This award is honestly Sarah Paulson’s to lose. First, let’s mention the “she’s overdue for a win” rationale. She is! Sarah Paulson should already be a two-time Emmy winner for her incredible acting in American Horror Story Asylum and Freak Show. She was slated to win in both those respective years and lost instead. She has additionally been nominated another two times, one for supporting actress in a TV Movie for Game Change and also as a Lead Actress for American Horror Story’s third season, Coven. Paulson has a double Emmy nomination this year (She is also nominated for American Horror Story: Hotel), making it six Emmy nominations in five years. If anyone is due for a win, it is Sarah Paulson.
Now let’s discuss why she deserves the Emmy on the merit of her performance. Sarah Paulson deserves this award for evoking so much humanity into her role as Marcia Clark, the prosecutor in the O.J. Simpson case. The real-life Marcia Clark has been long accused of being an awful prosecutor and single-handedly caused an obvious murderer to walk free. Sarah Paulson negated such sentiments with her performance by providing an image of who this woman was and what she was dealing with behind closed doors. Outwardly, Paulson’s Marcia Clark is confident and determined, almost to the point of arrogance. Yet Paulson emphasized that Marcia Clark’s determination was because justice for Nicole Brown Simpson was personal to her. For years Nicole Brown Simpson’s pleas for help were ignored and Marcia Clark was sickened by that fact. Her vendetta against O.J. Simpson was to show other battered and abused women that such perpetrators would go to jail as a result of their actions. Unfortunately, as indicated through Paulson’s performance, Marcia Clark underestimated how huge the cultural impact of the case would be and the horrendous sexism that she would endure throughout the trial. Sarah Paulson’s performance especially captures the mortification of the professional double standard she faced merely because she was a woman. Her performance is densely layered and part of what makes it extraordinary and heartbreaking is witnessing her confidence crumble little-by-little as she realizes a case that should have been open-and-shut has become sensationalized. This is a one-of-a-kind performance and Sarah Paulson should be commended for it.
This doesn’t mean that Sarah Paulson is invincible in this category because she does face stiff competition. Kerry Washington’s performance in the HBO TV movie Confirmation as Anita Hill, who testified of sexual harassment against Clarence Thomas, who at the time was being confirmed as a judge for the Supreme Court, has gotten rave reviews. Washington’s performance caught the attention of critics and audiences for its message about speaking up about sexual harassment and not letting it be ignored. Kerry Washington also is popular with her show Scandal, which she has been Emmy nominated for. Voters like Washington and her winning the Emmy could function as both awarding her for an eye-opening performance while also being compensation for her previous Emmy losses.
American Crime succeeded in nominating both Lili Taylor and Felicity Huffman for its second season. The social expose show focused on homophobia and its many facets in its second season. Felicity Huffman was incredible as the vindictive and manipulative headmaster of a school who is willing to cover up an incident for the sake of upholding a social reputation. Equally impactful was Lili Taylor as the homophobic mother of a son who she doesn’t want to admit is gay. Like American Crime’s first season, this is a very difficult show to watch because it has a cruel, yet very true image of how hypocritical and discriminatory our society has become. It shows that discrimination extends beyond the physical or violence, but with simple exchanges and actions that may seem harmless, but actually have tremendous societal impact. Huffman or Taylor easily could achieve an upset for this show.
Nor should Audra McDonald be underestimated for her extraordinary performance in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, which was a film adaption of the play that awarding her with her record-breaking sixth Tony. Starring as true-life singer Billie Holiday, the film is merely Holiday performing at a seedy bar and recounting stories of her life in-between songs. It’s an authentic and raw performance that McDonald flawlessly channels the spirit of Billie Holiday into her performance. There is a level of awe that this performance provides, reminding us of how talented Billie Holiday was and how tragic it was that she passed away prematurely at the age of 44.
Sarah Paulson’s biggest competition is undoubtedly Kirsten Dunst for her memorable performance in Fargo as the hairdresser who inadvertently causes a mob war to happen and is stuck in the middle of it. Dunst was magnificent in her performance, portraying her character as someone who is sociopathic and on the verge of a mental breakdown. Dunst was also tremendous in conveying through her character the sad reality that the American Dream was a concept that couldn’t ever be achieved, that the good guys don’t always win, and that failure is sometimes inevitable. While there is a quiet desperation to her performance, there is also profound sadness that allows audiences to pity her. Kirsten Dunst was considered a frontrunner in this category before The People Versus O.J. Simpson. What may put her at a disadvantage is that her performance is more supporting than lead acting, to which many episodes feature her character sparingly. It’s when one considers her performance as a whole that the impact of her acting can be truly appreciated. Nonetheless, Kirsten Dunst is well-liked and considering this performance is unlike anything she has done before, voters may have a hard time ignoring that.
Kirsten Dunst – Fargo
Felicity Huffman – American Crime
Audra McDonald – Lady’s Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill
Sarah Paulson – The People Versus O.J. Simpson
Lili Taylor – American Crime
Kerry Washington – Confirmation
Will Win: Sarah Paulson – The People Versus O.J. Simpson
Could Win: Kirsten Dunst – Fargo
Should Win: Sarah Paulson – The People Versus O.J. Simpson