Sheryl Lee Ralph’s dream comes true
Besides proving that grownup talent can prevail despite all obstacles, Abbott Elementary star Sheryl Lee Ralph, 65, demonstrated that broadcast TV — beloved by grownup viewers — can still hold its own in a streaming era. Before the show, she recalled that her onetime costar Robert De Niro once told her, “You deserve to be seen.” She said, “Well, 30 years later I am seen with my Emmy nomination, and thank God I didn’t give up on me, because it’s been a rough climb but it’s worth every step.”
When she won outstanding supporting actress in a comedy series for her tart-tongued teacher role, she proved she still had the pipes she used in her breakthrough show, Dreamgirls, 41 years later by belting out the Dianne Reeves song: “I am an endangered species but I sing no victim’s song. I am a woman, I am an artist, and I know where my voice belongs!” She went on, “To anyone who has ever, ever had a dream and thought your dream wasn’t, wouldn’t, couldn’t come true, I am here to tell you that this is what believing looks like, this is what striving looks like … and don’t you ever, ever give up on you!”
Jennifer Coolidge’s inimitable Emmy debut
The most original speech of the evening was given by the most original actress, The White Lotus’ Jennifer Coolidge, 61, who, after decades of distinctive work (A Mighty Wind, Legally Blonde), won her first Emmy, for supporting actress in a limited or anthology series. She was up against four superb nominees from the same show, but her role, a rich woman who ambiguously befriends a poor woman who works at a Hawaiian resort, stood out because we sympathized with her griefs, laughed at her oddities and were stunned by her unexpected cruelties.
Accepting the award, she was as unpredictably off-kilter as her dramatic performances are, greeting the crowd by saying, “Hey, hi, wow!” and confessing, “I took a lavender bath tonight and it made me swell up inside my dress and I’m having a hard time speaking.” Many winners protested the short time allotted for thank-you speeches, but only Coolidge was cool enough to dance to the music that played her off the stage. When the show’s creator, Mike White, 52, also won an Emmy, he credited Coolidge with helping to inspire him to write the offbeat hit.
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Geena Davis, star and grownup crusader
Geena Davis, 66, earned a 2006 lead actress Emmy for playing the first female U.S. president in Commander in Chief, but her 2022 Emmy Governors Award is a still more significant honor, because it recognizes her groundbreaking work in the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which promotes gender balance and fosters inclusion in an industry that has resisted it for a century.
Hailing Davis’ “shining intelligence,” award co-presenter Sarah Paulson said, “I had been under the spell of that unspoken rule that women should not feature their intellect. It was Geena who wiped that off the slate for me.” Davis also fights for grownup rights, since women are the chief victims of Hollywood’s ageism. She created the first-ever analysis of how women over age 50 are depicted in top-grossing films in her landmark report, “Frail, Frumpy and Forgotten: A Report on the Movie Roles of Women of Age.” But as Davis told AARP in 2020, “One thing that has changed in the past few years: Movies starring a female character have made significantly more money than movies starring a male character. That may help.” Her Emmy honor may help us all, too.
Jean Smart’s eighth decade is her best yet
To nobody’s surprise, Jean Smart, 71, won best actress in a comedy series for her hilarious and poignant turn as a comedian staging a comeback in Hacks. Yet she seemed a bit surprised at her good fortune. As she told AARP recently, “I guess it’s the reward for just sticking around the longest! Actors will make themselves crazy trying to figure out how they’re perceived or why they are seen a certain way or not. I don’t feel like I’m any better now than I was when I was 20, but certainly the opportunities I’m being given the last 20 years have become more and more gratifying and challenging. That’s the good thing about being an actor. They always need older actors. You can act until you are 100.”
The generations are stronger when they work together
It’s great that actors over 50 are doing better in television, as evidenced by their Emmy kudos. But it’s also important that some of those roles are opposite younger actors. Two of the more winning teams at the 2022 ceremony were Hacks’ Jean Smart and SNL comic Laraine Newman’s daughter Hannah Einbinder, 27, who plays a young comic mentored and tormented by Smart’s character, and Only Murders in the Building’s Steve Martin, 77, Martin Short, 72, and Selena Gomez, 30. The latter trio, who play true-crime sleuths on the show, pulled off a tricky feat: making jokes about aging that aren’t diminishing of grownups.
Gomez noted how nice it was to have them as costars — “No paparazzi!” — and Martin pretended to be hawking financial products: “Have you or someone you love ever considered a reverse mortgage?” Short retorted, “No, wrong gig, Steve, wrong gig!” Comedy that involves older and younger actors acting as creative equals accomplishes more than mere yocks, it knits society together. And Smart, Einbinder, Martin, Short and Gomez briskly did the trick at the Emmys.
Old shows that will never lose their appeal
One intriguing phenomenon at the Emmys was the persistence in contemporary culture of the popular culture of our youth. You’d think that 53 years after it began, The Brady Bunch would be a forgotten show, but last year Ru Paul, 61, reenacted a Brady episode on RuPaul’s Drag Race, and on the Emmy red carpet, cast members Barry Williams, Eve Plumb, Susan Olsen, Mike Lookinland and Christopher Knight reunited.
You’d also think that after 62 years, The Flintstones would be ancient history (and we just want to forget that 1994 yabba-dabba-dud movie version). But its theme song cropped up in an ad during the Emmys, and everybody in the room, no matter what their age, doubtless instantly recognized the tune. That such ancient touchstones remain current demonstrates the cultural clout of the grownup generations.
Michael Keaton conquers television
Michael Keaton, 71, beat a strong field of contenders for lead actor in a limited or anthology series, and no wonder: His grueling role in Hulu’s Dopesick, a doctor who becomes addicted to OxyContin, was not only artistically devastating but also an important dramatization of the opioid crisis. News stories cannot drive home the reality of this tragedy as effectively as a work of art starring a past master of the acting trade at the peak of his powers. It’s his first starring role in a TV series, and his achievement also signifies the increasing influence of grownup movie stars on the television medium.
Succession’s success is a grownup’s triumph
Succession won the best drama Emmy for the second year in a row, and it’s a perennial Emmy magnet. That’s thanks to the brilliant writing and multigenerational cast, but the show is led by Brian Cox, 76, as the potty-mouthed patriarch of the plutocrat clan.
A star whose greatest success came later in life than usual for actors, Cox proves the value of first mastering the role of King Lear onstage, making him a theater legend, before tackling a similar part on TV. A personalized video from Brian Cox, telling you to “F--- off!” (his character’s catchphrase), cost $325 in 2021. But the show is so hot, now it costs you $689 — a measure of his growing stature. As a character and as an actor, Cox demonstrates that we are the generations that will never “f--- off.”
Tim Appelo covers entertainment and is the film and TV critic for AARP. Previously, he was the entertainment editor at Amazon, video critic at Entertainment Weekly, and a critic and writer for The Hollywood Reporter, People, MTV, The Village Voice and LA Weekly.