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Why Hugh Laurie Must Win the Emmy in 2010: Part 2

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Part I of this article was an open letter to the Emmy voters (for all the good it will do), calling to their attention the rather large oversight that they have failed to thus far award Hugh Laurie with the Emmy statuette. The awards nominations will be announced July 8, and I am fairly confident that he will be among the nominees. (Although I – and most television critics—was floored in 2006, when he was somehow overlooked, so nothing's ever a certain bet when it comes to the Emmys.)

The question arises as to why am I so vigorously advocating for Laurie and not Lisa Edelstein, Robert Sean Leonard—or the writers for that matter. The fact is that they are deserving. Leonard is a great foil for Laurie and he often shows an unexpectedly deft comic touch. Lisa Edelstein, too had a great showing in "9 to 5" and in the season finale "Help Me." I would be delighted to see any or all of them on the nominations list, but I don’t think it’s going to happen. I would be less surprised to see Andre Braugher make the short list for his guest starring role as House’s psychiatrist Dr. Nolan in the season premiere "Broken."

The writers never cease to amaze me, condensing all that layered and rapid-fire dialogue into a 44-minute story. They have created a great hybrid of the procedural format with a fascinating character study. Garrett Lerner, Russel Friend, David Foster, and David Shore deserve a nomination for “Broken,” which has already been honored with a Writers Guild Award for episodic drama. Katie Jacobs and Greg Yaitanes may also score nominations for their work on “Broken” and “Help Me,” respectively. “Baggage,” written by Doris Egan and directed by David Straiton, would also be a worthy entry in the final balloting for its complexity and “off-formula” structure. But to me, the fact that Laurie has yet to win is such a glaring omission that it can’t be ignored.

I re-watched “Instant Karma” the other day. The episode is a good "typical" season six House episode—but not the sort to knock the socks off of Emmy voters. But there is a moment in the episode that reminds me perfectly of what makes Laurie's performance so great. House's team has decided (for the moment) that their young patient is terminal and only has a day or so to live. Everyone looks sad, certainly; this is tough news, and not news one easily gives to a parent. But watch House’s reaction.

One might expect, given his reputation, that House would be all “win some; lose some.” But he’s not; he’s defeated and upset. The dialogue tells us that the patient is dying, better tell the father. What Laurie adds is subtext that lets us see how it affects House.

Although we’re led to believe that House cares so little about patients that he should be the last one to tell any family member such dire news, Laurie guides us into House’s heart, showing us that he cares a great deal more than he says—and that he has as much (if not more) compassion than anyone in his circle. And so it makes sense when House chooses himself to deliver the sad news. It shocks his fellows, but we know better; we can see what it means to House—because Laurie lets us in.

House does his best to promote a particular image: a nasty, angry, cynical jerk. And it is up to Laurie to give the audience clues to the contrary, even when it's not scripted that way. He infuses this difficult, unlikable character with an idiosyncratic humanity, granting us access to his emotional landscape, and helping to forge House into one of the greatest characters created for the small screen. It is a partnership between writer, director, and character actor and the result is consistently brilliant.

A couple of weeks ago, I asked my readers to offer what they considered the best of Hugh Laurie as House—revelations they would point out to an Emmy voter if the opportunity ever arose. Thanks to everyone who stopped by and offered their opinions.

There were many responses, but there were several common threads, all of which point to Laurie’s ability to bring a entire range of emotion to a very complex and difficult character. Laurie’s Dr. Gregory House is nasty, but with a deeply embedded streak of compassion; disabled but physical; lazy, but driven; an isolated genius who can be charming and engaging; a street talking “regular” guy who can lose himself playing Bach; a cynic who is also deeply romantic.

Bryan Singer once said of those auditioning for the role back during casting for the pilot episode that none of the other actors “got” all of the essentials of the prickly Dr. Gregory House: the coldness, the comedy, the sarcasm, the physicality, the charisma—and the pathos so intrinsic in rendering Dr. Gregory House sympathetic. There are times when this entire range of skill is needed even within a single scene—and Laurie’s ability to play all of it credibly and with great nuance is key to his brilliance. And I won’t even dwell on the fact that he does it all with a believable and remarkably consistent American accent (he’s British, if you were still unaware), while hobbling with a cane and speaking some of the quickest, most complex dialogue written.

The subtext added by Laurie’s subtle acting not only enhances the writers’ words, it adds volumes of information. In a novel, one of Laurie’s looks would require three pages to describe what’s going through his mind. On House, it is but a fleeting moment—seconds.

