Dallas Decoder’s Woman of the Year: Linda Gray

Dallas, Linda Gray, Sue Ellen Ewing, TNT

Brunette on the couch

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.

Looking Back

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.

Moving Forward

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.

Share your comments about Linda Gray and Sue Ellen Ewing below and read Dallas Decoder’s list of the year’s other VIPS.

Comments

  1. Jennifer Irons says:

    Excellent choice and one I completely agree with! Linda showed us a variety of emotions without overplaying or underplaying them!

  2. Very good choices! I really enjoyed everyone you mentioned…they gave us wonderful work!!!!!!!

    ..aside from VP…..I wish she had waited to tell everyone she would not come back…it didn’t bother me…but I know it spoiled some fans expectations….but I do know that she had every right to do so. I am glad that Cidre did fix the huge blunder (IMHO) the original show did to that character. I always thought that was so unfair to ‘Pam’. And the ones that loved her. I am glad that Chris got to truly say goodbye to his mom.

    I am looking forward so much to next season. I am not worried about where they are taking the characters. I look forward to seeing what the writers have planned and I look forward to the performances of the actors.

    Sue Ellen is truly a gray character (no in intended). It is totally believable that she can be a very successful businesswoman and struggle with alcohol. Alcoholism is a life long disease. Her actual biggest addiction was always JR…she had walked away from him….but it was clear she was tempted by him when he was alive. She has had a rough year. She lost that election. And she lost the love of her life. She is a strong person but alcohol can be insidious and tantalizing to an alcoholic who is going thru a rough and stressful time….and losing JR is rough. It will be interesting to watch what they do with this subject. I find it quite intriguing.

    I am also gleefully awaiting what they have planned for Cliff. Ken truly seemed to exult in the story he had last year. I love crazy Cliff. I have said it before…I totally see how he ended up that way…. I look forward to Ken’s performance in season 3.

    I am also glad that Bobby got to be more well rounded of a character ter…yet he is still the Bobby we love.

    John Ross is so well embodied by Josh. Kudos to him! I also think that the other young cast members do a good job.

    I am so ready for the season 2 to be released and for season 3 to begin!

  3. Bravo … great choice!

  4. So eloquently written. Applauding over here! I know this comes as a BIG surprise to you but I was one of those fans outraged at the absence of Sue Ellen in those Season 1 eps. I couldn’t wrap my mind around it at all until I put the sidelining of Sue Ellen in the context of art imitating life; the shine of the new blinding the audience, and to a greater extent, the production team, to the wisdom and history of the old. No disrespect to the new younger cast members, they are talented, interesting actors and Linda is certainly as shiny with inner and outer glow as you can get, but the fact is that older characters, and human beings – especially women, are devalued in our society.

    I love you calling out Maggie Smith as another creative force who captivates just by being there. She’s a story teller with her whole body and soul just like Linda. Like you said, the wordless scene of her relapse was spellbinding. That scene would have been emotional for younger Sue Ellen but age makes it deeper in my opinion. The older actresses killing it in The Good Wife, American Horror Story, and on screen with Meryl, Judi Dench, Helen Mirren are richly fascinating to me. I hope writers realize how much actors’ life experience can add to their words and storylines and I hope we see that investment in Sue Ellen next season.

  5. Beautiful, and only, choice for Woman of the Year! The highlight of the new Dallas for me has been seeing the evolution of her character from early years… no longer relying on a man for her self-worth, and becoming strong, successful and powerful in her own right. The bottle keeps her real, although I hope they don’t take her too far back down that road. Speaking of her night in JR’s room with letter and bourbon…that’s exactly what has fascinated me about Ms. Gray all along. The woman doesn’t have to say a word. That and some other of her most powerful scenes were acted with her eyes, dialogue or no dialogue. The expressiveness of those eyes has always drawn me in, made me feel what she felt, made me feel for her. The scene you speak of, as well as the graveside scene, were done beautifully, especially given her personal pain over Hagman’s death. Nods to the brilliance of the actress and the strength of the woman herself for such a powerful performance that helped us all grieve the loss of Larry Hagman right along with her. Emmy worthy, but I’ll take Dallas Decoder’s Woman of the Year for now!

