Brow Beat

David Thomson on the Great Stars of TV’s New Golden Age

Walter White (Bryan Cranston).
Walter White (Bryan Cranston).

Photo by Frank Ockenfels/AMC

David Thomson’s beloved reference book The New Biographical Dictionary of Film is, as of today, available in a sixth edition. The newest version, as always, both updates and adds to the robust collection of entries—and among the first-timers are quite a few stars of recent television hits. “By now,” Thomson writes in a preface, “the small screens have diversified in so many ways. This sixth edition admires people like Bryan Cranston and Elisabeth Moss in the spirit that reckons many of the best movies are made for what we still call ‘the small screen.’ ”

With that in mind, we have excerpted, with permission, a few such entries.

Bryan Cranston
As I write, Cranston is 57, yet his current record claims 125 projects he has worked on as an actor. That number includes some shorts, some voice-over jobs, episodes on many television shows, and small parts in some big pictures—for example, Argo. But in the same list, Malcolm in the Middle counts as one item (not 151 episodes), while Breaking Bad is another single item, with 62 episodes. Then you have to convince many people that the dad in Malcolm really is the same actor as Walter White in Breaking Bad. The two men don’t look alike; and they are not from the same world. The dad is a loud weakling in a farcical family setup, while Walter White becomes one of the most tight-lipped and impressive characters in modern fiction: an ordinary schoolteacher who learns he is dying and breaks bad, in organized crime and desperate acts of murder. Walter is reluctant to die, and ready to destroy lives on his way out. Not many steadfast TV characters say as much about our demented world. But the best thing about Walter is that he is sometimes as funny as Malcolm’s dad in a life that is just too much to handle.

Cranston has won three Emmys for lead actor in Breaking Bad, and he was nominated three times as supporting actor on Malcolm in the Middle. It’s easy to say that Walter is in a different dramatic class from Hal, the dad, but their predicaments are alike. They were once ordinary, middle-class guys hoping to support and sustain a family spinning off in many directions. You can imagine that Hal would relish Walter. As Vince Gilligan, the creator of Breaking Bad, has put it: “You’re going to see that underlying humanity, even when he’s making the most devious, terrible decisions, and you needed someone who has that humanity—deep-down, bedrock humanity.” Gilligan cast Cranston on the strength of an episode of The X-Files in which Cranston played another dying man with a lot of hostility. That character had to be terrible but sympathetic; and you might add that Hal is ridiculous but sympathetic.

It’s hard to imagine that Cranston will ever do (or want to do) a movie that would hold the interest of Walter White, and it is likely that the clean-shaven, head-of-hair actor may continue in small movie roles that leave us asking, “Was that still him?” So, in addition to Argo, he has been in The Lincoln Lawyer, Drive, and several others where you may not have noticed him. It’s hard to believe that the movies today would have the courage and the persistence to do someone like Walter White. Long-form television is the narrative form that has transcended movies in the way, once, the novel surpassed cave paintings. And Walter addresses two of our central questions: What will you do to survive? And what is left after survival?

Claire Danes
Carrie Mathison in Homeland is one of the essential characters of the early 21st century: She is battling for respect in a man’s world; she wants to be in love but she has a job founded on mistrust; she is very attractive but not quite movie beautiful; she is plainly smart but she does stupid or deranged things—so sometimes she is in love with the man she suspects of deadly terrorist action. She is an emotional intellectual and a self-destructive who wants to save the world. She is a mess; she is bipolar. And she is played by Claire Danes—though “played” is a little restrained or genteel as a description. Danes wrestles with Carrie. She fucks her and hates her. It’s a rare achievement.

Danes comes from smart and creative stock—a grandfather was Dean of Art and Architecture at Yale. Her education drew on the Dalton School, the New York Lab School for Collaborative Studies, and the Lycée Français in Los Angeles. She had done a little television when, in 1994, she got the lead role of Angela Chase in the series My So-Called Life. It ran only one season but is revered now as a pioneering approach to teenage experience. It was an early sign that Danes was not going to play pushovers, sexpots, or idiots.

Her first big-screen role was Beth in Little Women. She played the young Anne Bancroft in How to Make an American Quilt and Holly Hunter’s daughter in Home for the Holidays. She was Jeanne Moreau’s granddaughter in I Love You, I Love You Not and Michelle Pfeiffer’s daughter in To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday. Then she was magnificent and forthright and tender opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in Romeo + Juliet—a very big worldwide hit.

At 17, she was poised to be a movie star—yet she dodged the bullet, and embarked on some offbeat pictures: U-Turn; The Rainmaker; Cosette in Les Misérables; Polish Wedding; with Omar Epps and Giovanni Ribisi in The Mod Squad. Then she switched over to television, not just with Homeland but as the lead in Temple Grandin. She won Emmys for both shows.