We’ve seen House detox from Vicodin several times over six season: “Detox” (season one), “Merry Little Christmas” and “Words and Deeds" (season three), “Under My Skin” (season five), and “Broken.” Laurie never goes over the line into overplaying the nightmare of withdrawal, but puts his character through a quiet agony.

But House’s withdrawal at the beginning of season six in “Broken” is a several-day journey as the camera follows him through his first days as a patient at Mayfield Psychiatric Hospital. There is no dialogue (the script, according to writers Garrett Lerner and Russel Friend has no specific direction for that opening scene), and it’s all about the acting and directing. But through Laurie’s acting and Katie Jacobs’ beautiful direction, we are privy to the horror of House’s hell—flies on the wall. But it’s not only when he goes through the agony of withdrawal that we see Laurie’s often brave portrayal of the drug-dependent and emotionally broken—but functional—House. It’s a performance that has earned him several Prism Award nominations, including one in 2010.

We all know that House is in pain, sometimes more than others. I recall at the beginning, David Shore had noted that the pain was the most difficult thing to get right. But Laurie has the nuances of House’s physical and emotional pain down perfectly. We believe his pain. But it’s not just playing “pain;” how many Vicodin? How long since the last one? What else is going on that makes the pain better or worse?

Is it a “soul sucking” day or just a barely tolerable one? Sometimes it’s obvious (and scripted), but often the pain plays out in little, barely there ways. It would be so easy to over-emote chronic pain, but House tends to be stoic about it most of the time, so Laurie has to suppress it, keep it bottled up. But he lets us see it in his eyes, a slight tremble in his hand (okay, so we all know I’m obsessed with the show), tension in his face, heavier leaning on the cane—all beyond rubbing at his leg, which House does frequently when he’s distressed about it. All through season six, as House has tried to remain off of narcotic pain killers, the pain has ebbed and become more intense and ebbed again.

Although acting the big dramatic emotional stuff has its challenges—and Laurie pulls it off brilliantly every week—it is the little moments that add detail and grace notes to his performance. They are often moments ignored, dismissed or simply missed by House’s colleagues, but for us they transform our understanding of the story—and of House.

In “Broken” we witness House’s several-week journey through in-patient psychiatric care through Laurie’s expressive eyes, traveling through anger, bitterness, insolence, resolve, despair, horror, regret, remorse, delight, joy, sorrow, and triumph (I’m sure I left a few out.) He is in every scene—virtually every frame of every scene through a 90-minute feature film of an episode. It’s brilliant and he never overplays it. The writers put him through the proverbial wringer and it’s never overwrought.

Only an actor who is completely in the moment, listening to his fellow actors, embodying the character even when the focus is on someone else, reactive and responsive in the smallest ways—these are artistic strokes that make a performance great. It would be easy for Laurie to back off the intensity (and understandable given the number of pages he performs in an average House episode, let alone those episodes in which he’s present in every scene), but he never does—even after six seasons.

“Broken” and “Help Me” are obvious examples, but watch his performance in the early season six episode “Brave Heart,” as he derides his fellows for trying to convince the patient he should connect with a son he never knew. It’s a simple line and a straightforward moment, easily missed for its import to House (and to his story in this particular episode), but the way Laurie delivers the line and acts the moment lends it subtext that speaks to House’s personal experience with his own father. Laurie transforms the line from throwaway to revelation, made all the more important when, by episode’s end, House is reconsidering that very troubled relationship.

These are moments of wonderful drama big and minute, broad and nuanced, and on that basis alone, Laurie would be considered a superb actor. But before House, Laurie was mostly known for broad comedy in England (Blackadder, Jeeves and Wooster, A Bit of Fry and Laurie). And it is something he brings to playing House so naturally that it fits as perfectly as the bitterness, passion, introspection, and intelligence.

When Laurie brings that wonderful (often very physical) comedy to the role, it often forms a perfect counterpoint to the intensity of the situation. Who can forget the moment in season five’s “House Divided” when House, on the verge of emotional collapse and being tormented by the hallucinated Amber Volakis, attempts to set fire to a line of shot glasses. A dry run for Chase’s bachelor party, House juggles a bottle of liquor lit like a Molotov cocktail, accidentally setting fire to a nearby corpse. Laurie is brilliant trying to put out the fire while conducting a diagnostic session with his subconscious (in the guise of the dead Amber). It’s an amazing bit of physical comedy.

