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The Actor Factor

How would some recent Tony races have been different if men and women competed against each other? logo
Carol Channing
(Photo © Joseph Marzullo)
So I was re-watching the PBS series Broadway: The American Musical and I smiled when the identifying caption "Carol Channing: Actor" came up on the screen. Now, Channing is a number of wonderful things; she certainly is a Broadway star. But, really, if I had said to you, "Complete this sentence: Carol Channing is a...," what word would you use to fill the blank? How long would it have taken you to land on "actor"?

I don't mean to slur Channing's abilities. One could effectively argue that it was indeed her acting -- and certainly not her singing -- that won her a Tony for Hello, Dolly! in 1964. Ditto her Oscar nomination for Thoroughly Modern Millie a few years later. But I still think of Carol Channing as a personality and star before I think of her as an actress, let alone an "actor." To be fair, Channing may not even be responsible for "actor" being used to identify her in the PBS series. Maybe one of the powers-that-be who put the show together wanted to use that word. And I'm not really objecting to it -- though I do recall the sly smile on Maggie Smith's face during an interview when she referred to herself as an actress, then corrected herself and said, "Oh, 'actor' is the term we're supposed to say now, aren't we?"

In 1969, Tony Award nominee William Daniels demanded that his name be removed from the Best Featured Actor category -- under-the-title billing had put him there -- because he (rightly) felt that there was nothing "featured" about his role as John Adams. Someday, will some actress demand to be removed from the Best Actress or Best Featured Actress category because she feels that she should be in the Best Actor or Best Featured Actor category? (And why do I feel that Lea DeLaria will likely be the first to do this?) We've all had our hair cut at unisex salons and we've all been in restaurants where we've used unisex bathrooms, so will the day come when we see unisex acting categories?

One thing's for sure: CBS would be pretty happy about that, for it would mean four fewer presenters reading four or five fewer nominees in four fewer categories. There would be four fewer envelopes to open, and four fewer acceptance speeches, too. And when you think of it, every other category -- from director down to orchestrator -- is unisex. Why should the acting categories be split by gender? It seems to me that the use of the word "actor" in reference to women dates back about 15 years, so I've been thinking: What would have happened if the Tony Awards had changed to unisex categories back then? Here are my votes:

1990: Tyne Daly steamrolls over James Naughton more than Madame Rose ever stomped over Herbie. Meanwhile, Michael Jeter dances all over and wipes his feet on Randy Graff. Robert Morse rings Tru-er than Maggie Smith, but Margaret Tyzack makes lettuce out of Charles Durning.

1991: Jonathan Pryce causes Lea Salonga to wish that Equity had had its way and that someone else could have played the Engineer. Hinton Battle loses the battle to Daisy Eagan. Irene Worth may be Lost in Yonkers, but Nigel Hawthorne loses to her during the awards ceremony at the Minskoff. But what of Kevin Spacey and Mercedes Ruehl in that same play? Call me a wimp if you will, but the Tonys have had ties in the past, and I see another one here.

1992: Hollywood film power (Glenn Close) beats Hollywood TV power (Judd Hirsch). If you need any proof that Larry Fishburne would beat Brid Brennan, tell me right now what show she was in. Scott Waara gets stuck in Tonya Pinkins' jelly, but I wonder if Gregory Hines would have emerged victorious over then-very-hot Faith Prince? He would if the selection were made today, because we all miss Hines so very much -- and Prince's cartoon take on Adelaide hasn't weathered well.

Chita Rivera
(Photo © Joseph Marzullo)
1993: Now here's a race: Brent Carver and Chita Rivera. Much as Broadway loves Chita, she would have finished second, for Carver had the more demanding role. Anthony Crivello keeps this from being Andrea Martin's favorite year. Madeline Kahn is a weak sister compared to Ron Leibman's Roy Cohn. Stephen Spinella easily flies over Debra Monk.

1994: Speaking of Spinella, would he have won for a second year in a row, over Diana Rigg's Medea? I say yes. And, great as Jane Adams was, she would have sat in her seat as Jeffrey Wright's name was called. Donna Murphy's Fosca would never take no for an answer, so I can't imagine her taking a back seat to Boyd Gaines. And Audra Ann (remember that middle name?) McDonald would have caroused around Jarrod Emick.

