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?