Coven Call

28 Sep

Ugh. Well, the Emmy awards (Emmys? Emmies?) were last Sunday, and almost everyone has complained that it was one of the worst awards telecasts ever.  In a hyphenated word: epic-fail. The normally righteous host Neil Patrick Harris stumbled through dumb, seemingly inappropriate routines (a Sofia Vergara breast joke, really? In 2013? From a gay man, no less?); then there were bizarre and totally unnecessary musical performances by Elton John and Carrie Underwood. Oh, and what about those strange, and incredibly morose tributes to recently deceased TV greats, such as Jean Stapleton (eulogized by an emotional Rob Reiner, Stapleton’s long ago All in the Family castmate) and James Gandolfini (a particularly emotionally wrenching speech delivered by Edie Falco, who played Gandolfini’s wife in the Emmy winning The Sopranos).  Why these performers were singled out for special recognition while other legends, including Larry Hagman (duh!) and Jack Klugman (The Odd Couple and Quincy), were lumped together for the “In Memoriam” clip, is hard to figure.

The winners were a mixed bag. Oh, okay, huzzahs for Julia Louis-Dreyfus and her amazing streak of four Emmy wins (among more than a dozen nominations) for three separate  comedy series: Seinfeld, The New Adventures of Old Chrstine, and (the latest) Veep, for which she also won last year. This is apparently an Emmy record.  I haven’t caught the new show as I’m not an HBO subscriber. Still, I’m sure Veep is a riot. I say this because I’m a huge fan of the scathingly hilarious political satire In the Loop (2009), from the same fertile mind of Veep’s writer-producer-director Armando Iannucci. Plus, Dreyfus and her Emmy winning co-star Tony Hale surely delivered the show’s funniest moments. Hear that, Neil Patrick Harris? Meanwhile, Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s big screen romantic comedy Enough Said (with the late Gandolfini) is garnering heaps of buzz. I hope to see it just as soon as possible.

Elsewhere, all the hoopla for Bryan Cranston’s Breaking Bad drug warlord (by now, a three time winner) and strong sentiment for Jon Hamm (already 0 for 5 as Mad Men‘s enigmatic Don Draper) were all for naught as the Emmy in the Best Actor in a Drama series went to veteran film actor Jeff Daniels in The Newsroom, his first ever series (from renown Aaron Sorkin). Okay, and congrats to Texas’s own Jim Parsons for this third win in the Best Actor in a Comedy series. I almost never watch Parsons in The Big Bang Theory, but a lot of my friends do, and, yes, he’s quite good. I also  almost never EVER watch ABC’s Modern Family, but  I get such a kick out of Ty Burrell that I’m pleased his show keeps winning the award for Best Comedy. This makes four in a row.

The nominees I was most interested in were Linda Cardellini (Mad Men), Sarah Paulson (American Horror Story: Asylum), and, of course, Jessica Lange (also American Horror Story).  Oh, and Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men), but I digress. I think my favorite shows were generally shut-out even though American Horror Story: Asylum went into the race with more nominations (17) than any other contender, ultimately claiming wins only for “Sound Editing in a Miniseries, Movie, or Special) and James Cromwell (Best Supporting Actor in a Miniseries or Movie). I like Cromwell (remember how great he was as the farmer in Babe, 1995), so, good for him. Lange won in her category last year, so I really wasn’t expecting a repeat victory. Oh, my fashion picks for the night were Heidi Klum and the always amazing Diahann Carroll. Deal with it.

Now, on to season three of American Horror Story: Coven,  in which Lange, Paulson, and a few others return as new characters in a completely different story (from either Season 1 or Season 2,) spun by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk.  The first season was set in a haunted house in modern day Los Angeles; last season focused on a Catholic run mental institution in Massachusetts during the 1960s. Season three finds Lange and company as members of, well, a coven in New Orleans in a story that skips around in time (like, say, Dark Shadows, maybe).  Has any TV show ever assembled such a wealth of talent? Looky, looky: two Oscar winners, a trio of one-time Oscar nominees, multiple Emmy and SAG award winners and/or nominees, no doubt a splash of Golden Globe honorees, and a pair of two-time Tony winners. Yes.

