Gold Derby Emmy MVP: Julianne Nicholson was unsung hero of ‘Masters of Sex’

Allison Janney is a likely – and deserving – contender for Best Drama Guest Actress for playing a woman only just discovering her sexuality on Showtime’s “Masters of Sex,” but as good as she was, I hope she doesn’t overshadow Julianne Nicholson, who had an equally impactful arc as a doctor pushing against the glass ceiling of the 1950s medical establishment.

Listen in on ‘Masters of Sex’ stars’ intimate chat with Emmy voters

I first noticed Nicholson in the little-seen fantasy series “The Others” in 2000, and since then she’s become the kind of actor who makes a project more interesting just by being in it, from “Ally McBeal” to “Boardwalk Empire” and, most recently, “August: Osage County.”

She gave my favorite performance in “August,” playing Ivy, arguably the most level-headed of the Weston clan and thus lacking the kinds of flamboyant theatrics that earned Oscar nominations for Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts. But as the calm in the family storm – or sometimes more like a ship capsized by that storm – she gave the performance to which we can most relate and was our emotional entry point for the rest of the story.

She is similarly subtle in “Masters.” When we first meet her as Dr. Lillian DePaul, we perceive her much the way her aspiring protege Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) does: cold, exacting, and unapproachable. But every successive scene and episode adds layers of depth to the character, and Nicholson shows us how the chip on DePaul’s shoulder has built up from years of frustration; she is frequently dismissed in her pursuit of women’s health, a field ironically dominated by men.

In her best episode of the season, “Phallic Victories,” Dr. DePaul travels with Johnson to a medical convention to give a presentation on Pap smears and later reveals that she is dying of cervical cancer – which was discovered by that very test. All of a sudden her entire character crystallizes, and we understand what is at the heart of her resentment: her male colleagues have little interest in the lady business she’s promoting, so they ignore the disease that’s killing her and shrug off the test that could have saved her life.

Because we see Dr. DePaul mostly through Johnson’s point of view, we develop empathy for her gradually, and it’s a credit to Nicholson, the writers, and the directors that after the revelation of her disease we’re able to look back on the character with a newfound clarity; all of her scenes had been informed by that secret, and only at that moment did we realize it.

‘Masters of Sex’ exclusive video interviews:
Michael Sheen, Lizzy Caplan, and Allison Janney

Michael Sheen is ostensibly the star of “Masters of Sex,” but throughout the first season the series was built around the experiences of women in a pre-feminist era – in the household, the bedroom, the workplace – and how it was men who exerted control in every arena. Caplan and Janney have been justly praised for exploring this perspective, but Nicholson contributed just as meaningfully to the theme, and she deserves at least a nomination for Best Drama Guest Actress.

Can this Gold Derby Emmy MVP pull it off? Here is what’s working for and against her:

PROS:

She plays a prominent role in a high profile drama that could be a strong contender in multiple categories, so Emmy voters will likely be watching it.

Holding her own in “August: Osage County” alongside A-listers increased her profile, and we’ve seen before how well-timed theatrical success can help actors win Emmys (Katherine Heigl in “Grey’s Anatomy,” Melissa McCarthy in “Mike and Molly“).

She has an extensive resume of TV credits, including “ER,” “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” and “The Good Wife“; other lesser known actors have pulled off upsets after putting in years of unheralded work (Christian Clemenson in “Boston Legal,” Dan Bucatinsky in “Scandal“).

CONS:

Janney’s role is showier, and the four-time Emmy-winner has greater name recognition, which is often the key to standing out for guest stars. There may not be enough room in the category for both of them.

Guest acting categories at the Emmys are a crapshoot at best. Sometimes presumed frontrunners are snubbed (like Shirley MacLaine in “Downton Abbey“), while other actors are recognized for less than a minute of screentime (Margaret Cho in “30 Rock“). Take nothing for granted.

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Do you think Nicholson deserves a nomination? Make your Drama Guest Actress predictions below:

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