Dear Emmy Awards People:
I know that the nominations will not be announced for another three weeks, but the buzz has already begun. And I thought it was my duty to weigh in on one of Emmy's most egregious oversights in recent years.
So. Listen up! This is the year Hugh Laurie must finally get his due from you guys. House, M.D. is starting its seventh season, and although Mr. Laurie has been nominated in four of its five years thus far (boo, hiss for really missing that second season!), he has yet to receive one of those golden statuettes. This is the year. Really. Seriously. The. Year.
You may reasonably ask, why this year? My answer is simple: it should have been all the years (or at least one or two of them, by now). And being as he has not yet won one, this, therefore, must be the year. And what a year! "Broken," is one of the best performances ever seen in a television drama series.
I do not mean to say that the winners in the years 2005 to 2009 were undeserving. They are all fine actors, deserving of praise and awards. They had big episodes and notable scenes. And they emoted the hell out of them. But back to Mr. Laurie.
Hugh Laurie becomes Dr. Gregory House. And for the 44-ish minutes we see him during an episode, he seems so naturally House: disabled, misanthropic, genius American doctor, that it’s hard to believe it’s acting. Laurie is none of those things (except maybe the genius part). The transformation is complete and it’s actually jarring to see Hugh Laurie, actor, being interviewed as himself. He is, even physically, completely unlike the character he plays. But he's so convincing at House, it's hard to imagine that Hugh Laurie and Dr. Gregory House are not the same person.
Perhaps you are confused when Laurie suggests he “simply try to read it out and not screw it up,” as he has said so often. He is not telling the truth, because—as we all know—everyone lies. Well, maybe lie is a bit extreme. Let’s just say, he’s being incredibly modest, as he has been known to be.
Laurie’s performance is uniformly layered and revelatory. His character is guarded, nothing he says can ever be taken at face value. His is the language of deflection. So much so, that Laurie’s acting is the only thing that can sometimes guide us through to the heart of Gregory House. He says something: a throwaway line, a biting remark, a rationally cold assertion. In another actor’s hands they are words, and taken for what they are, they paint a picture of an unsympathetic jerk. Spoken by Laurie, infused with the grace of his performance, they tell you something else entirely.
Film historian Patricia Eliot Tobias, president of The International Buster Keaton Society notes a similarity between Laurie and the legendary silent film star Buster Keaton. Like Keaton “Hugh Laurie has enormous expressive eyes that convey more than what appears on the surface. Both have the unusual ability to underplay, allowing us to see an underlying sadness using very little facial expression. Like Keaton, Laurie tells us more with just the flick of an eyelash than lesser actors do with their entire faces. Perhaps because their acting is minimalist, they don't always get the credit they deserve for their talent. And yet, it takes a truly great actor to be funny one minute, tragic the next, physically and facially over-the-top when needed and barely moving the next, but always letting us know what he's thinking and feeling.”
Go back and take a look at the episodes you may have overlooked; unforgettable performances that mean the difference between unremitting bastard and tarnished knight. If he veers too much to one or the other, the character is either too unsympathetic or too endearing. Laurie is a high wire performer with this character; he knows the line, treading it with daring, courage and grace.
He’s great in every episode, and in six seasons he is yet to phone in a performance. I asked my readers which episodes and scenes they would call to the attention of Emmy voters, in case you have yet to pick up on the extreme beauty of his craft—unlike the Golden Globe people and his peers—awarding him with two screen actors guild awards. There are too numerous to mention individually, but in general all agreed that the power of Laurie’s performance is in the moments when he lets down his guard, sometimes only for moments, and he allows us to see behind the eyes to the storm of emotion lying behind them. And his unique ability to make you laugh and weep, like a classic tragic clown, sometimes in the same scene.
I always come back to the first scene I noticed the brilliance of Laurie’s acting. Yes, I had always thought he was brilliant, from the start. But it was “DNR” (1.09) when it really hit me, and when I happened upon a shooting script of the episode it dawned on me just how much Laurie accomplishes on screen with whatever dialogue he’s given. Or not given (because some of his most memorable acting comes from scenes without any dialogue at all; it’s just Laurie and the camera).
House shooting scripts are not vociferous on notes. I’ve read a dozen or more scripts (not transcripts, but the actual shooting scripts). They seldom give much direction—to Hugh or the other actors, trusting that the performances will arise naturally from the words on the page. And they do.
