The SAG Awards are receding in the review mirror, but the afterglow remains. How much power can emotional narratives have within our seasonal awards journey? Viola Davis has been a major actress for a long time within the showbiz community -- this very website first handed her two gold medals way back in early 2003 for her gobsmackingly great single scene in Antwone Fisher and her breakthrough year of smart character work in Far From Heaven and Solaris -- but it's only in the past few years that the mainstream has begun to learn her name and key in to her potent gift. There's nothing like a 'who's that?' Oscar nomination (Doubt), A List friendship (Streep) and a big fat juicy hit (The Help) to boost your profile.
So I wasn't surprised but was definitely delighted to see her receive a standing ovation when she walked up to accept Best Actress for The Help.
Perhaps the standing ovation is an annual occurence and I've merely forgotten.
In some ways our relationship with the awards circus is a long one with deep pockets of memories, held grudges and fond crushes. In other ways it's as if we're goldfish swimming round the bowl and we're surprised by that little plastic castle every time.
But I think the true indicator that Viola Davis is the likely winner of the Best Actress Oscar is not the win itself with SAG, which has a much wider more diverse voting body than Oscar, but the crowd response. Reducing co-stars to tears is probably no great achievement. They were in the trenches with you so naturally Jessica Chastain, Octavia Spencer and Cicely Tyson were crying their eyes out. But making Zoe Saldana and Angelina Jolie all misty? Boosting Dick Van Dyke's mood when he was already high on life?
What is going on here? (More after the jump)
I think what it comes down to is the unruly power of emotion, or "heart" as its sometimes called in movie parlance and awards narratives. The heart wants what it wants and for a lot of people, that means Viola Davis in The Help this season. And why wouldn't it given that performance? Emotions can feel overwhelming with the right variables in place and they can often defy logic or critical evaluation, growing well past their normal proportions if properly fertilized, until they bloom dazzlingly.
[Sidebar: I suspect Charlize Theron's Mavis Gary, a great character performance resigned to the not nominated bin, would be utterly perplexed by all this feeling... which is undoubtedly the reason why she wasn't in the mix.]
Sometimes people feel incredibly silly after a lot of carrying on and crying and cheering (buyer's remorse) but sometimes it feels like great healthy catharsis. It's good for the soul to really let yourself feel something in a big way, as everyone seemed to last night.
But which it is when anyone wins and is greeted very emotionally is for history to sort out. You can't know it in the moment. But I suspect that, should Viola win the Oscar, history will view the win kindly on account of her major talent. And that's independent of whether she gets the opportunities she deserves afterwards: if her career grows, a win now will be seen as early vindication of her worth; if her career stalls, as everyone worries it will (we've seen enough careers flame out to worry), this will be seen as "thank God they gave her the prize then, at the peak of her career!"
That's what I suspect at least, and I suspect it with as much feeling as Jessica Chastain's tears and Octavia's uninhibited physical joy.
It doesn't hurt that Viola can really sell an acceptance speech. A lot of awards show speeches mention the power of chasing personal dreams. But it's not easy to sell a personal triumph as a universal one, and those attempts often feel hemmed in by or disingenuous with pride. Not everyone can be a star, after all. But Viola can make the specific universal. It's part of her gift as an actress. When she tells you to "dream big, dream fierce" you can know that she's referencing her own journey but it will feel generous all the same, like you've dreamt it with her. Like we're all in it together.
That's the power of communal dreams.