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Take Three: Viola Davis

Craig here with Take Three. Today: Viola Davis

Take One
: Far from Heaven (2002)
Davis, currently elevating The Help as a long-suffering maid, had already supplied some hard home graft back in Todd Haynes’ 2002 race-and-homosexuality Sirkian pastiche Far from Heaven. Davis quietly excelled as Sybil, Cathy’s (Julianne Moore) full-time housekeeper and part-time confidant. She does a lot with a little. Ever present she curiously lingers within its most emotionally fraught scenes and makes a subtle impression in more incidental ones. Sybil maintains a watchful eye on proceedings, on how Cathy and Raymond (Dennis Haysbert) play out their furtive longing and on the arguments between Cathy and husband Frank (Dennis Quaid).

Whilst Moore is delicately cracking up due to wifely duties and illicit romance, Davis is on hand to help keep her together. “I don’t know how on earth I’d ever manage...” Cathy begins, cautiously trailing off. She knows her words reveal volumes about the very issues facing her, Raymond and indeed Sybil herself. Davis gets to assert her character as the narrative becomes more sweepingly emotional. She lets on to Cathy more about her life away from the Whitakers and, in her best moment, finally allows herself to tell Cathy about Raymond’s injured daughter. Davis plays the scene with a minor requisite guardedness. I can only imagine that had Haynes opted to fold more of another Sirk film, Imitation of Life, into his emotive meta-study, Davis may well have come front and centre.

Take Two: Eat, Pray, Love (2010)
Davis isn’t often, if at all, mentioned in synopses of Eat Pray Love. Her character Delia Shiraz, Julia Roberts’ best friend, isn’t significant enough to the overall narrative, apparently. This is a shame, as although she’s only in the first thirty minutes she’s its most resonant performer. In fact, I’d rather it had been about happily-married yet realistically cynical new mother Delia. There’s ample reason, given in a handful of scenes, that she would’ve made a far better lead character. Davis gets to flex her acting chops and be delightful regardless. But the best evidence of why she should’ve been the one doing the global traipsing is to be found in the lesser-seen only-six-minutes-longer director’s cut.


Before Roberts’ Liz jets off to vainly find herself across three continents, a rightfully sceptical Delia sees her off. It’s the first time Delia does more than provide mere friendly solace for Liz. "You know why I was giving you such a hard time?” Delia reluctantly says. 

I love my job, my guy and my kid, but... I wish I could go."

Instead of coming across as lightly bemused or content, as in earlier scenes, Delia is starkly honest. Imagine the resounding emotional tug the film could’ve pulled for Delia’s plight (and with more at stake) had her and Liz traded places. Through Davis’ well-balanced turn, Delia exhibits a better understanding of life in one line of dialogue what takes Roberts’ Liz 133 minutes to grasp. Evidence, if any were required, that top-tier character actors are most often the ones doing the best work. With simplicity, Davis intriguingly suggests why Eat, Pray, Love should’ve been Let, Viola, Shine.

Take Three: Doubt (2008)
If anyone’s going to make mighty Mezzer Streep question her certainty it may as well be Viola Davis. In Doubt, her one-scene, barely twelve-minute role as Mrs. Miller, mother to a troubled boy at a Bronx Catholic school, was of course performed entirely alongside Meryl’s sister act. An hour in, Davis’ brittle, quietly astonishing and astutely underplayed performance causes a major Nunquake measuring 9.5 on the actressing scale. She totters along in dowdy beige coat, armed with pre-work accoutrement (she never lets go of brolly or handbag – she “only has half an hour” before work) and, with pin-point concision, razes the film’s emotional territory. And all before a noon shift cleaning floors!

Davis’ performance is open-wound acting of the rawest kind. It seeps through the celluloid, embedding within it a strain of desperate, matchless emotion. She steals the film outright from its trio of big hitters.

Mrs. Miller’s baffling, questionable revelations reverberate through the remainder of Doubt. Sister Aloysius (Streep) is understandably perplexed at her reactions, but defiant Mrs Miller seemingly overlooks her son’s current well-being in favour of his future betterment. The undertow of this sad, richly dramatic exchange displays a vivid understanding of 1960s race issues. Davis’ succinct performance allows valuable in-roads into Mrs. Miller’s life; she clearly deserved the highest accolades. If the Academy gave Judi Dench a statue for six minutes in Shakespeare in Love – ditto Beatrice Straight in Network – then they really should’ve given one to Davis for twice their time and quadruple their quality. But 11 other award nominations and six wins point to it being a lasting portrait of bleak determination none the less.

Three more key roles for the taking: Solaris (2002), State of Play (2009), It’s Kind of a Funny Story (2010)

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Reader Comments (18)

I like what you say about Davis' Doubt. Her entire performance is devastating and allows to imagine what's not being said. Those big, teary eyes, expecting that Sister Aloysious understands what she's asking for, always get me the moment I see them. And I agree she deserved to win the Oscar (as much as Marisa Tomei and probably more than Penélope Cruz, in my opinion).

Now,you lost me comparing her with Beatrice Straight in terms of quality. Straight does great work with half of Davis' screentime. She delivers a lot more than many other actresses in the 'suffering wife' department and in only one scene she makes us understand she's not only playing the cheated wife, the 'victim', but also the worrying, understanding woman. And she is capable to capture this shift in the same scene, with the same eyes that just a few minutes ago were raging with angst.

