That’s what Jimmy Kimmel wants to know. In a comedic bit during August’s Emmy Awards, presenter and late night talk show host, Kimmel, questioned McConaughey’s presence at the ceremony because, in his words: “That’s not a television face. That’s a movie star face… you don’t belong here. And take Julia Roberts with you.”
Nominated alongside co-lead Woody Harrelson for his role on HBO’s True Detective, McConaughey was an early favorite to win best actor had Breaking Bad’s final season not made an understandable sweep of the Drama category. He also garnered much praise recently for his Oscar-winning portrayal of AIDS patient and advocate Ron Woodruff in the film, Dallas Buyer’s Club—an honor cited against him by Kimmel as further evidence of his not belonging at an award show for television.
But McConaughey wasn’t the only Oscar winner in attendance that night. Kevin Spacey has two for Usual Suspects and American Beauty. Billy Bob Thornton, nominated in the miniseries category where True Detective arguably belonged, received his for adapted screenplay of Sling Blade in 1997 (he lost out on best actor to Geoffrey Rush that same year).
Nonetheless that didn’t stop Kimmel producing quite a few laughs from the audience at specifically McConaughey’s expense. While not mean-spirited, his comments highlight a continued obsession with so-called “movie actors” switching from the “big screen” to the “small.” Certainly McConaughey was name-dropped by numerous celebrities during the broadcast but what exactly is so “other” about him? From the way he was spotlighted one could make the misconception that he was the only actor ever to switch visual mediums. Rather the opposite stands true. It’s been happening for years now. More and more actors previously known for film have been making their debuts on television and usually in starring roles. Steve Buscemi made the jump when Boardwalk Empire aired in 2010. Glenn Close was ahead of the curve when she started working on Damages in 2007, preceded by a season arc on The Shield in 2005. With the new fall season Octavia Spenser and Viola Davis have joined the ranks.
In an article for Vulture, Kyle Buchanan notes the change stating, “Movie stars used to deign to do TV only when their big-screen potency had waned, but plenty of actors are currently making the transition while still at the peak of their powers.” This is because television, for a multitude of reasons ranging from the practical to the artistic, is the place to be currently. In a movement that can be traced back to cable stations like HBO, freer content restrictions, substantial salaries, and shorter episode orders (10-13 makes for a more appealing, schedule-accommodating commitment over the previously traditional 22) have made the incentive to change to television strong. Even network television has shown a willingness to change up the formula with ventures like ABC’s Extant, a summer vehicle for (Oscar winner) Halle Berry. At a time when channels run into the high hundreds, a marketable name to throw at potential viewers flipping by on their remotes can make all the difference. Plus for the actors: deeper, more original roles that often far outdo those available in [insert name of impending, forgettable blockbuster here].
In essence, this trend is no longer a novelty and displays of surprise at its occurrence are outdated. So why do they occur? Despite arguments like Washington Post reporter Emily Yahr’s that, “…the stigma has flipped,” with, “Talented TV actors… getting flack for… choosing to appear in big-budget action films,” slammed by critics, it remains clear that many still feel television is a step down from cinema. Jeff Jensen, reacting to the jokes made at the Emmys for Entertainment Weekly, may have put it best with, “If it seemed like True Detective’s dynamic duo of movie stars didn’t quite belong (even though Harrelson got his start on Cheers), maybe it was because Emmy was too busy putting them on a pedestal—then weirdly knocking them down.” McConaughey isn’t a threat to television any more than his casting is a guarantee of quality programming. He has made no claim of superiority over less universally known performers, or those with television acclaim, nor asked for special treatment. So what makes his nomination for True Detective different from anyone else’s? Where are television’s defenders hiding and why are they needed?
When it really comes down to it actors are actors. Television acting, movie acting—these are not phrases we use because there is no clearly defined difference between the two. We do not evaluate individual performances by which platform they appear on. Some are good, some are bad, and some can be either depending on the material or reviewer. Making the distinction between television and movie actor outside of an award show environment (where hundreds of worthy candidates are stuck vying for the same few nominations and need all the opportunities for recognition they can get) is absurd.
“Why is Matthew McConaughey nominated for a television award?”
Because he did a talented turn on a television show. Isn’t that the usual way?