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Let's revisit 'Brideshead Revisited' at the 1982 Emmys: Upset!

July 26, 2008 |  9:42 am

The film version of Evelyn Waugh's celebrated 1945 novel "Brideshead Revisited" just opened in limited release to reviews that pale in comparison to the raves that greeted its television predecessor back in 1982. Coming in at only 65 on MetaCritic and 78 at Rotten Tomatoes, the film failed to impress any major critics. Thus the awards prospects for this new adaptation are slim, with the exception of possible recognition for two-time Oscar winner Emma Thompson in a change-of-pace role as a mature mother.

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It's outrageous that its producers even bothered to do a new screen version of this drama about the intimate friendship of two Oxford students set against the decadent lifestyle of Britain's upper class between the world wars, since it would be nearly impossible to match the hosannas that surrounded the acclaimed TV miniseries. It was one of the most buzzed-about cultural events of 1982. Among fancy folk — the white-collar set, the bohemian crowd, college professors, the literati —"Brideshead Revisited" was the hot water-cooler topic throughout January of that year as it unspooled over 11 nights.

Today it's impossible to overstate the spell it once cast over TV-obsessed America as millions tuned in to PBS to follow the BBC production focused on the social-climbing Charles Ryder (Jeremy Irons in the breakthrough role that made him famous) and his effete friend, the aristocratic Sebastian Flyte (Anthony Andrews). Prudish viewers were shocked by one graphic heterosexual scene and frequent undercurrents of romantic homosexual yearning. Like "Roots," it wasn't just a miniseries, it was an event not to be missed and, once seen, one to be discussed with reverence, excitement and awe.

When Emmy nominations came out later that year, no one was surprised when it scored an impressive 11 bids and "Brideshead Revisited" was widely presumed to be the automatic winner of  best miniseries. Any suggestion that anything else could win was pooh-poohed as utterly ridiculous.

But on Emmy night "Brideshead Revisited" suffered one of the most shocking upsets in the award's history. The snub is rivaled only by the injustice of "Lonesome Dove" getting shot down by the mighty guns of "War and Remembrance" seven years later.

The winner in 1982: the critically panned "Marco Polo," which was described by one reviewer as "lavish, costly and a snail's paced dramatic travelogue."

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Worse, "Brideshead Revisited" was blanked in all of its other races too — save one.  Lord Laurence Olivier took home his fourth Emmy for his supporting role as the dying lord of the manor (the part now played by Sir Michael Gambon). Among those Olivier bested for the role was his longtime stage rival Sir John Gielgud, who took the role of another patriarch in the miniseries after Olivier had his pick of parts. As lady of the manor, Claire Bloom (in the role now played by Thompson) lost the supporting actress race to Penny Fuller ("The Elephant Man").

Irons and Andrews, along with Anthony Hopkins ("The Hunchback of Notre Dame") and Philip Anglim ("The Elephant Man") lost the lead actor race to Hollywood veteran Mickey Rooney for "Bill." Telling this true story of a mentally retarded man trying to cope with the real world after spending 46 years in a psychiatric institution also won Corey Blechman the writing prize over, among others, John Mortimer, who adapted Waugh's work for television.

Marvin Chomsky took the helming prize for "Inside the Third Reich" over "Brideshead" directing team Michael Lindsay-Hogg and Charles Sturridge. "Marco Polo" won its only other Emmy when it bested "Brideshead" for costume design while art direction went to "The Letter," a remake of the Bette Davis vehicle.

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Compared to the TV miniseries, here's what critics are saying about the new feature film "Brideshead Revisited." The New York Times slams it as "tedious, confused and banal." 

Says the Wall Street Journal: "Twenty-six years ago, Evelyn Waugh's 'Brideshead Revisited' was given the royal treatment on British TV -- an enthralling 11-episode miniseries that still stands as one of the finest examples of a distinguished genre. Now the novel has spawned a feature film, and the mystery is why; the world didn't need a superficial big-screen adaptation of a rich, dense book that's about, among many other things, the passage of time. The perplexity is why the film is so lifeless and remote.

The Los Angeles Times: "It says much about what a bind the filmmakers were in that they chose to use the same manor as the miniseries did to represent the grand estate where many of the key events in the film take place. No matter how much they try to differentiate their take on the material, there are certain things they can never get away from."

Photo credit: Miramax


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