As the indomitable Sue Ellen Ewing, Linda Gray has captivated television audiences since “Dallas’s” 1978 debut. Sue Ellen Week continues with this list of the character’s greatest moments from her first 35 years.
10. Lady sings the blues. Crazed cuckold Luther Frick (Brian Dennehy) holds the Ewings hostage in the Southfork living room and forces Sue Ellen to don her Miss Texas bathing suit and sing for him. Humiliating? Yes, but it also demonstrates Sue Ellen’s willingness to do what’s needed to help her family survive a crisis. Moreover, this is one of Gray’s gutsiest — and smartest — performances. I especially love the final scene: After Jock and Bobby rescue everyone, Sue Ellen grabs her coat and exits the room, head held high. It’s an early glimpse of the character’s resilience: No matter what indignities may be visited upon Sue Ellen, she almost always walks away a lady.
9. Embracing motherhood. When John Ross is born, Sue Ellen comes down with a Southfork-sized case of post-partum depression — and who can blame her? She’s emotionally devastated by her ongoing struggle with alcoholism, the collapse of her marriage to J.R. and her doomed affair with Cliff, who dumped her to preserve his political viability. With help from her shrink Dr. Elby, Sue Ellen finally realizes how much “little John” needs her, so she goes home, picks up the boy and holds him for only the second time since his birth, 13 (!) episodes earlier. It’s a powerful moment — and it sends baby-obsessed sister-in-law Pam running away in tears, so bonus points for that.
8. Defeating the governor. When Sue Ellen discovers smirktastic Governor McConaughey suppressed evidence that would exonerate the Ewings in the investigation into their rig explosion, she glides into his office, pours a drink and announces she’s going to expose his malfeasance. McConaughey is not pleased. “You can never trust a drunk,” he seethes. Sue Ellen agrees, but says that’s beside the point as she places the glass on his desk and slides it toward him. “This drink, governor, is for you. You’re going to need it. Because now that I have the goods on you, you’re going to do what I want.” Dayum! Our gal really did learn at the feet of the master, didn’t she?
7. On the couch. After Sue Ellen hits rock bottom, J.R. once again commits her to a sanitarium, where she receives treatment from tough-love therapist Dr. Gibson (the terrific Bibi Besch). In an insightful exchange, Sue Ellen tries to blame her drinking problem on her parents and J.R. — until the good doctor sets her straight: “Sue Ellen, I don’t think it matters whose fault it is. What matters is where you go from here.” When Besch delivers this line, watch Gray’s eyes; it’s almost as if you can see the light go on inside Sue Ellen’s head. This moment marks the beginning of one of “Dallas’s” most satisfying storylines: Sue Ellen’s journey of self-discovery. Too bad it turned out to be Pam’s dream.
6. Joining the oil business. After a five-year absence, J.R. returns to Dallas and stages an elaborate scheme (does he do any other kind?) to persuade Bobby to buy back Ewing Oil from Cliff. The plan works like a charm … but wait! Baby brother has a trick up his sleeve too: He sells half the company to his new business partner — Sue Ellen, who can’t resist needling her ex-husband when she reveals her new career to him. “I was thinking about all the fun pillow talks we’ll have … about gushers and dry holes,” Sue Ellen says with a wink. The master is justifiably impressed. As she walks away, he turns to John Ross and says, “Your mama’s a hell of a woman.” We couldn’t agree more.
5. Schooling Mandy. At the Ewing Rodeo, a newly sober Sue Ellen turns a corner — literally and figuratively — when she runs into Mandy Winger (Deborah Shelton), J.R.’s latest extra-marital squeeze. Sue Ellen treats Mandy with compassion, urging her to get away from J.R. before he destroys her. When Mandy refuses to listen and turns to leave, Sue Ellen grabs her by the arm and delivers a hard truth: “Isn’t it strange how the mistress always thinks she’s smarter than the wife? If she’s so smart, why is she the mistress?” In the hands of another actress, this scene might have come off like another catty soap opera confrontation, but Gray infuses the material with power and poignancy.
4. Hitting bottom. Sue Ellen tries to comfort J.R. after Bobby’s funeral, but he responds with devastating cruelty, sending her on her worst bender ever. Over the course of the next day or so, Sue Ellen’s purse, car and wedding ring are stolen, leaving her wandering the streets. She winds up in a cheap motel, where she catches a glimpse of herself in the mirror and shouts, “J.R. is right. They’re all right. You are disgusting. I hate you!” Finally, she stumbles into an alley, where she’s so desperate for a sip of booze that she accepts a swig from a bag lady’s bottle. I love how Sue Ellen’s outfit symbolically unravels along with her identity, but more than anything, I love Gray’s riveting, no-holds-barred performance.
3. A night to remember. Not long after recovering from his shooting, J.R. comes home and finds Sue Ellen asleep in the Southfork nursery, having dozed off while rocking John Ross. The couple put their son to bed and retreat to their own room, where they quietly reminisce about the early days of their courtship, reminding each other why they fell in love in the first place. Besides serving as a rare moment of peace for two characters who are usually at war, this scene shows how Gray is Hagman’s equal in every way. Think about it: It’s one thing to see J.R. and Sue Ellen lobbing insults at each other, but to make their love feel authentic and believable? That takes real talent. Lucky for us, Gray and Hagman had it in spades.
2. Catching Kristin. When Sue Ellen is arrested for shooting J.R., the Ewings toss her off Southfork — but our heroine refuses to give up. Sue Ellen gets out of jail, figures out she’s being framed and heads to the ranch to reveal the truth to J.R. As it turns out, the real culprit is visiting the ranch too — and when Sue Ellen spots her, Gray delivers the most famous line in “Dallas” history: “It was you, Kristin, who shot J.R.” Eighty-three million viewers watched this scene on the night it debuted. It was the cliffhanger resolution the world had been waiting for, but more importantly, it was the moment Sue Ellen returned to Southfork and to J.R.’s side — the place she always belonged.
1. Mourning J.R. No one takes J.R.’s death harder than the woman he loved more than any other. On the night before his funeral, Sue Ellen goes into his bedroom, caresses a framed photograph from their wedding and drowns her sorrows with glass after glass of his bourbon, ending two decades of sobriety. The next day, when the Ewings gather at the cemetery to bury J.R., Sue Ellen confesses her relapse and delivers a haunting eulogy for the man she calls “the love of my life.” Gray is mesmerizing in these scenes, which draw upon the remarkable 35-year history between J.R. and Sue Ellen. Her deeply moving, Emmy-caliber performance also unites “Dallas” fans in shared catharsis. Through her, we were able to express the grief we felt after the death of our hero. It’s the moment Sue Ellen became our avatar. Then again, isn’t that what she’s always been?
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