(Re-posted from LimitéMagazine.com)
by Janice Y. Perez
February 14, 2012
With barely two weeks left for the 84th annual Academy Awards and with the surprising outcomes of other recent film awards, bloggers, aficionados, and Oscarologists have this one escalating conundrum: Meryl Streep (in The Iron Lady) or Viola Davis (in The Help)?
Though the rest of this year’s Best Actress category has a slew of strong and solid performers (Glenn Close in Albert Nobbs, Rooney Mara in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Michelle Williams in My Week with Marilyn), it’s undeniable that the focus has been solely on Streep and Davis, whose respective portrayals of the last century’s most polarizing female political figure and a docile—but headstrong—maid in 1960s Mississippi have thwarted the two in what appears to be the most thrilling Best Actress race the Academy has seen in a long time.
While Streep’s record 17 acting nominations have kept the Oscar world abuzz, truly, the spotlight is on Viola Davis and this spectacular year she’s been having. After bagging the SAG Award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role last month, the race for the Oscars’ Best Actress was then completely changed, making it a more unpredictable ball game. Nonetheless, with Davis tearfully mentioning in her acceptance speech how “another beautiful face graced the screen when I was in college, and that was Meryl, who just always inspires me,” it’s humbling to see how the once co-stars (in 2008’s Doubt) have engaged in a friendly and motivational competition.
Although Davis has only recently been catapulted into the forefront of Hollywood, the truth is she’s no overnight sensation, nor is she the newest girl on the block. On the contrary, Davis has been acting in theatre, TV, and film for a span of more than 20 years since her humble beginnings at Rhode Island College, where she majored in Theatre.
Born as the fifth of six children to a maid/homemaker mother and a horse trainer father, Davis has described in interviews as growing up in “abject poverty and [having] a dysfunctional childhood.” At two months old, her family moved from her grandmother’s South Carolina farm to the suburban town of Central Falls, Rhode Island. Davis partly credits her foray into stage acting by her involvement at her alma mater, Central Falls High School. After being recognized by Bernard Masterson, Director of the Young People’s School for the Performing Arts in Rhode Island, Davis was awarded a scholarship with the federal TRIO Student Support Services program.
With a steady career in theatre, the actress has had a handful of impressive accolades under her belt, namely 2001’s Tony Award for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Play for her portrayal of Tonya in King Hedley II, as well as two Drama Desk Awards for her performances, again in King Hedley II and Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel in 2004. She bagged her third Drama Desk Award and second Tony (for Best Actress in a Play) for her ravishing performance opposite Denzel Washington as Rose in the 2010 production of August Wilson’s Fences.
Notwithstanding Viola Davis’s lucrative career on stage, breaking into television has been quite the opposite experience, and even more so in film. Since 1996, when she first began her acting journey, until around 2008, when she blew audiences away with her supporting role as Mrs. Miller in Doubt, Davis has played mostly secondary roles with very limited screen time. Though she’s appeared in three Steven Soderbergh films (Out of Sight, Solaris, and Traffic), it really wasn’t until 2011’s The Help when all eyes were on her.
And even six months after the film’s release, people are still talking about Viola Davis. Much of it is owed to the very sensitive nature of the portrayal of African American women in that film, most especially with Davis’s character as the meek and subservient Aibileen Clark, who finally finds her voice and learns to stand up to her white employers who have disrespectfully treated her. While the majority of viewers called Davis’s performance astounding, original, and sincere, a significant number in the African American community have been disappointed at her for taking on what they deem a degrading and stereotypical role. Davis, however, has countered that exploring the journey of Aibileen was very much a transformation for her own self. In spite of the expected backlash that would come with the role, Davis accepted the chance to play the remarkable character as a way for her to tackle on a challenge of humanizing and giving heart to a subject that is universally stigmatized as taboo and derogatory.
In an interview with NPR during the film’s release last year, Davis said this regarding the debacle about her character and film choices:
I saw human beings behind the uniforms—fully explored human beings. And I saw them go on a journey. And I saw these seemingly ordinary women rise to extraordinarily heroic heights. But what I ultimately had to come to terms with was … I did not see the maid. I saw Aibileen. I felt like, here was this woman who was emerging from this uniform, saying, ‘I’m more than just a maid.’ So it’s a hard thing to deny as an actress.
Regardless of the polarizing views, Viola Davis, like the legendary Cicely Tyson whom she singlehandedly credits as her biggest inspiration since childhood, has paved the way for women of color to be presented with more challenging and worthy roles. As she strongly voiced in her SAG Award acceptance speech to the students at her high school, and likewise to young people in general, “Dream big. Dream fierce.”
Whatever the outcome of the Best Actress race come February 26, one thing for certain rings true: Viola Davis has arrived.