As for Dench in Shakespeare in Love, she's having fun with the role, she has that big presence on her side, but, no matter how many orders she gives and how ironic she looks, she doesn't (get the chance to) deliver the punch that Straight and Davis gave on their big scenes.

August 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAretzederra

thank you for writing about viola. She has been on my mind since I saw The Help last week. She elevated that movie and made it so much more than it has any right to be. I hope she gets lots of other big meaty roles soon,

August 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMurtada

We all know Dench's oscar was an apology for Mrs. Brown. Ridiculous, really, that the Dench only has an apology Oscar.

August 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMorgan

dear penelope,

please return viola's oscar asap

we regret the error


August 21, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterpar3182

She barely says anything, but her cameo (is it a "cameo" if you're not well known?) in "Antoine Fisher" is spectacular, and the only reason to even bother with that rather featherweight film.

August 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

Glenn -- I KNOW. I mentioned it on the podcast with Katey. That movie is so bad and then BLAM. she sort of decimates it in one scene with real affecting emotion previously missing. Too bad it's not enough to save the movie, that one scene.

August 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

I think I'm one of the few people around that wasn't doing cartwheels for Viola Davis in "The Help." I would have picked her to win for "Doubt" no question. What she did with that scene was truly incredible. But no hate for Penelope Cruz winning though.

And Beatrice Straight and Judi Dench both earned those Oscars. They are two of my favorite wins ever in supporting actress.

August 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSebastian

Sebastian: Dench over Bates in Primary Colors? Seriously?

August 22, 2011 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtfu11

Yeah, that's what I said.

August 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSebastian

LOL @ the Bates stanning.
Judi Dench earned that Oscar.

I definitely thought Viola was spectacular in Doubt, but I can't help but notice the nasty snot that she didn't wipe until the end of the scene lolol. And I feel like Meryl was looking at it like "ew, bitch..."

August 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip

Yes I Stan for Bates while openly hating Streep.

August 22, 2011 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtfu11

I'm one of the few who wasn't crazy about Viola Davis in Doubt. Pepe was my winner but that category was very weak that year and I HATED Doubt (totally miscast in nearly every way) so I would've not loved to have seen any of those heavy-handed performances get awarded. Sure, Davis is MVP but the movie doesn't even know how to handle her or the impact and true weight of that scene. But then again, I'm kinda not a fan of many of the 'short' supporting actress winners - Straight, Dench, Redgrave, Bergman - for the mere fact that they simply don't get enough time to do much. Some people love Straight's win, I cannot stand it. But that's another story altogether.

Anyways, on Davis, the running snot bothered me as well, superficial though that might be. IT'S THE LITTLE THINGS. And I would've HATED to have seen her won for an awful film like that.

She WAS fantastic in Far From Heaven and Solaris though, I will totally hand those two over.

August 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMark

I love Viola Davis, even in episodic appearances in old Tv episodes before she was a star, but I will never understand the revisionism that seems to go with the Oscarologist. The year Penélope won, she was playing Maria Elena a force of nature that shook the other characters' lives. In the same organic way, her performance shook VCB. Her win wasn't probably just the (great) performance but residual love from her Raimunda in Volver and her other movie that year: Elegy, plus the Woody Allen comeback (how many time does he come back?) factor, plus the surprise factor (she can be funny, who knew!!) etc,. That is, the momentum so many of you talk about when explaining Oscars. Viola Davis in Doubt had the internal competition of Amy Adams (who knows why she was nominated, I have no explanation for that) and she didn't have the momentum Penélope had. Had it happened right now, with her previous nomination, things would probably be more balanced. But I'll never understand these attempts at rewriting Oscar history, back then Cruz's win was seen as quite fair as far as I can recall. Loving Davis doesn't mean hating on someone else.

But maybe it's just me because I hated Doubt almost as much as people hate Eat, Pray, Love.

August 23, 2011 | Unregistered Commenteriggy

iggy -- revisionism is just part of Oscar culture. i personally am still happy with Penélope's win. and I agree with Doubt was quite miscast in general.

August 23, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Of course, Cruz deserved that Oscar for her "gee-nee-us" performance in "Vicky Cristina Barcelona, but her win does not diminish the fact that Davis alone almost single-handedly elevates the ham-handedness (in virtually every facet) that is "Doubt." Furthermore, I would take the rewarding of small yet superb work like hers in a supporting category over the other extreme of unequivocal leading work in the same any day.

August 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTroy H.

I remember an interview that Viola Davis gave that she comes from a family of runny noses (or she might have called it the "nasally challenged" or something). Either way, she said that the snot comes with the territory for her. LOL. She keeps it real regardless. Love her.

And Team Viola in the "Doubt" Oscar debate for me. She should have won for that. But her time's coming soon, maybe in FEBRUARY '12!!

August 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGerry

having seen her onstage for the last few years, i still remember walking out of "out of sight" and wondering who played isaiah washington's girlfriend, all cigarette in hand, telling jennifer lopez that while she didn't know where her brother (don cheadle) was and didn't really want to know either. the scene is all of five minutes and more known for the "tussle" line, but davis left such an impression on me that i recall coming out and wishing there was some sort of catalog of performances. and then disovered imdb.

August 28, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterrich

rich -- love that story! Viola changed your life :)

August 28, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R
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