Okay, we all know how great Lange is (two Oscars, two Emmys, etc.), or how great I think she is, so there’s no need to revisit her list of accomplishments. Instead,  let’s take a peek at all the rest…


^ Kathy Bates in Dolores Claiborne (1995)

Kathy Bates and Jessica Lange first appeared together onscreen in 1990’s Men Don’t Leave starring Lange as a widow trying to start life over in Baltimore with her two sons. Bates played “Lisa,” the flip proprietor (or proprietress if you will) of a trendy gourmet deli who hires Lange as an assistant manager though their relationship is shaky from the outset. The two actresses worked again years later on the blink-and-you-missed-it road pic Bonneville (2008) also starring Joan Allen.


1995 was such a great year for leading actress candidates that there was no room on the Academy’s final ballot for Angela Bassett (Waiting to Exhale), Kathy Bates (Dolores Claiborne), Annette Bening (The American President), or Jessica Lange (Rob Roy, pictured above); those were my personal faves, but strong cases could also be made for  Sandra Bullock (While You Were Sleeping), Michelle Pfeiffer (Dangerous Minds), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Georgia), Golden Globe winner Nicole Kidman (To Die For), or even Minnie Driver (Circle of Friends). I know, right? Susan Sarandon won that year for portraying anti-capital punishment activist Sister Helen Prejean in Dead Man Walking.  Not my first choice, but still an excellent pick. I love Sarandon and certainly she’d more than paid her dues at that point, so I was thrilled for her. Plus, Dead Man Walking was quite a powerful film. For me, the difference is that while Sarandon held my attention as I watched DMW, her performance did not resonate later to the degree that her nominated co-star Sean Penn’s did, nor did Sarandon  wallop me with the same impact as she had in earlier offerings, such as 1992’s Lorenzo’s Oil.

Of course, when Lange and Bates first teamed, early in 1990, the latter was known mostly as a respected theater vet–and SMU alum– who occasionally worked as a supporting player in movies; however, by the end of 1990, she had fully come into her own as a powerful screen actress thanks to her breakout role as an obsessed, okay, crazed, fan who terrorizes a vulnerable–injured–writer (played by James Caan) in the adaptation of Stephen King’s Misery. The character gave Bates an opportunity to showcase her boundless talent in a way that her previous film roles had not, and Academy  members were so taken that they rewarded her with the Oscar for Best Actress.

A year later, Bates was in the unique position of appearing with the previous Best Actress winner Jessica Tandy (Driving Miss Daisy) when they paired for the surprise smash Fried Green Tomatoes (to clarify, likely the first time that two consecutive Best Actress winners had co-starred in a film released so closely on the heels of their victories). Besides her win for Misery, Bates boasts two more Oscar nods, both in the supporting ranks. First, she was recognized  for 1998’s Primary Colors, in which she played a  ferocious campaign strategist in a film that purports to take audiences behind the scenes of Bill Clinton’s first run for president–with John Travolta as the fictionalized stand-in for the smooth talking contender. Bates later earned accolades as a frisky Earth-mother  type, including a nude dip in a hot tub (as I recall), opposite Jack Nicholson in 2002’s About Schmidt. I forgave the Academy for bypassing her turn as the so-called “Unsinkable” Molly Brown in Titanic because, aside from looking more like the real deal than, say, Debbie Reynolds (who garnered a Best Actress nod for a musical biopic loosely based on the real Brown), Bates didn’t really do anything with the role that hadn’t already been done.

