In The First Wives Club, the movie star played by Goldie Hawn bitterly describes the ages of women in Hollywood as “babe, district attorney, and Driving Miss Daisy.” She neglected a fourth: TV-series star. The coming season, however, will see a number of feature-film actresses in their prime arriving on the small screen. Which raises the question: Why—or at least, why now?
Television has always funneled stars into the movies, from Clint Eastwood, Bruce Willis, and John Travolta to the Friends cast and Saturday Night Live’s plentiful alumni. However, the door hasn’t readily swung the other way—the fear being that a movie actor would be committing career suicide by turning up on TV. HBO helped soften that divide with programming that appealed to an elevated niche. IT’S NOT TV. IT’S HBO, went the premium channel’s slogan.
Meanwhile, movies underwent their own fundamental shift. Films such as Jaws, Star Wars, and E.T. ushered in the age of the blockbuster. As a consequence, an entire class of midsize, character-driven movies fell out of favor, and with them more nuanced roles. “I’ve done all sorts of films, but those I’ve gotten the most notice for are independents, where the women are more fully fleshed out, which really doesn’t happen with the big blockbusters, I’m sorry to say,” says Maria Bello, the Golden Globe nominee for A History of Violence, who this fall will headline NBC’s Prime Suspect, an adaptation of the famous British miniseries that starred Helen Mirren.
Television can be not only more creatively rewarding, offering the opportunity to develop a character over time, but also an exercise in financial pragmatism: Lead actors in a network show can earn upwards of $100,000 an episode in the first season, and much more if the show is a hit. (Before his excesses made him radioactive, Charlie Sheen—nursing a then moribund film career—parlayed his CBS sitcom into nearly a $2 million-an-episode gold mine.) And today success in TV can heighten recognition in ways that render an actor more marketable, not less.
Although the distinction between the two mediums is undoubtedly narrowing, for now, movies remain at the top of the Hollywood hierarchy. (Never mind that more people will eventually view the average film on TV—or a computer—than in a darkened theater.) Asked about TV’s second-class status, sitcom writer Charlie Hauck once quipped: “Movies are bigger. They win.” These days, though, it seems that bigger isn’t always better.