The Distinct Rise of Julia Louis-Dreyfus

By  · Published on June 28th, 2016

Why the former TV VP is currently the MVP of TV.

Throughout the fifth season of Veep, Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s character, Selina Meyer, was concerned about her legacy as a president. Sadly, it turns out she may not have much of one. But the actress herself continues to be creating one of the greatest gifts of any actress of her time. She has had a unique career and has only gotten better with age, peaking (so far) with her ongoing role on the HBO series and yet possibly still just getting started.

It’s rare that an actress has such a rise. It’s not like Louis-Dreyfus is experiencing a renaissance. She’s been working thoroughly for the last 35 years, starting as one of the youngest cast members on Saturday Night Live, getting plenty of screen time in minor roles in movies through the 1980s, co-starring on Seinfeld in the 1990s, starring in Watching Ellie and The New Adventures of Old Christine in the 2000s, and now killing it on Veep.

Each step in her career has been upward, without any real dips, even in the post-Seinfeld years. She not only defeated the supposed “curse” on that show’s ensemble, she destroyed it. With Veep, she’s won the Emmy for lead actress in a comedy every year it’s been on, and she’ll likely win another this fall. In its fifth season she proved herself to be smarter, funnier, and sexier than she’s ever been – and than most women on television, of any age.

This season was particularly notable for Louis-Dreyfus considering she had to overcome the departure of creator Armando Iannucci. The narrative of the show hasn’t been as sharp as when he was showrunner, but it’s been difficult to see any depreciation in its quality because of the talents of the cast, and her in particular. She’s been revealed to be the true backbone of Veep. She’d always been it’s greatest treasure, but she also holds it together.

On the series, the actress is surrounded by clowns, all of whom fit the current level of lazy farce and poorly executed jokes. Louis-Dreyfus can act the buffoon, as well, but she’s far more talented in a variety of performance essentials. And she can be broad and subtle at the same time, equally hilarious and heartfelt. She plays nasty in one shot and then in a fluid cut is suddenly displaying genuine shock or sadness. Her acting in the season finale is exceptional even for her, giving us something new in every scene.

Last year, Louis-Dreyfus appeared in a popular sketch on Inside Amy Schumer focused on how it was her “last fuckable day” as an actress, now entering the “Mrs. Claus” years. The point of the Hollywood-skewing bit still stands, but ironically – or maybe intentionally – she’s actually ramped up her sex appeal and on-screen fucking by playing President Meyer as not only a hot commander-in-chief but one whose carnal desire is realistically unbridled.

And it was only a few years ago that she had her first truly romantic lead role in a film, with Nicole Holofcener’s Enough Said, which is pretty much the real woman’s answer to the work of Nancy Meyers that Louis-Dreyfus pokes fun of in the Schumer sketch. When Veep is over (and given the direction it’s going next season, it shouldn’t go too much longer), it would be great and proper to see her continue to rise with steady movie stardom.

As it looks now, the actress still appears to be best known and most remembered for Seinfeld. Understandable, as she spent nearly a decade and 172 episodes playing the character of Elaine Benes and the show is considered one of the greatest TV comedies of all time. But as good as she is in that series, it’s neither her best work nor her best material. And being treated as fourth fiddle in a quartet was far from what she deserves.

Louis-Dreyfus has come a very long way since Seinfeld, as far from playing the relatively thinly drawn Benes as that character was from her early role in the movie Troll. There are single brief expressions made on Veep worthy of being her legacy more than the entirety of her role as token female sidekick. It’s not just the onscreen power, either. Louis-Dreyfus the producer is something to champion, as well, and has been since Ellie debuted in 2002.

Her control in the making of Veep, which has increased substantially since Iannucci left, gives her a high degree of freedom, so what you see of her on the show now is likely only what she wants to be doing and represents her talent at its full potential. Louis-Dreyfus’s range as an actor, a comedian, and a creative figure is collectively unmatched by anyone on TV right now. Even if she starts making any missteps, she’s still winning in the long run.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus

If Veep does remain her crowning achievement, she’s cemented as one of the most important artists in the history of the medium anyway. It’s not freeing Tibet, as Meyer aimed to do, though in the context of Hollywood she has managed to achieve the unthinkable. But it’s probably not the pinnacle of her potential nor is it the highest step for a woman to reach in this industry. And at only 55 years young, she has plenty of years ahead to keep climbing.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.