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Change of Strategy Helped Lucci Earn Her Emmy

Thomas O'Neil is the author of "Variety's the Emmys" and "Variety's the Grammys" (Perigee Books)

So there turned out to be no conspiracy against Susan Lucci after all, and no one seemed more surprised than the at-long-last Emmy victor herself.

Lucci made a strange comment when the press greeted her with a roaring vertical ovation backstage May 21 after she finally won as best actress in a daytime drama after 18 losses: “I never really thought I’d get back here, and I certainly never thought that you’d be standing up for me--and cheering--if I did.”

Did Lucci mean the remark in an aw-shucks way? It struck many who heard it as meaning that the star who’s toiled for 29 years in the intrigue of the soap world really believed that there was a cabal against her.

And how could she not? Rumors always abounded that the actress who portrays TV’s top hellcat--Erica Kane of ABC’s “All My Children"--got slapped down year after year because industry-ites were jealous of her rank as the queen of daytime and her reported $1-million salary. The alternative was too horrible to consider: She lost because she deserved to.

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In the end, the latter proved true, although not because Lucci wasn’t a good enough actress. She lost because she failed to understand the subtleties of the Emmy voting process.

Her losses--and yearly public humiliations--were dramatic evidence of how different the TV award is from the Oscar, Grammy and Tony. Winners aren’t picked by a popular vote of show-biz professionals who check off ballots at home or office. If so, frustrated Emmy voters surely would’ve tossed Lucci a bone long ago, like John Wayne’s Oscar for “True Grit.” Emmys, however, are determined by judging panels of the nominees’ peers, who watch videotape samples of contenders’ work from the past TV season.

Daytime actors submit two episodes on one reel after editing out the scenes they’re not in--and therein was Lucci’s serial undoing. Her two most common mistakes:

* Lucci often entered unrelated episodes from different parts of the TV season, probably believing that they showed off a wide span of her work. In fact, judges, like most TV junkies, just wanted a good story with a beginning, middle, end and a redeeming flash of character change somewhere in between.

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* Being a diva, she couldn’t resist submitting huge, Wagnerian performances that rattled judges when viewed out of the context of a daily melodramatic series. “On one tape a few years ago she stood outside her mother’s tomb, flogging her chest and wailing,” says one Emmy insider. “That was the worst!” Last year she drowned her Emmy chances by weeping through 75% of her submission tape.

This year Lucci shocked judges by jettisoning her past strategies and trying the opposite approach. She submitted two continuous episodes that showed off a diverse range of her acting skills, including, of course, three crying scenes and a diva’s best slap, but also convincing displays of tenderness, fear and love as she hovered over anorexic daughter Bianca in the hospital. The tape was 48 minutes--15 minutes longer than any other nominee’s--and it was packed with every Roman candle Lucci could light. It’s no surprise that her 19th nomination exploded so brilliantly on Emmy night.

Her victory was no sympathy win, no bone. Now that Lucci finally won, she can be proud that she beat the competition fairly and squarely.

But what’s surprising is why it took her so long to figure out how to play the Emmy game. Why didn’t she surmise, say, a dozen defeats ago that her old strategies just weren’t cutting it? How stubborn can a diva be?

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It doesn’t matter now. At last there was a happy ending to an epic, real soap opera at TV’s top soap opera awards.

Now, the next cliffhanger: Will anybody care about the Daytime Emmys next year?


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