That noted, I still hold a bit of a grudge that she was ignored for her superb work as the strong but simple title character in 1995’s Dolores Claiborne (another King offering) : a  caregiver charged with murdering her elderly employer–interspersed with flashbacks of a younger Dolores as a wife and mother seemingly trapped in a bad marriage.  I’ll be frank, Bates as Claiborne was my absolute favorite performance by a leading actress in all of 1995. I was in awe of what she brought to the character each and every second she appeared onscreen, and I think both the movie and her performance are more genuine than the flashy, mechanical Misery. More recently, I think she gave stand-out supporting performances in 2008’s Revolutionary Road (as a real-estate agent whose chirpiness masks a world of disappointment) and 2009’s The Blind Side (as a well-meaning tutor with a sly disposition). Like Lange, Bates is no stranger to TV, having earned, among others, Emmy nods for her work in David E. Kelly’s short-lived Harry’s Law.  Oh, and I met her one time, back when I was still working at the movies, and she was in the area filming the barely released Curse of the Starving Class. I remember her as gracious and funny.


^ From earlier in 2013: Angela Bassett at the premiere of Olympus Has Fallen, in which she played the director of the Secret Service. Word is she plays New Orleans’s legendary voodoo priestess Marie Laveau in American Horror Story: Coven

Angela Bassett had been working in TV and films for years, including roles in Boyz n the Hood (1991) and Malcom X (1992), before landing the role of a lifetime as Tina Turner in 1993’s musical bio-pic What’s Love Got to Do with It? Bassett fully delivered the goods as the powerhouse entertainer, earning a Golden Globe and emerging as the only serious challenger to Oscar frontrunner Holly Hunter in The Piano. From there, Bassett became one of Hollywood’s most in-demand actresses. For example, in 1995, she appeared in three high profile pics: Strange Days (produced by James Cameron and directed by future Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow), Vampire in Brooklyn (opposite Eddie Murphy; directed by Wes Craven), and Waiting to Exhale, from Terry McMillan’s bestselling novel (directed by Forest Whitaker and co-starring Loretta Devine, Lela Rochon, and the late Whitney Houston).  The first two flicks out of the gate flopped despite loads of publicity, but Waiting to Exhale performed solidly if not spectacularly. It opened in the #1 on the box office charts and held on to its audience long enough to earn 67 million in the U.S.–against a budget of 16 million (per Box Office Mojo). Quite a tidy profit. Furthermore, I think Bassett was well-deserving of a repeat Oscar nod for her work as jilted wife who survives the various stages of grieving, but that didn’t happen though she won an Image award for her portrayal. Bassett continues to work regularly in a wide range of projects. Among her many honors are an Emmy nomination for playing Rosa Parks and a Screen Actors Guild nod for Ruby’s Bucket of Blood. Interestingly, earlier this year she played Coretta Scott King in a made-for-TV film about both King and Dr. Betty Shabazz, the widow of Malcom X whom, as previously noted, Bassett portrayed in Spike Lee’s film starring Oscar nominee Denzel Washington (and again in the little seen Panther, also 1995);  Mary J. Blige took on the role of Shabazz in the newer project.


^ Gabourey Sidibe was indeed red-hot after she made her professional acting debut in the movie Precious,

Gabourey Sidibe achieved the unthinkable when she auditioned for the lead role in Lee Daniels’s Precious (from the novel Push by Sapphire). At the time, Sidibe had never acted professionally though she’d appeared in school productions. Nonetheless, not only did she win the role, her performance registered so strongly that she earned an Oscar nomination, among many other honors, for Best Actress. Though well into her twenties, she perfectly brought to life the horrifically tormented teen who has been consistently let down–and/or abused–by almost every adult she ever encountered, most especially her own family members. Sidibe’s nod was no fluke as the movie also earned nominations for Best Picture and Best Director, among others, ultimately claiming statuettes for Best Supporting Actress (Mo’Nique as Precious’s nightmare of a mother) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Geoffrey S. Fletcher). Even so, for all the acclaim of that first effort, Sidibe has not appeared in too many high-profile projects in the years since. The highlights include a supporting role on the Showtime series The Big C, starring three-time Academy nominee–and recent Emmy winner–Laura Linney, and the all-star caper flick Tower Heist headlined by Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy among others; however, all that star-wattage was not enough to outweigh the negative publicity that occurred from director Brett Ratner’s alleged homophobia. The film barely broke even. Now 30, Sidibe could use a hit.