House had wanted in on this case because he is a admirer of his patient’s (jazz trumpeter John Henry Giles) music. Seeking an alternate explanation for his condition than “ALS,” House isn’t trying to solve the puzzle of the diagnosis because of a whim or (again, as Wilson says) a “Rubik’s complex.” Despite his words; despite what Wilson suggests, there is no doubt when House confronts Marty Hamilton (Giles’ physician) that House’s passion arises from something more profound. House is trying to find an alternative because without one Giles is condemned to death. And we viewers know that not because of House says, but what’s in his eyes and body language.
There is a scene in which House and his best friend Wilson watch from the hallway as Giles’ doctor “pulls the plug.” It’s over and Giles’ is resigned to die. By this time, no one but House believes Giles’ condition is something curable. He is clinging to a false hope, although no one really sees it that way; his colleagues believe he simply wants to create a medical mystery where none exists. Again, we only know this through Laurie’s haunted expression, which we can observe through his tightly controlled guard.
As Foreman, Hamilton, Cora (Giles’ manager and close friend), Wilson and House all look on as the life support machinery is halted; only House cannot stand to watch. He turns his face, unable to witness what he may think of as murder—and at the very least an unnecessary death. It’s a fleeting moment, a subtle motion of the head and it says volumes about what House is really feeling. Mr. I-don’t-feel anything is the ONLY one incapable of accepting this death and cannot watch. Read the dialogue and you get none of that. Watch the performance and you can’t miss it.
There are such moments in every season. And you would be right if you suggest that moments alone do not make an Emmy winning performance. But with Laurie, it’s not just the moments. It’s the portrait he paints of this incredibly complex character.
In “Maternity” (1.04), there is a scene in which House must make a life or death decision about a therapeutic trial he’s about to do. He knows by making a treatment choice, he’s effectively condemning one of six patients (newborn babies) to death. Just having left an argument with Cuddy during which his attitude towards the babies and the test is cavalier—even arrogant, he’s told her, and the hospital lawyer that he’s going to “flip a coin” to decide who lives or dies. Now he now sits at his desk looking at the coin.
There is nothing in the shooting script to indicate how House feels about it—just that he flips the coin. But unlike Cuddy—and the lawyer—the audience cannot be mistaken about the turmoil going on in House’s mind as he sits there with the coin. The gravity of the situation and what he’s about to do is clear in his body language and grim expression. This is not a cavalier decision made with no sense of feeling. It’s a decision, necessary to save the lives of five other babies.
We understand and sympathize with House. But only because of the performance Hugh brings to it—the pathos with which he imbues this outwardly unlikeable character. At this stage of the series—early in season one—the tone is so incredibly important. So would another actor have just tossed the coin? I think yes. And that’s why Hugh Laurie is so essential to the role. Without his sensitive and sometimes very raw portrayal, House is an unmitigated bastard: cold, callous, misanthropic—a jerk whose extreme objectivity and rationality refuse to be tempered by feeling.
But it’s not just those quiet, between-the-lines moments. One need only watch “Three Stories” (1.21) to appreciate the mastery of Laurie’s performance as he weaves together three medical cases to tell his own story. It’s a lecture, and indeed, all he’s doing is essentially “reading out” the writer’s lines. But then there’s the scene when he talks about the impact of decisions made about his leg years earlier. And the full weight of all he’s been saying during the lecture crushes him with the truth.
The impact of House’s words hit his colleagues and students, and the impact of Laurie’s precise delivery make us understand everything he’s been through and how he got to the place he’s in. Again, the dialogue gives us nothing. But the performance gives us House’s resignation, and the years of weariness that weigh upon him.
House is not a big, dramatic action show. It is, at its core a character study, and its brilliance lies in the slow reveals and small moments, not big courtroom scenes; not lengthy speeches; not death-bed missives. And maybe that’s the problem, and why Hugh has not yet won an Emmy. (I’m not letting you off the hook, Emmy people, simply trying to comprehend the incomprehensible.)
So, if I’ve piqued your interest, please stay tuned for part two of this little mini-series: “100 Reasons Why Hugh Laurie Must Win Emmy This Year.” It’s a look back at the most momentous moments from Laurie’s six years of playing House. Watch for it in this space later this week.