And then there is the music. I don’t believe that music was ever intended to become such a significant part of House when the pilot episode was first conceived, nor even by the first time we see House playing his beautiful baby grand piano in “Damned if You Do” (season one). Like House’s literary ancestor Sherlock Holmes, House is often shown turning to music for a bit of solace (Homes played violin). But over the years, Hugh Laurie’s musicality has infused House’s. Laurie’s ability on piano and guitar allow us another access to House’s interior life and understand him in ways not otherwise possible, whether he’s playing a soulful blues or an evocative improvisation. It’s yet another impressive tool in this gifted actor’s arsenal.

Yes, there are some fabulous, talented actors surely to be in contention for this year's best actor in a drama Emmy. And I know that in the grand scheme of things, an Emmy Award does nothing that all those other awards, nominations, and critical accolades haven't done multiple times in six seasons of House. But, dear Emmy people: really, it's time, don't you think?

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About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is Publisher/Executive Editor of Blogcritics, (blogcritics.org). Her Bram Stoker Award-nominated novel, called "Anne Rice meets Michael Crichton," The Apothecary's Curse The Apothecary's Curse is now out from Pyr, an imprint of Prometheus Books. Her book on the TV series House, M.D., Chasing Zebras is a quintessential guide to the themes, characters and episodes of the hit show. Barnett is an accomplished speaker, an annual favorite at MENSA's HalloWEEM convention, where she has spoken to standing room crowds on subjects as diverse as "The Byronic Hero in Pop Culture," "The Many Faces of Sherlock Holmes," "The Hidden History of Science Fiction," and "Our Passion for Disaster (Movies)."
  • You’re so right on, especially when describing the character House’s range of contradictions he so effortlessly conveys to us. Hugh Laurie tells us more about what is in House’s heart without saying a word. Brilliant!
    On another note, I’m from Chicago originally and drove home for the Band From TV concerts at the Taste as well as The Vic. Wow! The performances were awesome and it appeared the band had as much fun performing as the audience had enjoying the show! (Was unable to make it to Harry’s Carry’s) I was sorry I didn’t get a chance to meet you and thank you in person (from one House addict to another) for this wonderful forum! Best to you always!

  • Thanks for commenting. Sorry we didn’t get to meet. Perhaps another time 😉 The band was great. Not always my type of music, but I really, really enjoyed it. And a great cause, too!

  • sdemar

    Nice article. Thanks, Barbara.

    I expect to see Hugh nominated. Let’s hope in the end he finally wins the award.

  • Hi sdemar–

    I do too, but you never know with Emmy. Everything is very cable-focussed these days, especially in this category.

  • Lovely analysis but I don’t know that The Emmy voters will be persuaded by 10 pages or even a book which tries to explain what is obvious to so many of us: that Hugh Laurie deserved this award multiple times over.

    I must say that an analysis of a great performance or a fine piece of music is very difficult to achieve and sometimes impossible; often entering the dangerous territory of trying to tell someone what must be seen and not read.

    I think that one clip from each season (as in a picture) would be worth a thousand words.

    All anyone need do is watch and listen and they would know and understand. Like trying to describe the COLORS used in a great painting, an over analysis of scenes or nuance sometimes lessens the whole- but this is just my opinion.

    This was an especially lovely 2 part column and i thank you for writing it.

    I don’t know why I feel this way but I, like so many others have been so frustrated over HL”s Emmy Bridesmaid Status over the years, that I don’t maintain high hopes he will win this year but hope springs eternal in me.

    I think that honor will go to Michael C. Hall or Brian Cranston. There is alot of awesome talent in this category.

    Hugh Laurie deserved this starting back in Season 2 for creating an unforgettable character that has worked its way in to our hearts and minds.

    If the Emmy voters can’t see this with their own eyes and hear it with their own ears, this lovely article is preaching to the House Choir.

    This marvelous actor has created an unforgettable character in a show which has been the most watched around the globe.If The Emmy voters snub him again, there is little any of us can do but this character will live on, regardless of HL’s finally achieving the golden statuette- an award he has deserved for so long.

    From your lovely words to the Emmy voters ears:)

  • What was so hard about writing this article (and why it took so long) is that you are so right, Housecall. All I found I could do in the end is to point towards a scene–suggest what might be found there if you’re watching. The scenes are (themselves) impossible to deconstruct completely.

