Good actors make you believe. Great actors make you feel. In 2013, Linda Gray made us feel every emotion Sue Ellen Ewing experienced — the disappointment over losing the election, the shame over losing her sobriety, the heartbreak over losing J.R. Gray shone all season long, but especially in “J.R.’s Masterpiece,” the funeral episode where she bared her soul and became the audience’s avatar. Through her, we were able to express our own grief over the death of our hero. When Sue Ellen called J.R. the love of her life and touched his casket, it wasn’t just the climax of a great performance. It was a moment of shared catharsis for “Dallas” fans.
Linda Gray is Dallas Decoder’s Woman of the Year because no one else moved us, delighted us and impressed us quite like she did. Sue Ellen has been “Dallas’s” heroine for a long time, but in 2013, Gray stepped into the void created by the death of Larry Hagman, her longtime friend and co-star. Like Hagman — and like Dame Maggie Smith, one of Gray’s own idols — Gray creates thrilling television just by showing up. Consider the “J.R.’s Masterpiece” scene where Sue Ellen sits in J.R.’s bedroom and takes her first drink in 20 years. It was a mesmerizing moment — just as moving if not more so than the graveside eulogy — and yet Gray never uttered a single line of dialogue. The scene consisted of little more than Sue Ellen, a bottle of bourbon, an old wedding picture, an unopened love letter and that sad, sad song (Tara Holloway’s “The Bottom”) playing in the background. That’s it. But when Gray is your star, what more is needed?
To be fair, Gray gets plenty of support from the rest of the “Dallas” cast — as strong an ensemble as any working in television today — and the people behind the scenes, including Michael M. Robin, who directed “J.R.’s Masterpiece” and has a knack for eliciting wonderful performances from his actors. Gray’s most crucial collaborator, though, is probably showrunner Cynthia Cidre, who gave her some of her best material ever as Sue Ellen. Between the two of them, Gray and Cidre showed us Sue Ellen in all her complex, contradictory glory: The fiercely protective mama bear. The take-no-prisoners businesswoman. The struggling alcoholic. And most fascinating of all: the playful flirt, whose vibrant sexuality at age 70-something makes Sue Ellen a prime-time pioneer.
Choosing Gray as Woman of the Year will come as no surprise to Dallas Decoder readers. By now, my admiration for this actress and her character are no secret. Gray was kind enough to grant me an interview a few months ago, and the hour or so that I spent sitting at my dining room table, talking to her on the phone, remains one of the great experiences I’ve had since starting this website. But please know this: My affection for Gray is rooted in my genuine respect for what she has achieved as an actress. Like Sue Ellen, she has worked hard for her success.
Consider: Sue Ellen had to fight for her place in the world. She was not born into the Ewing family, and marriage to J.R. offered public prestige but private pain. For years, he neglected Sue Ellen’s needs and dismissed her potential, and she turned to the bottle to cope with her unhappiness. But the ex-beauty queen’s spirit ran deeper than anyone knew, including Sue Ellen herself. Eventually, she conquered her demons and won the admiration of the other Ewings, including J.R.
Gray’s career has had its ups and downs too. During “Dallas’s” earliest days, she was notoriously dismissed as “the brunette on the couch” and excluded from the show’s opening credits. Slowly, the producers noticed her talent and chemistry with Hagman and beefed up her role. At the height of “Dallas’s” popularity, Gray even picked up an Emmy nomination for best dramatic actress. By the time she departed the original show at the end of its 12th season, Sue Ellen rivaled J.R. as “Dallas’s” most popular character. (It’s no coincidence the show plunged from 26th to 43rd in the yearly Nielsen rankings after Gray left.)
Yet when TNT brought “Dallas” back last year, it felt a little like déjà vu all over again — and not in a good way. The producers struggled to find a place for Sue Ellen in the storyline, leaving her out of two early episodes altogether. Fans were outraged, and the Powers That Be soon learned the same lesson their predecessors did: Don’t mess with Miss Texas. In Season 2, Sue Ellen once again became a force to be reckoned with, wheeling and dealing against the Ewings’ enemies, even as she wrestled privately with her old demons and J.R.’s loss.
Some of my fellow fans are concerned about Sue Ellen’s future. Cidre has confirmed the character will continue drinking when “Dallas” begins its new season in February, and I get the feeling Sue Ellen’s problems are going to get worse before they get better. But I’m not worried. For one thing, I’m confident Gray is going to continue to deliver great performances, no matter what she is called upon to do. I also believe Sue Ellen will eventually get back on track and start moving forward again. She’s come too far to turn back for good.
Just look at the above TNT publicity still, which comes from the 2013 episode “A Call to Arms.” It shows Sue Ellen seated on the edge of the sofa in the Southfork den, where she’s helping her fellow Ewings formulate a plan to fight back against their latest foes. She wears a determined expression and looks like she’s about to spring into action, which is precisely what happens in that scene. The photo tells us everything we need to know about this actress and the character she has embodied for so many years. Linda Gray is still the brunette on the couch, except now the brunette is the star of the show and her character is helping to call the shots.
Don’t mess with Miss Texas.
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