What’s next? An award for not appearing in something at all?

Emmys Burstyn with Controversy
Judi Dench won an Oscar for appearing in no more than 10 minutes’ worth of Shakespeare in Love. But for sheer efficiency, nobody beats Ellen Burstyn–up for an Emmy for no more than 15 seconds in HBO’s Mrs. Harris.
While Dench’s nomination, if not the win, stirred some debate, Burstyn’s has stirred something more. A Broadcasting & Cable blog called the Burstyn nod “the least deserving nomination from any awards group. Ever.”
“It’s an outrage,” said Emmy expert Tom O’Neil, a columnist for
The black eye comes as the Emmys is defending new voting procedures that some blamed for defending Drama Series champ Lost being shut out of this year’s race, among other arguable slights.
“I believe the Emmy nominations really represent the best works that were submitted…for last season,” Television Academy chairman and CEO Dick Askin told TV reporters last month.
In light of the Burstyn nod, which flew under the radar for about three weeks before a message-board user on O’Neil’s awards-show blog pointed out the time issue, does Askin still think the nominations represent “the best works?”
TV Academy spokeswoman Pam Golum said the nomination, “based on the popular vote,” is considered “a legitimate nomination.” She did not elaborate beyond the statement, which further noted that “a minimum requirement of participation for eligibility” could be considered for next year if those who vote on the acting awards (actors, directors and casting directors) want such a rule considered.
As the Burstyn nomination suggests, the Emmys currently does not restrict who can or cannot be nominated based on screen time. Neither does the Academy Awards.
Burstyn, a one-time Oscar winner, captured her third career Emmy nomination for Mrs. Harris, a docudrama about the infamous 1980 slaying of diet-guru Dr. Herman Tarnower at the hands of his lover, Jean Harris. (Burstyn’s second career Emmy nomination, by the way, was for The People vs. Jean Harris, a 1981 docudrama biopic about the same case.)
In the movie, Burstyn appears, ever-so briefly, as an unnamed “Tarnower Former ‘Steady.'” (In the earlier Harris movie, she played Jean Harris.) She speaks with a European accent, smokes a cigarette, and gets off a line about Tarnower being a fan of the Cleopatra soundtrack in one of two snippets lasting no more than a combined 15 seconds.
“I’m sure this sets a new record for brevity–it must,” O’Neil said of the resulting nomination.
Burstyn does not distinguish the stopwatch-performance by crying, yelling or raising her voice. She is not seen in closeup. She figures most prominently in the opening credits, where she receives third billing behind Annette Bening, as Harris, and Ben Kingsley, as Tarnower.
Bening and Kingsley both received Emmy nominations for their roles.
Burstyn’s competition in the Supporting Actress, Miniseries or a Movie category includes Mrs. Harris costar Cloris Leachman, who plays Tarnower’s sister, gets a closeup and appears in more than one scene.
According to the TV Academy, the five supporting actress nominees were culled from 41 submitted names. Burstyn’s name was submitted not by Burstyn, but by HBO, a source said.
Starting this year, Emmy nominees in some top categories, such as Outstanding Drama and Comedy series, were selected by a committee, rather than a vote of the larger Academy membership. But, O’Neil pointed out, Emmy nominees in Burstyn’s category were selected the old-fashioned way, by popular, not committee, vote.
“This is exactly what the TV Academy is trying to change,” said O’Neil.
Long before the Burstyn nod became an issue, it was open season on the new Emmy rules.
ABC Entertainment president Stephen McPherson, who saw his network’s big shows, Lost and Desperate Housewives, left out of the big races, called the Emmy nominations “odd,” and called for the TV Academy to go back to the “old system.”
But O’Neil argued that going back to the old system would result in more, not fewer, Burstyn-style nominations.
“Voters see a name like Ellen Burstyn on the [general] ballot, and go, ‘Oh, she’s cool,’ ” O’Neil said.
O’Neil argued that shows such as Lost didn’t bag major nominations because of what he called “a catastrophic outbreak of Susan Lucci disease.” Translation: Just like in the bad old days when Lucci was a perennial Daytime Emmys loser, O’Neil believes several shows and their stars submitted lousy examples of their work, thus sabotaging their chances.
Whatever happened, McPherson’s network is not happy. Come Emmy night, Aug. 27, ABC will present the broadcast TV premiere of 2003’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, considered an aggressive counterprogramming move to the award show, airing on NBC.
If the Emmys didn’t have enough to contend with, there’s also the matter of the calendar. Because NBC is airing NFL football on Sunday nights this fall, it’s moved up the Emmys, traditionally a Sunday night show, to late summer to avoid a scheduling conflict.
“It might be a little bit of a ratings challenge,” Emmy host Conan O’Brien has joked of the unusual airdate. “It’s late August. I think most people are on an inflatable raft.”