    Who knows where this article might find itself? But I fear you also may be right. His performance is so natural, even now people find it hard to believe that it’s Hugh, but House, they’re seeing.

  • Janice

    Brilliant article. You’ve summed Mr. Laurie’s acting on House up beautifully. He most definitely deserves the Emmy. Thank you.

  • Pam

    As always, your words bring an articulate voice to what many people think. Good point-the fire scene. Not one that usually comes to mind but yes, he did it perfectly. Don’t know of another actor that would have pulled that off so well. The other actors that have won are good, but their characters don’t require the range of skills and emotions that Hugh gives to House.

    I’ve lost faith in the Emmy process because it just makes no sense that he hasn’t won.

    But, I’m a Red Sox fan and lost hope that they would ever win the World Series..and they eventually did. So not giving up yet.

  • Pam–Got news for you. I’m a lifelong CUBS fan–how’s that for lost hope?

  • simona

    As always you have pointed out very well all the topics. But I’m starting to think that to be able to enjoy [H]ouse and Hugh Laurie’s performance everyone should go much beyond the surface and I’m not sure that those who judge the performances of the actors are always interested in doing it.
    I feel that Mr. Laurie doesn’t seem interested in promoting himself for any kind of recognition but House really would not exist without him and would be a shame if that were not recognized.

  • Orange450

    Wonderful article, Barbara. You’ve done your usual stellar job of putting the collective House fandom’s thoughts into perfectly articulated language. As Housecall said – from your mouth to the Emmy voters’ ears.

    I sincerely hope that Mr. Laurie gets the recognition that he so deeply deserves while he still awes and delights us weekly with his portrayal of House. I’d really like to see him attain the status of “legend in his own time” – which we all know that he’s entitled to – rather than have to wait to receive his accolades after the series’ end.

    I think your article highlights one of the major reasons that he might not, however. The word that comes to mind is “subtlety”. So much of Mr. Laurie’s unmatched performance depends on this elusive and underrated quality. And unfortunately, we do not live in a subtle age. (One has only to check out the outfits worn by many of the award show contenders to realize the truth of this situation :)) Of course, I’d have no problem being proved wrong this year!

  • Hi Orange,

    The other thing is that he is not a “personality” actor, rather a character actor. He becomes the character, not the other way around. So many wonderful actors do well playing their personality, no matter the character. Some are real chameleons. Watched an old favorite movie “Sneakers” yesterday. Perfect case in point. I adore Robert Redford, but no matter the role: good, bad, noble or not, he always plays Robert Redford playing… I consider him an excellent actor (first seen by me in All The President’s Men). Another character in the movie is played by David Strathairn, someone I consider to be a character actor. He plays a blind hacker, innocent, slightly naive and charming. Compare and contrast to his roles in LA Confidential or Bourne (or House, for that matter).

    To me, HL crawls into the skin of House, wearing it like a leather glove.

  • Lizzie

    However much I agree with Barbara’s depiction of HL’s performance, to me, crawling into the skin of House is precisely why the Emmy may elude him again. My guess is that the voters, like a chunk of the fandom, are not looking for subtlety in performance but rather are evaluating said performance through their own satisfaction with the storyline and/or direction of the show. Is it the right way to judge performance? Obviously not, but unfortunately the great divide is out there for all to see – votes are not cast in a vacuum. That being said, I’m hoping to be proved wrong and that Hugh Laurie receives the Emmy he deserves.

  • Hi Lizzie,

    The performance awards are contextual and based on specific submitted episodes (which is a horrid way to do it, but there you have it.). HL is rumored to be planning “Broken” as his submission. It’s a great choice–it’s a double length episode, a fabulous script, brilliant performance, which never lets up in its intensity. The script has already won awards. So maybe this is the one 🙂

  • Meryl

    You made a powerful case for Hugh to win his long-deserved Emmy, Barbara. I’ve always preferred nuanced performances rather than the over-the-top kind that usually get the honors. Fingers AND toes crossed that he is the recipient this time! Someone posed the idea that if Hugh submits Broken for consideration, as expected, and the House cast wins for best ensemble, it would not directly be awarding the regular cast members because they weren’t in Broken (except RSL briefly). It’s an unusual circumstance because a different cast appeared in the Emmy-nominated episode. Would the cast of Broken technically be considered the winners? Any thoughts on that?

