Dan Steinberg/Invision / AP
Monday, Sept. 23, 2013 | 9:33 a.m.
LOS ANGELES — The 65th Emmy Awards took so many of its winners by surprise Sunday night that several were, quite literally, speechless.
True, TV’s biggest night had its share of repeat winners, notably ABC’s “Modern Family” and actresses Claire Danes (“Homeland”) and Julia Louis-Dreyfus (“Veep”).
But the winners in several of the major acting categories proved the prognosticators wrong.
In fact, the first award of the night went to first-time winner Merritt Wever of Showtime’s “Nurse Jackie” for supporting actress in a comedy series. She seemed flummoxed, almost as if she were channeling her on-screen role as a quirky young nurse trying to find her way in the world — and to the stage of the Nokia Theatre.
Clearly shocked by the win, she said simply: “Thank you so much.... I gotta go, bye.”
On the dramatic series side, the so-called experts were widely predicting wins for Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul of AMC’s “Breaking Bad” for lead and supporting actor. Neither won. Much to his amazement, Bobby Cannavale was clutching the supporting actor’s trophy for HBO’s period mobster drama “Boardwalk Empire” and Jeff Daniels took the top honor for “The Newsroom.”
“I didn’t expect this,” Daniels said, joking that he rarely wins anything besides “best actor over 50” from AARP, so he didn’t have any prepared remarks.
It wasn’t only the acting categories that defied expectations.
NBC’s singing competition series “The Voice” took top honor in reality competition, besting CBS’ “Amazing Race,” which had won this award nine times.
Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report” won for variety series, ending the seeming lock on the category that was held by “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” and its 10 consecutive wins.
Another winner who appeared stunned to be holding his first Emmy was Tony Hale, named supporting actor in a comedy series for “Veep,” beating out three actors from “Modern Family” (Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Ed O’Neill and Ty Burrell) as well as the popular Bill Hader for his final season on “Saturday Night Live.”
Though not entirely a surprise, “Breaking Bad” — which ends its series run Sept. 29 — picked up its first win in the drama category, topping last year’s winner, “Homeland.”
And Anna Gunn, who plays Walter White’s nagging and widely despised wife, won for supporting actress in a drama, beating out the likes of “Downton Abbey’s” Maggie Smith and “Mad Men’s” Christina Hendricks. It was a four-peat for ABC’s “Modern Family” for comedy series, and the show also won a director’s trophy for Gail Mancuso, marking only the second time that a woman has won in that category.
It was no surprise, however, that HBO’s “Behind the Candelabra” proved to be the biggest winner, with 11 trophies.
The biopic about the flamboyant and closeted gay pianist Liberace and his love affair with a younger man started the night with eight wins from last week’s Creative Arts ceremony.
It won three more awards Sunday, best miniseries or movie, director for Steven Soderbergh and lead actor in a movie or miniseries for Michael Douglas, who played Liberace.
Douglas delivered an innuendo-laced speech, much of it directed at costar Matt Damon, who played his lover in the movie. Douglas said he couldn’t have won without him and drew laughter when he spoke to Damon from the stage and said: “You really deserve half of this. So do you want the bottom or the top?”
That jovial exchange stood in stark contrast to much of the rest of the show, which “Modern Family” executive producer Steve Levitan called “the saddest Emmys of all time.” The night’s somber tone was set by the decision to stage memorial moments for high-profile TV personalities who died in the last year: actors James Gandolfini, Jean Stapleton and Cory Monteith, comic legend Jonathan Winters and writer-producer Gary David Goldberg.
The Emmys program itself had a surprise of its own. Neil Patrick Harris returned as host, but he didn’t open with a musical number, which has become a staple in his hosting gigs for the Tony Awards. His opening monologue seemed to often miss the mark but not for lack of star power: Past hosts Jimmy Fallon, Jane Lynch, Jimmy Kimmel and Conan O’Brien as well as Tina Fey and Amy Poehler took turns trading jibes with Harris about the best way to guide TV’s biggest night.
In fact, one of the funniest lines of the night belonged not to Harris but to Kevin Spacey, who was channeling his smarmy “House of Cards” character when he turned to the camera and remarked on the antics going on onstage: “It’s all going according to my plan. ... They couldn’t host a child’s birthday party.”