Pete Hammond

There is probably no group of Emmy categories that has been more battered and bruised over the years than those of movies and miniseries. In addition to being combined into a single category in 2011, movies and miniseries almost lost their separate supporting categories earlier this year, but the TV Academy jettisoned the rule change before it ever went into effect. And some anti-movie/mini TV Academy execs have even proposed eliminating movie/minis from the Primetime Emmy telecast, creating a separate show that could be sold to HBO or another cable channel with a vested interest in the format. Nevertheless, the movie/mini category has seen both ratings and production increase in the last two years, which is fortunate for one simple reason: Movies and minis give the Emmy show true star power. Past winners include prestigious performers like Meryl Streep, Al Pacino, Jessica Lange and, last year, Kevin Costner and Julianne Moore. Plus, the contenders change every year, as opposed to regular programming categories like comedy and drama, which often honor the same shows and performers year after year. So now that movies and minis are back in full force, who are the likely frontrunners to triumph this year?

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Leading the parade again will likely be HBO, particularly with its Cannes Film Festival competition player, Behind The Candelabra, the story of superstar entertainer Liberace and his efforts to hide a relationship with his young lover Scott Thorson. Oscar winners Michael Douglas, sensational as Liberace, and Matt Damon, as Thorson, deliver brave and daring performances. Throw in Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh, screenwriter Richard LaGravenese and producer Jerry Weintraub, and you have the recipe for awards success. With the supporting categories restored, there also could be a place for Dan Aykroyd, Rob Lowe or Debbie Reynolds, who has a strong two-scene cameo as the great entertainer’s Polish mother. The prestige of the Cannes element might help HBO pull off a sweep.

Other HBO movies competing in the category don’t quite have the same cachet, despite equal star power. Phil Spector, which stars Al Pacino as the beleaguered music legend accused of murder, just didn’t draw strong reviews or ratings and is wildly uneven. Pacino will likely nail a nomination because he’s Pacino. Helen Mirren, who plays his defense attorney, also looks likely, with Jeffrey Tambor (who steals the film) a possibility in supporting. The Girl—which presents Alfred Hitchcock as a bit of a pervert in his pursuit of Tippi Hedren (played by Sienna Miller) during the filming of the 1963 classic The Birds and 1964’s Marnie—might have a shot thanks to some fine acting, particularly from Toby Jones as Hitch. However, fans of the legendary director might have a hard time accepting the movie as anything other than a hit job on a man unable to defend himself. Further down on HBO’s list is the heartwarming Hilary Swank-Brenda Blethyn drama, Mary And Martha, which could score noms for one or both of them.

Among the miniseries contenders, Parade’s End, cowritten by Tom Stoppard, will likely earn a lead actor nom for Benedict Cumberbatch, who is very hot right now. But that one is a bit of a long shot. The most likely mini to gain Emmy traction this year is Sundance Channel’s Top Of The Lake, a murder mystery that represents a reunion of star Holly Hunter and writer-director Jane Campion, who both won Oscars for The Piano. Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss, way overdue for a win much like other actors in that series, could have a shot in this one, too. Like Candelabra, the miniseries used the prestige of Cannes as a showcase for the project because Campion (like Soderbergh) was a former Palme d’Or winner.

In terms of other minis, History is mounting a giant campaign for The Bible, a 10-hour epic from producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey. While critics weren’t exactly doing cartwheels, the numbers don’t lie, which could help this miniseries’ chances. However, this one is a decidedly longer shot than last year’s History behemoth, Hatfields & McCoys, which ended up winning five statuettes including best actor for Kevin Costner and a supporting statuette for Tom Berenger.

Then, of course, there is FX’s series, American Horror Story, which stirred up controversy last year when it entered as a miniseries, even though it had a pilot and was a regular series on the cable network. Exec producer Ryan Murphy successfully argued that because it was designed as an evolving series, in which the cast plays different roles each season, it really wasn’t fair to include it with the likes of Mad Men or Homeland. There was less competition in the movie/mini area, and American Horror Story picked up 17 nominations in its inaugural season (something it would not have done in drama). It’s a feat the next installment, American Horror Story: Asylum, hopes to repeat this year with last year’s supporting victor Jessica Lange moving up to compete as a lead this time.

Lifetime has a host of potential contenders including the Steel Magnolias remake, whose fine ensemble cast features Queen Latifah and Alfre Woodard; Betty And Coretta, with Angela Bassett and Mary J. Blige; Emmy favorite Jean Smart in Call Me Crazy; and the June Carter Cash biopic Ring Of Fire, which stars Jewel as Cash. The big question for Ring Of Fire is whether Jewel can do at the Emmys what Reese Witherspoon did at the Oscars in playing the Man in Black’s wife.

Kenneth Branagh reprises his much honored Wallander from PBS, while Laura Linney is a contender for the final four-part installment of the canceled Showtime series The Big C: Hereafter (she competed in the comedy series category previously).

One movie that’s unlikely to occupy a nomination slot in any movie/mini category (other than makeup and hairstyling) is the dreadful Lifetime biopic Liz & Dick, which was a ratings winner but a critically lambasted Lindsay Lohan comeback vehicle.

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