Sarah Paulson

^ Sarah Paulson as  terrfiied Lana in American Horror Story: Asylum

Sarah Paulson earned both an Emmy nod and a Saturn nod for her performance as Lana, the railroaded lesbian reporter, in last season’s edition of American Horror Story. Poor Lana. Not only was she railroaded simply because of her sexuality, she barely survived her ordeal, scraping by through one atrocity after another all the way up to an unforgettable climax.  Paulson and Lange had previously worked together in the Broadway revival of Tennessee Wiliams’s The Glass Menagerie. Additionally, Paulson was featured in the first season of American Horror Story.

Frances Conroy

^ Frances Conroy : In AHS: Coven, will Jessica Lange get the chance to killer her again…again?

Like Lange and Paulson, Conroy is back for round three of American Horror Story.  Last year, she dazzled as the Angel of Death via 1940s film noir. The look was retro-glam per Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, or Hedy Lamarr and quite a switch from her previous role.  In the first season of the show, she played Lange’s ghoulish housekeeper (llllllloooooonnnnnngggggg  story), to which Lange’s Constance once threatened, “Don’t make me kill you again.”  A decade or so ago, Conroy earned all kinds of accolades, including multiple Emmy nods and at least two Screen Actors Guild awards, for portraying the matriarch of Six Feet  Under. Prior to that breakthrough role, Conroy had toiled for decades as a versatile, well-respected actress of stage, screen, and TV. She appeared in three Woody Allen movies along with the Oscar nominated The Aviator (as the mother of Katharine Hepburn, played by Oscar winner Cate Blanchett) and Broken Flowers, the Jim Jarmusch film that also boasted a fine supporting turn by Lange though the two actresses never shared any scenes. Conroy is also a one-time Tony nominee: Best Featured Actress in a Play (The Ride Down Mt. Morgan).


^ Mary Megan Winningham. You can call her ‘Mare’ for short.

Mare Winningham comes to American Horror Story straight from one of the summer’s hottest shows, Stephen King’s Under the Dome.  This versatile, much sought-after actress has had quite the remarkable career, and that includes a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for 1995’s Georgia, in which she beautifully inhabited the role of a country-folk singer (think Emmylou Harris or Nancy Griffith) drawn into the downward spiral of her less successful sister (Jennifer Jason Leigh).  Winningham caught the acting bug early, playing Maria Von Trapp in a Los Angeles high school production of The Sound of Music with Kevin Spacey as Captain Von Trapp. True that. Val Kilmer was another classmate, btw.  Anyway, Winningham actually began acting professionally while still a teenager, and she was all of 21 when she won her first Emmy (Best Supporting Actress in a Movie/Mini-series for Amber Waves of Grain, 1980).  Since then, most of her best known work has been on television, earning a total of seven Emmy nods including a second win for portraying Lurleen Wallace opposite Gary Sinise in a mini-series about controversial politician George C. Wallace.  Her most recent Emmy nod was for Kevin Costner’s acclaimed mini-series Hatfields & McCoys. Prior to that, she was recognized for her work in the mini-series adaptation of Mildred Pierce (with Kate Winslet trying on the role that helped Joan Crawford win an Oscar back in the 1940s). Speaking of Costner, interestingly enough, he and Winningham have by this point worked together enough almost to be considered a team, what with collaborations in the aforementioned Hatfields & McCoys as well as Wyatt Earp, The War, and Swing Vote.


^ Christine Ebersole, dazzling in red, the night she claimed her Tony for Grey Gardens.

