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The evolution of Julia Louis-Dreyfus

A tribute to the 11-time Emmy award-winning actress as she celebrates her birthday this week

  • Ryan Gomez

  • OTTplay

Last Updated: 04.56 AM, Jan 14, 2022

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One of television’s greatest comedians and actress, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, does not have a ‘rags to riches’ story, one where she had to overcome insurmountable obstacles to rise to the very top of the industry. The 11-time Emmy award-winning star comes from a family of French aristocrats who control the Louis Dreyfus Company, one of the largest shipping conglomerates in the world. One might even argue that she has had a relatively straightforward path from theatre, to stand up, to television. While it certainly does give the impression of her rise to the top being effortless, it was far from that. The reason is, if someone is invited to join the cast of Saturday Night Live at the age of 21, it is indicative of the natural talent she possessed from a young age.

Three years later she is cast as Elaine Benes in the iconic sitcom, Seinfeld, and the rest, as they say, is history. However, things could’ve been very different if Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld decided to stick to the original plan of not including a female character as part of the primary cast. In fact, Louis-Dreyfus does not feature in the pilot. It wasn’t until NBC insisted that they include a female character that Elaine Benes became an integral part of the show. It is one of the rare instances where a studio interfering with creative decisions has paid dividends. Further evidence that not everything could end as badly as the way Joss Whedon and Warner Bros did with the DC Extended Universe. For NBC, however, Elaine Benes went on to become one of the most significant characters in pop-culture history.

Over the years there have been rumours that the cast and crew of Seinfeld had their own exclusive clique, and outsiders had to prove their mettle to be part of this elite group. Heidi Swedberg, the actress who played Susan Ross, found this out the hard way when her character was killed off because the main cast believed that she lacked chemistry. The manner in which she was written is arguably the darkest joke the series has pulled off, and in retrospect, it justifies the controversial finale. But Julia Louis-Dreyfus seamlessly blended in with the cast, simply a cut above the rest, including her fellow leading stars Jerry Seinfeld, Jason Alexander (George Costanza), and Michael Richards (Cosmo Kramer). She was undoubtedly the standout in a group of stellar actors. Well, maybe not Jerry Seinfeld himself, as his range often appeared limited. This was in fact referenced in the show itself when Jerry and George were making the pilot for their own TV series within the show.

Like most popular sitcoms, their lead stars went to relative obscurity after its conclusion - Josh Radnor (Ted Mosby) from How I Met Your Mother, Topher Grace (Eric Foreman) from That 70’s Show, David Schwimmer (Ross Gellar) from Friends, are just a few examples of stars that faded away from the limelight. With regards to Seinfeld, Jason Alexander’s biggest highlight of his career post-Seinfeld was his character getting punched in the face by Richard Gere in Pretty Woman, while Michael Richards was caught shouting racist slurs during standup performance, and Jerry Seinfeld returned to New York to work in standup again. The media had coined the term the Seinfeld-curse to best describe it. The so-called ‘curse’ was broken with relative ease by Louis-Dreyfus after playing the lead role in The New Adventures of Old Christine. While the show itself may have lacked that extra bit of finesse, Louis-Dreyfus was lauded for her performance for the five seasons the show ran. She even won an Emmy for Best Actress, taking her tally to two, adding to the one she won for Seinfeld for Supporting Actress.

In 2012, HBO’s R-rated black comedy Veep would become her magnum opus. Her performance as Vice President of the United States, Selina Meyer, earned her an incredible six consecutive Emmys for Best Actress between 2012-2017. She also won three more as executive producer for Best Comedy, which took her total tally to an astounding 11 Emmy Awards, an accomplishment that does not seem likely to be surpassed anytime soon. The show’s ability to evolve with the shifting socio-political landscape in America was astutely captured by creator Armando Iannucci. However, despite running for seven award-laden seasons, the series was unable to capture the viewership numbers its quality demanded. The mature content rating could be cited as a possible reason why it garnered less viewership than some of the other popular shows in recent years. Regardless, it remains one of the best comedies in the last decade and is arguably Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ best performance in her illustrious career - one that might even be better than her turn as Elaine Benes.

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