Emmy Rules Change After Burstyn Nomination Flap

By Lisa de Moraes
Saturday, March 17, 2007

The TV Academy has finally righted the Ellen Burstyn wrong.

In what is being touted by the trades as the Ellen Burstyn Rule, the academy has officially announced that, going forward, to be eligible for a Primetime Emmy Award in any of the long-form supporting-actor categories, nominees must have appeared on-screen in at least 5 percent of the project.

It's the final act in a drama that unspooled last year when Burstyn became one of the nominees for best supporting actress in a miniseries or teleflick.

She was nominated for her 14-second, two-line, 38-word role in HBO's "Mrs. Harris."

Her shorter-than-a-cameo appearance -- in fact, it's believed to be the shortest nominated performance in Emmy history -- was a homage to her title role in the early-1980s teleflick "The People vs. Jean Harris."

That time, she played Harris, the woman who dated and then murdered Herman Tarnower, the doctor who came up with the Scarsdale Diet.

In the HBO project, her on-air credit said she was Tarnower's "Ex-Lover #3."

Sadly for those of us who were anticipating about four columns' worth of material to erupt on Primetime Emmy night last August if she nabbed the award, Burstyn did not win that acting derby; instead, her co-star Cloris Leachman took home the trophy.

In fairness, the media had already gotten a lot of mileage out of the story.

After the nominations were announced, Burstyn flung herself at the press in an ecstasy of surprise, saying she had not even known she was being put up for possible nomination (an HBO rep told the Associated Press at the time that someone at the movie's production company had done the deed).

Asked by reporters what her reaction was to the nomination, Burstyn said, "I thought it was fabulous. My next ambition is to get nominated for seven seconds, and ultimately I want to be nominated for a picture in which I don't even appear."

This, you can imagine, rankled the TV academy, which had been assiduously defending her honor, insisting through a spokeswoman that "based on the popular vote, this is a legitimate nomination." (The spokeswoman did say then that the academy might consider a new rule requiring actors to be on-screen for a minimum time to qualify.)

In her darker moods back then, Burstyn also was quoted as saying things like, "This doesn't have anything to do with me. I don't even want to know about this. You people work it out yourself."

We can only assume that was the last straw for the academy and led to this week's decision.

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