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'Justified' star Margo Martindale: Emmy front-runner for best supporting drama actress

July 18, 2011 |  3:00 pm

Check out the Emmy predictions over at Gold Derby in the race for supporting drama actress and you'll spot something amazing. Little-known actress Margo Martindale ("Justified") is favored by both the site's editors and users to beat such notables as Christine Baranski ("The Good Wife"), Christina Hendriks ("Mad Men") and last year's champ Archie Panjabi ("The Good Wife").

Margo martindale justified TV newsIt's all because of Emmy's two-stage voting system. The first tier is a popular vote to determine the nominees, at which point the quality of the performances is only one of many factors influencing voters. Members of the TV Academy vote for their peer groups – directors vote for directors, writers for writers, and so on – and actors, presented with long lists of eligible candidates in each category, often check off the names of well-known, well-respected actors regardless of their performances. Consider the now infamous case in which Oscar-winner Ellen Burstyn was nominated for best supporting actress in a miniseries or movie for "Mrs. Harris" in 2006 even though she appeared on screen for only a few minutes.

Margo Martindale doesn't have the strong name recognition of a star like Burstyn, so it's impressive that she was able to nab a nomination. She's a veteran character actress who has played supporting roles in movies and television for more than 20 years, and despite appearances in films like "Million Dollar Baby," "Dead Man Walking," and "The Hours," she's not a household name. Her performance on "Justified" during its freshman series wowed TV critics, but Emmy voters didn't seem to be watching the series, which received just one nomination for its first season last year: best main title theme music (losing to "Nurse Jackie"). As this year's Emmy derby approached, award watchers wondered: Would voters single her out against more famous names like Sharon Gless ("Burn Notice"), Debra Winger ("In Treatment"), and Lorraine Bracco ("Rizzoli & Isles")? She recently won best supporting actress at the Critics Choice TV Awards and was nominated for a TV Critics Assn. Award, but she reaped those laurels too late to affect voting for Emmy nominations.

Nonetheless, this year it turns out voters were paying attention, and, now that she's got the nomination, she has an excellent shot to win. That's because familiarity and reputation are less important in the second stage of voting. To determine the winner, actors must submit a single sample episode, and history shows that the best episode usually wins, even when it means an underdog defeating a major star.

Consider the 2001 race for best supporting comedy actor, where Robert Downey Jr. made a triumphant comeback from drug addiction to be recognized for his season-long stint on "Ally McBeal," but he lost that race to his co-star Peter MacNicol. In 2008, Ted Danson earned a supporting drama actor nod for playing against type in the gritty drama "Damages," but he lost that award to his co-star Zeljko Ivanek, an actor few had heard of, but who submitted a powerhouse episode in which his character, a tortured, closeted attorney, struggled with his sexuality and then committed suicide.

We already know what episode Martindale plans to submit to voters, and it's a whopper: "Brother's Keeper," in which she plays hardball with an energy company rep and a tragedy befalls her family. It might be difficult to beat, but she should beware. This category has recently had a string of winners whose submission episodes didn't actually impress most Emmy pundits: Blythe Danner ("Huff," 2006); Katherine Heigl ("Grey's Anatomy," 2007); Dianne Wiest ("In Treatment," 2008); Cherry Jones ("24," 2009), and last year's winner Panjabi. So even if "Brother's Keeper" is the class of the field, she might still be vulnerable. And she might not be the only performer with a knockout reel. Panjabi had a juicy storyline last season where she betrayed her best friend on "The Good Wife," and Michelle Forbes got to do a lot of heavy-duty emoting as a grieving mother on "The Killing."


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-- Tom O'Neil

Photo: Margo Martindale in "Justified." Credit: FX Network