The TV show Ally McBeal has, for me, placed a hex on most actresses who’ve appeared in it. I hated the show to a degree I cannot begin to describe. The ensemble cast thus suffers. This is true especially of Lucy Liu and Julianne Nicholson. I am not sure I can ever like Calista Flockhart or Courtney Thorne-Smith. Portia de Rossi is exempt because of her work in beloved Arrested Development. That said, it has been hard to watch actors in obnoxious roles and imagine them doing something redeeming. While my feeling about Lucy Liu has changed (softened), a more striking transformation took place in my approach to Julianne Nicholson.
Nicholson is not as high-profile or “on-the-map” as someone like Lucy Liu has been, but her choices have been unusual and unexpected, showing her capacity not just for depth but for losing herself in some very stern, unglamorous roles that show off her talents in ways that something like Ally McBeal never could.
I should not hold the choice of material against actors or believe that these choices somehow reflect on their abilities as actors. Being a working actor, I imagine you take the roles that you can get; you make the best of even bad material – and who can blame an actor for wanting to participate in a popular show, where visibility is much higher? And I am in the minority in believing that Ally McBeal is crap material.
Julianne Nicholson has turned up in the most surprising places, much to my delight. While she has popped up here and there, and has been pleasant, her very different and staid roles in Masters of Sex and Boardwalk Empire have shown the breadth of Nicholson’s range. Her career has been filled with independent films, many of which are well worth seeing (just the other day I saw her in a small role as a supportive friend to the main character in Keep the Lights On). Yet she has balanced these deliberate choices with mainstream roles in shows, such as the aforementioned Ally McBeal and a more entertaining, if procedural, Law & Order – Criminal Intent. Based mostly on her work in Ally McBeal, I never would have said that I thought she’d exhibit the kind of authority needed to pretend to be a cop. But she was surprising and delivered the goods.
Considered, reconsidered – it’s a tough world for working actors. I don’t doubt that for a moment. Thus harsh criticism shouldn’t be the first thing I unleash. I suppose it’s a little bit easier if you are pretty – as Julianne Nicholson is – but easier still if you are distinctive (another score for Nicholson). That said, when the acting is clearly more important, and the willingness to forgo vanity in favor of plainness is something an actor can embrace (not in the showy Charlize Theron in Monster or Nicole Kidman in The Hours way – but in a more subdued, subtle way), it is easier to see the actual talent and the work that goes into the role. This is where Julianne Nicholson really shines.