Colin Firth (‘The Staircase’): Portraying real-life people is way to win awards

Since his breakthrough performance as Mr. Darcy on the 1995 BBC miniseries “Pride and Prejudice,” Colin Firth has made stiff romantic characters his specialty, even going so far as to embody the Austenesque Mark Darcy in the Bridget Jones film trilogy. He has, however, also demonstrated plenty of range over the last quarter century, and his newest role is perhaps his most demanding yet. The 61-year-old’s distinctively dark portrayal of convicted wife killer Michael Peterson on the HBO Max limited series “The Staircase” could earn him his first Emmy, which would nicely complement the Oscar already in his awards collection.

Firth won the favor of the film academy 11 years ago for starring as King George VI in “The King’s Speech.” This was his second consecutive try for a Best Actor Oscar, as he was first recognized for 2009’s “A Single Man.” His first and only Emmy nomination to date came significantly earlier for his work in the 2001 TV movie “Conspiracy.” He ultimately lost that supporting race to Brian Cox (“Nuremberg”).

“The Staircase” marks Firth’s return to television after 15 years and stands as one of only four limited series on his resume. If he does end up taking home this year’s Best TV Movie/Limited Series Actor prize, he will add his name to a list of 10 other Best Actor Oscar champs who subsequently triumphed in said Emmy category. This exclusive club was established in 1960 by Firth’s “Lost Empires” costar Laurence Olivier, who was honored for the TV movie “The Moon and Sixpence” 11 years after winning his only competitive Oscar for “Hamlet.” He then went on to bag three more lead Emmys for “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” (1973), “Love Among the Ruins” (1975), and “King Lear” (1984).

Olivier was followed by Paul Scofield, who won at the 1969 Emmys for “Male of the Species” after receiving an Oscar for 1966’s “A Man for All Seasons.” Next was George C. Scott, whose TV victory for “The Price” came less than four weeks after his Oscar win for 1970’s “Patton.” They were then joined by William Holden (Emmy: 1974’s “The Blue Knight”; Oscar: 1953’s “Stalag 17”) and Dustin Hoffman (1986’s “Death of a Salesman”; 1979’s “Kramer vs. Kramer”).

The one who waited the longest between Oscar and Emmy wins was Jack Lemmon, who, 26 years after snagging the lead film trophy for “Save the Tiger,” prevailed on his fifth and final TV outing as the star of “Tuesdays with Morrie” (2000). Al Pacino then followed his long-awaited Oscar win for 1992’s “Scent of a Woman” with two Emmy victories for “Angels in America” (2004) and “You Don’t Know Jack” (2010). Between Pacino’s pair of TV triumphs came Geoffrey Rush (2005’s “The Life and Death of Peter Sellers”; 1996’s “Shine”) and Robert Duvall (2007’s “Broken Trail”; 1983’s “Tender Mercies”), followed by most recent entrant Michael Douglas (2013’s “Behind the Candelabra”; 1987’s “Wall Street”).

According to Gold Derby’s odds, Firth currently has the fifth best shot at winning the 2022 Best TV Movie/Limited Series Actor Emmy. Michael Keaton (“Dopesick”) is at the top of the heap, while Andrew Garfield (“Under the Banner of Heaven”), Ben Foster (“The Survivor”) and Oscar Isaac (“Scenes from a Marriage”) make up the rest of the top four.

The mounting critical consensus that this role is unlike any Firth has ever played could easily give him a boost as this Emmys season progresses. Peter Travers of ABC News raves that the “electrifying” actor plays Peterson with “a nuanced intensity that burns through the screen,” while The Boston Globe’s Matthew Gilbert praises him for providing viewers with “a faceted portrayal that transcends whether or not Peterson is a liar.” Those sentiments, along with Brian Lowry of CNN’s notion that Firth’s “riveting work” raises the series “several steps above standard true-crime fare,” convey the collective positive reaction to the always-dependable actor’s compelling new display of versatility.

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