Tina Fey
Tina Fey is an odd mixture wherever you look. She can seem to be “everywhere” in show business, accumulating hours and years on the small screen like a child of Johnny Carson. But, like Carson, she is elusive or withheld, someone who does not quite believe she has a there there. So the girl who said she was a super nerd at school admits that she has never been intimate with anyone except her husband (who was a director at Second City). So she is very smart, very funny, and attractive enough to get votes in those “sexiest” contests. She is world-famous, but it all seems to slip off her cautiously groomed look. Has she ever done anything stupid, dangerous, or passionate? Has she any intention of trying? So in her determinedly old-fashioned look, she is somewhere between Elaine May and Lena Dunham but treating neurosis or mistake as Julia Child might have looked on Spam. She is overwhelmingly sensible, and a time may come when that is not enough, when Tina reveals pain, disaster, or madness. I don’t think it’s beside the point that she dresses horribly. So her famous “cool” is not really cool at all.

She can be brilliant on television, a medium she seems to understand so thoroughly that she never shows strain. Her partnership with Alec Baldwin on 30 Rock is in the tradition of our best battle-of-the-sexes routines, though I think the nicely brought-up girl is usually ready to let Alec win, or to let him feel he has won. Her dainty nerdiness and its veiled sexuality has allowed Alec Baldwin to find his new self, and that is a mark of generosity as well as a producer’s insight.

30 Rock came after Saturday Night Live, and that followed Second City. She has never really failed, and she does have the firm gaze of the suburban mother on the school board who hasn’t come to fail. She writes the material; she plays it; and she is surely an uncredited director by osmosis. Her movies are beside the point; these relate to her comic personality rather as Elvis’s movies betray his live act.

She is a treasure, of course: Her Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live was a piece of true political theatre, but when Julianne Moore took the same role on Game Change it was suddenly apparent that Tina Fey had kept her smarts and her virginity. The risk was not there. You could take her home to meet your grandmother or the president and she’d charm them both. Just one cocktail of “impossibility” or “vulgarity” is what Liz Lemon needs. She should be locked in an elevator with Lucille Ball—but the elevator would explode like the one in Speed. Or imagine a film about Nichols and May with Tina Fey and Matthew McConaughey.

James Gandolfini
He was one of the best known actors in America, but did anyone ever see him young, slender, and with a smile to warm your heart? Or was that person Ray Sharkey or Ray Liotta or Armand Assante, bright arcs that rose and fell in the dark sky of the 1980s? No, it can’t be so, there is still someone around who says he’s Ray Liotta. Still, the lack of a backstory in the Gandolfini career is intriguing. He first appeared as he would be, as a gloomy heavy, morose and looming but anxious, as if he was saying to himself, “Well, even if I get something like The Sopranos, they’ll say that’s all I can do.” In other words, spare me The Sopranos, even at $1 million an episode? There could be a series about a very successful actor who goes to a shrink because of anxiety that he’ll be typecast, and she has to decide whether or not to tell him, “No, that’s not typecasting. That’s who you are. Get a life.”

His Tony Soprano was as important and embracing a figure on the American screen as Chaplin or John Wayne. He was acting, and he won great praise—three Emmys and a Golden Globe. He changed the country’s estimate of gangsters and shrinks, and while he was created by David Chase (and was not the first or only choice as Tony) he embodied the character and surely altered the direction of the series. So it is probably the first hit TV series about depression. He was absorbing, but that wasn’t the point. We had to watch him as if looking after a wayward uncle.

Of course, he had acted before, and he acted afterward. Audiences gave him a pass even when he was miscast, as in The Last Castle; and then when he was good again, playing Leon Panetta in Zero Dark Thirty, we felt confirmed.

Jon Hamm
What a mysterious career this is—is that incompleteness the secret to Don Draper, something that might be called “fascination” in other characters and actors? He has been in all 78 episodes of six seasons of Mad Men, and he is the unquestioned quarterback of that team. The show is a hit for AMC, averaging around 2.5 million viewers per episode, and it won the Emmy for dramatic series in its first four seasons. Hamm has been nominated for the best actor Emmy six times—but he has never won (three of those awards went to Bryan Cranston’s Walter White in Breaking Bad). He does have one Golden Globe.

So is Mad Men an ensemble show? Yes, but most long-form drama satisfies that test. And Draper is most interesting as an outsider to the team. He is a triumphant executive and a wreck, a failed husband and father, a womanizer, a drunk, a heavy smoker (though Hamm smokes herbal cigarettes), and a fraud. Was this plan there from the start in creator Matthew Weiner’s mind, or was it a gradual (soap operatic) development that Draper should be someone who had swapped identities during the Korean War? Put it that way and you can see how Draper is a man on the run—a modern Fugitive even—not a team player but someone who is staving off a crack-up. Tony Soprano was such a character, but James Gandolfini anchored that role and the series in an intense but humbling physical persona with crouched neuroses. In contrast, Hamm’s Draper seems like a brittle model, an advertised man, not just an ad man, and that is the source of his madness. But the show never quite gets to the crack-up, and a feeling arises that Hamm is too modest an actor to pull it off, or demand it. I don’t think he’s ever made us care about Don—the keynote in Tony Soprano, Walter White, and Carrie Mathison in Homeland. Of course, all these characters are close to instability while TV was once known for stalwart lead figures.

Alas, this feeling of disappointment with Hamm is only sustained by his negligible if not invisible movie career: “young pilot #2” in Space Cowboys; a lead part in Stolen, which had a very limited release; overshadowed by Affleck and Jeremy Renner in The Town.

The above is excerpted from The New Biographical Dictionary of Film by David Thomson. Copyright 2014 by David Thomson. Reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf. All rights reserved.