On Oscar night, as the media waited backstage for Matthew McConaughey to face them following his Best Actor win, many in the press room could not stop talking about the 44-year-old Texan’s latest performance. McConaughey may have won the Academy Award for his turn as Aids patient and activist Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyers Club, but watching him accept it that evening meant missing the latest episode of True Detective.
McConaughey is now the favourite to win Best Actor in a Drama at the Emmy Awards on Monday, for his role in the gripping HBO drama – yet another sign that the worlds of cinema and quality television are converging, with television increasingly seen as the prestige medium.
If McConaughey triumphs again, he will be only the second man ever to be awarded an Oscar and an Emmy in the same year. The first was George C Scott in 1971 – and he famously refused his Oscar, saying awards races were “demeaning”.
According to Tom O’Neil, founder of the prediction site GoldDerby.com, the engraving on McConaughey’s Oscar might read Dallas Buyers Club, but he won the award thanks to the buzz around True Detective at voting time. “Leonardo DiCaprio [nominated for The Wolf of Wall Street] mounted a brilliant campaign,” O’Neil said, “but it was True Detective that put Matthew back out in front. I think that’s why he won the Oscar.”
The Emmys have long been considered the lesser of the two awards shows. When she hosted the ceremony in 2005, Ellen Degeneres joked, “But seriously, I think overall in the scheme of things winning an Emmy is not important. Let’s get our priorities straight. I think we all know what’s really important in life – winning an Oscar.” (The following year, she hosted the Oscars.)
But Oscar’s cultural supremacy is no longer so assured. At the Golden Globes, which celebrates both television and film, the traditional hierarchy has broken down as the names featured in the separate categories gradually become interchangeable. At this year’s Emmys, the nominees include an unprecedented number of former Oscar-winners.
Among those nominated in the acting categories are Kevin Spacey, Jane Fonda, Jon Voight and Julia Roberts. Oscar-winners Jessica Lange and Kathy Bates have Emmy nods for roles in the same television show, American Horror Story: Coven. Jodie Foster, the winner of two Oscars for Best Actress, has an Emmy nomination for directing an episode of Orange is the New Black.
Brad Pitt, who this year shared the Oscar for Best Picture as a producer of 12 Years a Slave, is expected to share an Emmy for Best TV Movie as a producer of the HBO drama The Normal Heart. The Oscar-winning film Fargo was recently turned into a television series starring Billy Bob Thornton, and is now an Emmy contender. Thornton has referred to the show not as a television series, but as a “10-hour movie”. Spacey, similarly, has described his hit Netflix series House of Cards as a “13-hour movie”.
“We still have a phoney reverence for the ‘Silver Screen’ over the ‘Boob Tube’,” O’Neil says. “It’s not necessarily borne out by reality. Most of the stuff at the cinema is pretty awful, and the stuff on quality TV is often vastly underrated. Hour-for-hour, there’s much more great drama on television than at the theatres.”
Over Emmy and Oscar’s past decade, the winning television dramas have often been richer and more resonant than the winning films. Compare The Sopranos to Million Dollar Baby in 2004, or Mad Men to The Artist in 2011 – even Breaking Bad to Argo in 2013. And then compare that to the 1970s, when Upstairs, Downstairs won three Best Drama Emmys in years when the Oscar was awarded to The Godfather Part II, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Annie Hall.
The start of the current golden age of television is often traced to The Sopranos, which debuted on HBO 15 years ago. At the time its stars, such as the late James Gandolfini, were well-respected but little-known. As television gained in stature, some film actors whose careers had dipped made the switch to the small screen, including Kiefer Sutherland (24) and Glenn Close (The Shield; Damages). But only in the past couple of years have major stars with thriving film careers begun taking on roles in television series.
“Billy Bob Thornton entered the industry in the 90s, and he says you just didn’t do television then if you wanted a film career,” said Tim Gray, the awards editor of Variety. “When Milos Forman was casting Amadeus, he specifically said that he wasn’t interested in auditioning TV actors. Once you made a film, you very rarely went back and did TV.”
The split has never been as pronounced in the UK, where actors such as Judi Dench or the Emmy-nominated Martin Freeman (Fargo) regularly move between mediums.