It’s always a little bittersweet whenever you tout the Emmys for a notable first (i.e. first Black actor to win X award or the first female-led series to win X major award). Because as nice as it is, it’s also incredibly embarrassing that the bar is so low. Because the pleasant shock is almost always followed by a valid question along the lines of: What the hell took so long?
That came to mind yet again Monday night when Sheryl Lee Ralph and Jennifer Coolidge, inarguable screen and stage legends, won their first ever Emmys — for their indelible roles in “Abbott Elementary” and “The White Lotus,” respectively. They landed their only nominations after decades in the Hollywood game just two months ago.
Even they recognized the sheer shock of it all when they got on stage. Ralph immediately, and flawlessly, belted out lyrics of Dianne Reeves’ “Endangered Species.” And Coolidge, defying the scant time for acceptance speeches, began dancing along to the get-off-the-stage music they were playing. Because, even as she put it, this has been a long time coming.
It’s easy to blame the shortsightedness of the mainstream awards voters — with the exception of the Independent Spirit Awards, which honored Ralph with a trophy for her “To Sleep With Anger” performance in 1991 — for consistently overlooking these actors’ talent. But there’s also the matter of Ralph and Coolidge being seen as niche actors that is worth a discussion.
That descriptor wouldn’t even make sense if you’ve been following both their careers for years. Ralph was one of the original “Dreamgirls,” then went on to have an illustrious TV career with roles in hits like “Wonder Woman,” “The Jeffersons,” “Designing Women,” “Moesha” and “Claws” (to name just a few).
We barely went more than a year without seeing her grace, comedic genius and sheer talent on our screens.
It was no surprise to her fans when she showed up on an episode of “A Black Lady Sketch Show,” proving once again that her comedic chops are undisputed — and that she has more than earned the respect of talent that has come after her, like Robin Thede and Quinta Brunson. Her appearance on “A Black Lady Sketch Show” was a clear indication of her legendary status.
The same type of thing could be said about Coolidge, who’s one of those actors you know from literally everything you’ve ever watched, but yet she’s flown way under the radar. She is, though, beloved as the quirky, kinky, hilarious — or a combination of all these things — character from your favorite hits: the “American Pie” movies, “A Cinderella Story,” “Seinfeld,” “Legally Blonde,” “Zoolander” and “Nip/Tuck.”
Honestly, Coolidge has given us down-for-whatever vibes for years. And we’ve loved every minute of it.
But this idea that both these actors are niche and have now broken through is due in part to the way media works. Just earlier this year, Ralph was among those interviewed for a roundtable discussion in The Hollywood Reporter about being “Blackfamous.” Meaning, while she is iconic, she’s also mostly known and appreciated by Black audiences.
It was not until this moment when the thought even came to mind ― that she could dazzle even on a hit white show and still not even be noticed by non-Black audiences. There’s no reason why in 2022 she’s getting some of the biggest press of her career: Los Angeles Times, Elle, and so many more. It’s almost like… she just got here, which is crazy. But also, it makes sense.
There’s of course the whiteness of media, and how a star isn’t considered legitimized until white audiences and news validate them. And that might take years to even happen, at which point Ralph is now 65 years young and is no longer strictly up against a racist and sexist Hollywood system. The ageist gatekeepers are surely hard at work.
That last part is likely a reason why Coolidge hasn’t garnered the respect from awards voters she has so long deserved. Her career skyrocketed when she played the ultimate MILF in “American Pie” back in 1999 when she was only 38 years old. And since then, she’s often been pegged for the older, hot woman role who’s there for laughs, teenage boners and little else.
It’s this type of gross underestimation of two women in comedy, both now in their 60s, that has undoubtedly contributed to the fact that certain awards voters have looked the other way. Well, that and the fact that neither has ever compromised who they are for the Hollywood machine.
Ralph could play the dignified queen mother who can sing like an angel, then turn around and improvise one of the silliest, most hilarious lines we’ve heard on the small screen this year (“sweet baby jesus and the grown one too!”). Meanwhile, Coolidge is always going to give us the high-browed priestess of ridiculousness, but with surprising gravitas. These aren’t easy feats.
And they never seemed like they did it for awards or accolades, or even glitzy cover stories years delayed. They did things in their own way. And the Emmys have finally caught up with that.