  • Hi Meryl,

    There is no “cast” award for the Emmys. There is for the SAG awards. There is “Best Drama,” which is an award to the show’s producers (which includes all the writers–they are all producers, some of the directors and Hugh, who is an executive producer at since season five).

    Both Braugher and Lin Manuel Miranda can get guest actor nominations. I believe both of them, James Earl Jones and David Strathairn all submitted for that award.

    So here’s hopin for Thursday.

  • Melissa

    Very interesting that there was no dialogue scripted for the opening scenes of Broken. Did you realise that the first words in Broken were “Help me” — the name of the final episode of the season? I wasn’t sure if it was coincidence or one of those marvellously subtle pieces of sculpting that we often get from House.

  • onetruepurple
  • Celia

    David Shore created House but Hugh Laurie gave House his soul.

  • Flo

    I’m gonna be a buzzkill, I know, but even if Laurie gets is overdue Emmy, the show will remain unrecognized as it deserves.

    The Emmys are a joke. When you got the first results they gave you just the actors ones & yes the best show ones. As a script writer and director myself I’m offended. The actors would be absolutely NOTHING without the writers and the directors.

    The Emmys always go the the shows and the people which/who were promoted the best. the result have nothing to do with real talent anyway.

  • Iwa Iniki

    The Emmys are too political. The Academy Awards and Tony’s are also too political. Just look at the recent Tony winners. It IS a joke.

  • Rebecca (Aggelie)

    Thank you Barbara for this brilliant two part article on the amazing Hugh Laurie. Once more you have articulated so eloquently the thoughts of all his fans and delivered an in depth study of Hugh Laurie’s sterling performance. I particularly appreciated the emphasis you put on the subtlety in his acting, the psychological realism and the emotional authenticity. He is indeed a charismatic character actor, as you point out in your comment (#12)

    I believe we all agree that Hugh Laurie does not need the Emmy to validate his talent. He has won the admiration, respect and recognition of millions of viewers, fellow actors, critics and even academics & intellectuals worldwide.
    In fact, I’d go so far as to say that he has already cemented his place in television history and in the pantheon of great actors.
    Wining the Emmy would be rewarding -especially for all his fans- but it is not essential. Not to Hugh Laurie. But it is essential to the Emmy awards’ future prestige. It will appear as a serious faux pas, if the Emmy people fail to honor one of the greatest actors in the history of television.

    Consequently, I do not wish for Hugh Laurie to win an Emmy award. I wish for the Emmy awards to “win” Hugh Laurie.

  • Grace

    Rebecca,I was going to write something but now I don’t have to. YOU said everything I was feeling. IMHO Hugh Laurie deserves an award better than the Emmy, as he is better than almost any other Emmy winner I can think of. Do I want Hugh to win? Of course I do. Will it validate anything for us or Hugh?? Not a thing.

  • DebbieJ

    The nominations were announced today. Congratulations, Hugh Laurie! I’ve read that House, MD received a total of 3 nominations but I cannot find anywhere on the net what the other 2 nominations were for. (Not even on Emmys.com!) I’m assuming, or hoping, at least one of them is for writing and am hoping it was for Broken or Help Me.

    Does anyone know?

  • House received two technical category nominations: Sound editing for “Epic Fail” and Stunt coordination for “Brave Heart” in addition to Hugh’s nomination for Best Actor.

  • Celia

    Oy Vey. I’m really glad for Hugh but disappointed for LE, RSL and the writers.
    I wish Hugh would win just so we could hear how inclusive his acceptance speech would be.

  • DebbieJ

    I’m surprised that Russel and Garrett didn’t receive a writing nomination for either Broken or Help Me! 🙁

  • Anna from Italy

    Hugh has submitted “Broken”. Great choice for the Emmys, in my opinion.
    By the way, I have seen the whole episode submitted by Cranston (Full Measure):in no way can his interpretation compete with that given by Hugh in Broken, but obviously the Emmy jurors may think differently, otherwise how could we explain three Emmys for James Spader?

  • Tom

    Great article, Hugh Laurie is a very entertaining actor, but Bryan Cranston will 3-peat.

  • AreKay


    Thank you for your incredible ability to seemingly look into my heart, mind and soul and transform my thoughts and feelings into an article that I obviously didn’t write but says everything I want to say to the people who award the Emmys!

    PLEASE let 2010 FINALLY be Hugh’s year!!!

  • Thanks everyone–and AreKay. I appreciate your thoughts. Here’s to the Emmys!