1995: Now, here's a toughie. Cherry Jones in The Heiress or Ralph Fiennes in the greatest role of all time, Hamlet? In my mind's eye -- though this be madness, there is method in it -- I'd say Jones, simply because Tony voters had seen more Hamlets than Heiresses. George Hearn's Max is no doormat to Show Boat's Grethe Boston. Glenn Close is ready for her close-up as photographers snap her and not Matthew Broderick. And Frances Sternhagen had already won for The Good Doctor, so they give it to John Glover.

1996: Nathan Lane Tonight, not Donna Murphy. Wilson Jermaine Heredia beats Ann Duquesnay as Best Featured Actor, even though he's playing a drag queen. Audra McDonald out-classes Ruben Santiago Hudson and, in what may be the easiest choice of all, Zoe Caldwell masters George Grizzard.

1997: For once, the lady of the evening beats the pimp as Lillias White bests Chuck Cooper. In fact, it's an all-female victory night, with Lynne Thigpen over Owen Teale, Janet McTeer over Christopher Plummer, and -- need I add -- Bebe Neuwirth over James Naughton.

1998: Natasha Richardson was arguably the best Sally Bowles I ever saw, but maybe this time -- no, undoubtedly this time -- she'd lose to Alan Cumming for his revolutionary take on the Emcee. Ron Rifkin in Cabaret vs. Audra McDonald in Ragtime is a close call, but Audra wins again. It's a great day for the Irish, too, as Marie Mullen and Anna Manahan emerge beautifully and queenly over Anthony LaPaglia and Tom Murphy.

1999: Frank Wood moves to the side for Elizabeth Franz. Former castmates Martin Short and Bernadette Peters are now adversaries, and Peters comes up short. Judi Dench was white-hot that year but she can't make a sale when pitted against Brian Dennehy. And though you're a good man, Roger Bart, Kristin Chenoweth is winning and spinning her Tony.

2000: Toughest contest is Brian Stokes Mitchell vs. Heather Headley; maybe this is a tie, too. Roy Dotrice beats Blair Brown by a whisker. Karen Ziemba does indeed move when her name is called and Boyd Gaines' is not. And does anyone remember Jennifer Ehle and Stephen Dillane (Quick! Which show?) enough to choose a winner?

2001: Good year for musical men: Nathan Lane produces a win over Christine Ebersole, while Gary Beach blitzes Cady Huffman. Good year for dramatic women, too: Mary-Louise Parker proves her worth against Richard Easton, and Viola Davis reigns over Robert Sean Leonard.

2002: Alan Bates and Frank Langella respectively have good fortune against Lindsay Duncan and Katie Finneran. Sutton Foster thoroughly huMillie-ates John Lithgow, but Harriet Harris is thoroughly defeated by Shuler Hensley.

Vanessa Redgrave
(Photo © Joseph Marzullo)
2003: Wow! The Tyrone family had lots of dissension, but here's more as James Sr. (Brian Dennehy) is pitted against Mary (Vanessa Redgrave). Terribly tough call, but you'd have to be more drugged out than Mary not to give it to Redgrave. Jane Krakowski swings past Dick Latessa, while Denis O'Hare shuts out Michele Pawk. Marissa Jaret Winokur can't stop the beating she gets from Harvey Fierstein.

2004: Audra McDonald gets frozen out by Brían F. O'Byrne. Jefferson Mays doesn't allow Phylicia Rashad any upward mobility. Michael Cerveris shoots down Anika Noni Rose and, in the most heartbreaking contest of all, Idina Menzel loses to Hugh Jackman. This contest alone is Exhibit A as to why we should always have separate Best Actor and Best Actress categories; both of these performers just had to take home a prize!

When all is said and done, don't look for unisex Tony categories to happen any time soon. After all, this would diminish the total number of awards that a show could take home. The Producers, which trumpets its even dozen victories in every ad, wouldn't want to say that it had won only 11 Tony Awards, would it? The show is having enough trouble selling tickets as it is!


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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