In an early episode of “Damages,” civil suit litigator Patty Hewes is standing somewhere on Manhattan’s Upper East Side having an “accidental” meeting with the attorney for the CEO she is attempting to sue for fraud. “If you could just give us a number,” he insists, attempting to negotiate an out-of-court settlement. “I’m in a dog park, Ray,” she says, her voice a symphony of emotions, her face, behind the retro society sunglasses, alive with irritation, exhilaration and genuine amusement. Even her shoulders radiate the complicated thrill of it all. It is a quintessential big screen moment, elevating what could have been a simply sarcastic response into a pastiche of mischief and magic.
In the past, such a performance would initialize a countdown to launch -- here was an actor the small screen would not be able to hold; she would soon be exploring the glittering firmaments of Hollywood. But in this case, of course, the star is Glenn Close.
Close has never shied away from television -- she followed her breakthrough roles in “The World According to Garp” and “The Big Chill” with “Something About Amelia,” a groundbreaking TV movie about incest. Throughout her career, she has returned to the medium, whether it be in “Sarah, Plain and Tall” or as a season-long guest star on “The Shield.”
But “Damages” on FX represents the kind of commitment -- six years -- that film stars have long been reluctant to make to television, and Close is not the only one taking the plunge. Movie stars, and movie star moments, are crowding the airwaves these days. Over at TNT, Holly Hunter is taking a fairly ridiculous concept -- “Touched by an Angel” meets “NYPD Blue” -- and turning “Saving Grace” into a captivating character study. “Who are you aiming at?” her friend asks as Grace blows holes in a target. “McVeigh,” she says, conjuring a world’s worth of anger and grief in a single word.
For years, Hollywood has climbed craggy peaks and begged various oracles to tell them, once and for all, why people aren’t going to the movies anymore. Never mind that plenty of people are going to the movies, just ask Spider-Man or Harry Potter, who pulled together, alongside friends Shrek and Jason Bourne, to create this year’s $4-billion summer. Although the male-lead action franchise seems pretty healthy, the mid-budget thriller, the romantic comedy, even the costume drama are what fantasy films once were -- gambles few are willing to take. And so entire genres have been all but abandoned.
Technology, we are told, is to blame, all those iPods and video games; popcorn costs too much and people refuse to turn off their cellphones in the theater which ticks off anyone over the age of 30, who have 100-foot plasma screens now, movies on demand and no desire to leave the house, anyway. It’s hard for a poor multibillion-dollar industry to compete when all anyone wants to do is play with TiVo and YouTube.
Um, OK, but whose fault is it that Close and Hunter are on television? Or Lili Taylor, Parker Posey, Mary-Louise Parker or Kyra Sedgwick? A few years ago, these were all film actresses and now they each have their own series. Even Susan Sarandon is back as the bodacious babe on “Rescue Me.” Which is, don’t get me wrong, totally terrific for us, the audience members, but unless the movie industry has made peace with being the purveyors of blockbusters, Judd Apatow comedies and not much else, why are they letting go of some of their best talent?
Since its inception, television has been threatened as the doom of movies. And we may be getting to the point where it’s actually true. TV has never looked so good, with cable channels from Lifetime to AMC finally following the HBO model and creating edgy original series with the look (“Mad Men,” “Army Wives”), cast (“Damages,” “John From Cincinnati”) and soul-searching (“Weeds,” “Big Love”) of good indie films. And not even indie films. Of good mid-budget films, the kind they used to make in the ‘70s and ‘80s when movies didn’t have to make a profit on the first weekend, when they didn’t open for 3 1/2 seconds on 1,000 screens.
Not to be outdone, the networks have for now retreated slightly from their reality madness, finding hits in “Lost” and “Heroes” and “House” as well as smartened up tried-and-trues like hospital soaps (“Grey’s Anatomy”) and homicide procedurals (“Bones”). The fall promises more jewels among the inevitable duds -- “Pushing Daisies” has the look and feel of a good Tim Burton film, “Dirty Sexy Money” stars Donald Sutherland, Jill Clayburgh and William Baldwin for heaven’s sake, and “Bionic Woman” plays way more “Blade Runner” than collectible lunch box. (It also stars, as so many American films do lately, a Brit in a title role.)
It is not difficult to imagine that many of these projects did their time as film pitches. “Saving Grace” and “Damages” could easily have been films in a time when character-driven psychological thrillers like “The Client,” “Jagged Edge” and “Conspiracy Theory” thrived.
Jodie Foster may still be able to find work on the big screen as a tightly wound protagonist, but she’s had to become a small but hard-bodied action hero to do it. Critically appreciated but less established actors like Julia Stiles and Virginia Madsen are forced to take tiny roles in male star vehicles (the Bourne films for Stiles, “Firewall” for Madsen). Meanwhile, “Grey’s Anatomy” has become a think tank of performers who couldn’t find enough work in film, including Ellen Pompeo (whose breakout role was with Sarandon in “Moonlight Mile”) and Madsen’s “Sideways” companion, Sandra Oh.
If Julia Roberts had to make her career today, she’d probably be on television; “Pretty Woman” would have a tough time getting greenlighted these days, but it’s got Showtime original series written all over it. (An articulate drug-free prostitute and business magnate discover how worlds overlap as they struggle to make a relationship work -- why has no one done this yet?)
For film stars to migrate to television isn’t new -- Barbara Stanwyck starred in “The Big Valley” -- but for so many to be moving over so young is rather astonishing.
Challenging roles for women over 40 have been few and far between since Joan and Bette faced off at the box office, but now, with blockbusters and male-oriented sex comedies ruling the big screen, women under 40 are having a hard time.
Yes, yes, some actors like Parker say they chose TV because it offers financial stability and a saner schedule, but let’s be real. This is not the U.K., stardom American style still has a media hierarchy and TV, no matter how rich and fascinating the show, is not on the top of the food chain. For performers like Close, Hunter and Parker, TV is where you turn when the feature scripts are not very good, or simply not there. Which, for an industry constantly complaining about its financial health, is just ridiculous. There are only two more books in the “Harry Potter” series after all.
That none of the struggling screenwriters out there, no power-mad producer or studio executive, can create vehicles for these award-winning, money-making women is either sexism on a boycott-inspiring scale or a total failure of imagination.
Summer will be over soon, the kids will be back in school and blockbuster fatigue will set in. But you all just keep blaming those iPods; we’ll invite a few folks over and turn on the tube.