Julianne Nicholson is an actor’s actor. Her reputation has long been larger than her celebrity. It’s wrong to say she disappears into roles, because one of her greatest attributes is presence. When Nicholson takes hold of a character, she practically throttles it. She doesn’t play the leads. She plays the people who make the leads pay attention.
Across two seasons of Masters of Sex, Nicholson played Dr. Lillian DePaul, a crusading ob-gyn who crashed hard into the low glass ceiling of the 1950s before being stymied further by her own failing health. In the wrong hands, Dr. DePaul could have been little more than a well-educated stick in the mud for Lizzy Caplan’s self-taught Virginia Johnson to navigate around. Instead, Nicholson was at first a worthy foil, then a kind of partner, and, ultimately, a very real friend. Masters of Sex, though spotty in Year 2, has always been a strongly feminist show: Two female characters don’t have to square off over a man to share screen time; in fact, they don’t need to talk about men at all. A great deal of that strength came from Nicholson.