’ ”
Still, it’s a battle for actresses, especially those who once were top box office draws.
“I think, unfortunately, in our youth-obsessed society that it is hard for actresses to get leading roles when they pass a certain age — much harder than it is for men, who are accepted as action stars into their 60s and beyond,” says USA Today critic Robert Bianco. “TV offers more opportunities than movies, but most of those opportunities are still in guest and supporting roles. And when given the chance, talent will win out.”
Bianco says viewers have to make it clear to networks that they want to see these actresses in larger roles.
Margo Martindale popped last year in an Emmy-winning supporting role as earthy backwoods crime boss Mags Bennett on “Justified.” This year she showed her comedy chops as Nick’s feisty, recently widowed mom in “New Girl” and struck a chord as tough KGB handler Claudia on FX’s “The Americans.”