  6. cstephandoerr says:

    What an excellent choice. I could not agree more. If all the continuation of DALLAS on TNT had yielded was “J.R.s Masterpiece”, it would have been worth it as far as I am concerned. And in an episode that is full of truly excellent and moving performances, Linda Gray still manages to stand out. I don’t remember how often I had to watch her eulogy until I could actually SEE what she was doing, because listening to her alone was enough to start me crying after a few seconds.
    I am certain the lady herself would love what you wrote about her: “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.” This is pretty much exactly how she explained her way of approaching the scene when I had the chance to talk to her (off camera) in Mirande last summer. Her performance has so many layers, and after more than 30 years I am more excited that ever to find out what the new episodes will reveal about the character of Sue Ellen and the art of Linda Gray.

  7. C. B. this is actually a beyond brilliant choice. Although I would have given it as a tie to Miss Texas & Ann Ewing, “Wife no. 3” as brother J. R. called her as two equally strong women. And not b/c they are strong women, not their sex, no b/c they are strong characters in their own way w/o needing any form of masculine backup.

  8. Linda Gray is a class act. I do not think there is even a #2 in this category. I also feel that your interview with Linda Gray is great. There is a wild and entertaining cast of characters on Dallas and with Sue Ellen it make for great and memorable entertainment.

  9. She has ALWAYS been my woman of the year! Not just now but always! Love her so much and thank you for writing this xx

  10. Kelley Tyler says:

    Great choice! Sue Ellen is a major character. Dallas wouldn’t be complete without her. Her eulogy at JR’s gravesite was a tear jerker like no other. Linda Gray and only Linda Gray, a very close friend of Larry Hagman, can deliver lines like those!

Trackbacks

  1. […] Gray is Dallas Decoder’s Woman of the Year, but she isn’t the only person who shaped the “Dallas” franchise in 2013. Here are five […]

  2. […] on Friday night, at least for one week.) Also, if you missed it, be sure to check out my recent tribute to Gray, who is Dallas Decoder’s Woman of the Year for […]

  3. […] Ellen drinking again; I’m not wild about the idea either, but I have no doubt Gray will deliver another knockout performance, just like she did last year. She’s Hagman’s heir in a lot of ways, including this one: Like […]

  4. […] — and that means we’re going to be treated to another knockout performance from Linda Gray. As phenomenal as she was last year, my gut tells me Gray is going to be even more spectacular this season. Who […]

  5. […] More problematic is this: Two-and-a-half seasons into TNT’s “Dallas,” fans still aren’t sure what makes some of the main characters tick. Jordana Brewster is a terrific actress, but poor Elena has whiplashed from being “good” to “bad” and back again. Constantly adding new players to the mix isn’t helping us get to know the people we should be paying attention to. It’s not like the new “Dallas” isn’t capable of delving deep: One of the reasons “J.R.’s Masterpiece” remains the TNT show’s high-water mark isn’t just because it paid such loving tribute to Larry Hagman’s character — it’s also because it opened a window into Sue Ellen’s psyche and allowed Linda Gray to deliver one of her finest performances. […]

  6. […] “Linda Gray.” As much as we love everyone on “Dallas” — and we adore them all! — Gray is special. Our admiration for her knows no limits. Dare I suggest she’s the main reason most of us watch, […]

  7. […] Lots of “Dallas” fans were unhappy when Sue Ellen fell off the wagon last season — but many other fans cheered because they know the character’s struggle with the bottle is the stuff of great drama. […]

  8. […] Linda Gray is amazing. As I’ve written before, Gray is great because she makes you feel everything her character, Sue Ellen, does. This season, […]

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