In 1982, right around the time she had moved on from Saturday Night Live, during the show’s tumultuous post-Lorne Michaels, post-Jean Doumanian, readjustment,  Christine Ebersole popped up for a few minutes as a cutie-pie actress and potential date for Dustin Hoffman’s desperate birthday boy in the blockbuster comedy Tootsie; however, Hoffman’s Michael Dorsey flips for Jessica Lange’s Julie Nichols, and that’s that. Years and years later, Ebersole scored her second Tony for Best Actress in a Musical for Grey Gardens, the unlikely tuner based on a cultish 1970s era documentary about two eccentric members of the Bouvier family (making them relatives of the one and only Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis) reduced to living in absolute squalor in the dilapidated titular mansion located in the Hamptons. Ebersole’s challenge was unique in that she portrayed both characters (Big Edie and Little Edie) at different points in their lives: in the first half, she was the younger version of Big Edie (the mother) when life was oh-so-good. In the second act, she portrayed the  grown-up, 70s version of Little Edie,  a rather pathetic middle aged woman, with Alopecia totalis, who has been dominated by her mother (played in the second act by Tony winner Mary Louise Wilson) for far too long. Something like that.  On the heels of the Grey Gardens musical, no less than Lange starred–to Emmy winning effect–as decrepit Big Edie in an HBO recreation of the same story (w/Drew Barrymore surprisingly on-target as Little Edie). Now, Lange and Ebersole are about to cross paths again. Yay!  Can’t wait! Though Ebersole has appeared in such high profile films as Tootsie and Amadeus (1984’s Oscar winner for Best Picture), she more often works in television and on Broadway. Her first Tony, btw, was for the 2001 revival of 42nd Street.

Patti LUpONE

^ Two-time Tony winner, Patti LuPone. Don’t cry for her.

Patti LuPone first made her mark as the lead character in the 1979 Broadway debut of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Evita. To say she was a smash hit would be an understatement. The Julliard grad had already earned her Broadway stripes in the likes of The Robber Bridegroom, but Evita made her a star; she plowed over the competition at the subsequent Tony awards, and she hasn’t stopped since, starring in everything from revivals of Sweeney Todd, Anything Goes, and Gypsy (earning a Tony award for the latter and Tony nods for the other two) to the recent adaptation of Pedro Almodovar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (another Tony nod) among many, many others–on and off Broadway.  Sure, most of her most acclaimed work has been in theatre, yet she still has plenty of film and TV credits, including a leading role in the series Life Goes On (1989-1993) and an  Emmy nomination for a hilarious one-time turn in Frasier (as a domineering relative by marriage) as well as smallish roles in  Driving Miss Daisy (1989’s Best Picture winner) and Witness (a 1985 Best Picture nominee). She was also among  the celebrated cast of David Mament’s State and Main.

The quality of Mercy

Lily Rabe as Portia in the 2010 Broadway production of The Merchant of Venice.

Lily Rabe is another three-time AHS vet. Last season, she tackled a difficult, if not always successful role, as a sweet nun (steamrollered by Lange and coveted by James Cromwell’s Nazi surgeon), transformed by demonic possession. Yep, AHS always packs a wallop. Rabe, the daughter of playwright David Rabe and the late great 70s-80s screen icon Jill Clayburgh (playing mother-daughter in the hilarious cult-film Never Again in the early 2000s) established her stage credibility with a Tony nominated turn as Portia (“The quality of mercy…”) in William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice  opposite no less than legendary Al Pacino as Shylock. Rabe also appeared as recent beauty school graduate Annelle in the revival of Steel Magnolias with Ebersole in the role of grieving mother M’Lynn and Delta Burke as wisecrackin’ beauty shop owner Truvy.

AHS: Coven will also see the return of Taissa Farminga, a season 1 player who was not on board for the second round. On the other hand, the new edition will once again feature young actor Evan Peters, who has already appeared in both seasons–to startling effect. A new high profile addition is that of Emma Roberts, no not Emma Watson nor Emma Stone. This Emma has both  good looks and acting in her genes as she’s the daughter of Eric Roberts and niece of Julia Roberts (Oscar nominee and Oscar winner, respectively). I’ve not seen much of her work though I enjoyed her in the 2007 attempt to launch a new film franchise based on the classic teen mystery series, Nancy Drew.  It wasn’t a hit, but Roberts acquitted herself well enough.

Oh, and if all that weren’t enough, it appears we’ll be treated to a recurring character played by the inimitable Leslie Jordan. Now, that’s  a Coven to die for….

Thanks for your consideration.

American Horror Story: Coven premieres Wednesday, October 9, on F/X


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