Oscar spotlight: Jim Parsons’s visceral ‘Boys in the Band’ performance makes him the latest sitcom star to get serious

Who would’ve thought that the artist formerly known as Sheldon Cooper would be so good at being mean. Jim Parsons earned an Emmy nomination this past summer for his role as a predatory talent agent in “Hollywood,” and in “The Boys in the Band,” adapted from Mart Crowley‘s stage play, he cruelly lashes out at his friends while hosting a party that goes awry. It’s a performance worthy of Oscar consideration, but he wouldn’t be the first sitcom star to gain recognition from the motion picture academy.

Though Parsons is best known for his four-time Emmy-winning role as Sheldon in “The Big Bang Theory,” this isn’t his first foray into drama, and it wouldn’t be his first recognition for it either. Before his dark turn earlier this year in “Hollywood,” he appeared on Broadway in “The Normal Heart” (2011) and reprised his role in the 2014 HBO adaptation, which earned him another Emmy nomination. He also played a racist NASA engineer in the Oscar-nominated “Hidden Figures” (2016) and co-starred with Claire Danes in the family drama “A Kid Like Jake” (2018).

2018 was also when he appeared on Broadway again in “The Boys in the Band,” which won the Tony for Best Revival of a Play. The film, directed by stage vet Joe Mantello, reunites the entire cast of that production, which also includes Matt Bomer, Zachary Quinto, Tony nominee Robin De Jesus and Andrew Rannells. Parsons plays Michael, who is insecure about his age and finances when we first meet him, but when the birthday party he’s throwing for his frenemy Harold (Quinto) starts to spin out of his control, Michael spins out of control himself.

Unlike his “Hollywood” character, whose cruelty was deliberate, Michael is more of a wounded animal, scarred by internalized feelings of shame and resentment, which he redirects against those closest to him. He burns his bridges with drunken relish (“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” but make it gay), but Parsons’s performance is more about tragedy than villainy. The play premiered in 1968, when society was even more hostile to openly gay men than it is now, and Michael is a product of those traumas.

Parsons and his co-stars also create a bridge between 1968 and 2020. It wasn’t so long ago that being openly gay in Hollywood could cost you your career, but this entire cast is out, proud and successful. The industry today is by no means perfect, but Parsons playing Michael with such empathy is like reaching a hand back through time to say, “It gets better.”

But might the motion picture academy scoff at a TV star? Tell that to Mary Tyler Moore, who went from her own Emmy-winning sitcom to an Oscar nomination for Best Actress for the family drama “Ordinary People” (1980). Helen Hunt won four Emmys for “Mad About You,” just like Parsons did for “Big Bang,” and she won the Best Actress Oscar for the seriocomic romance “As Good as It Gets” (1997). And Steve Carell went from “The Office” to an Oscar nomination as a sinister millionaire in “Foxcatcher” (2014).

Other actors have made the sitcom-to-Oscar move over the years, including Sally Field (Oscar winner for “Norma Rae” and “Places in the Heart”), Woody Harrelson (Oscar nominee for “The People vs. Larry Flynt,” “The Messenger” and “Three Billboards”), Will Smith (Oscar nominee for “Ali” and “The Pursuit of Happyness”), Jamie Foxx (Oscar winner for “Ray”) and Melissa McCarthy (Oscar nominee for “Bridesmaids” and “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”), to name a few.

And for that matter, the boundaries between TV and film have been collapsing of late; “The Boys in the Band,” after all, streams on Netflix and can be watched from home, as many of us have been doing since the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered movie theaters across the country. But Parsons would merit consideration no matter what screen you see him on.

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