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"Dream Big, Dream Fierce" This Oscar Season

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.



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Reader Comments (84)

Great article Nath!!

January 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBorjatdl


January 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMichael

Would love to see Viola work with Quentin Tarantino in some bloody good crime film :)

January 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDavid

Lovely, Nat. And she really can sell the speeches. I was drunk on her contributions to the Newsweek rountable alone. Woman could read me anything. (see, I DO adore her!)

January 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKurtis O

NO way Oscar will go to both Viola and Octavia. I suspect a Streep victory still looms at BAFTA and Oscar.

January 30, 2012 | Unregistered Commentermed

I know everyone hopes a viola win will end racism and break down the barriers in Hollywood once she wins the best actress.... But didn't we break down the barriers with Halle Berry? Many can argue about who should or could win... But I feel like this has become about race. And I do love viola and the performance. Just not enough to stand and cry and think that it will change the world! I mean , come on, not to be crass.., how many hollywood voters have minority housekeepers in 2012? We have not come that far so do not slap yourself on the back Hollywood...if she wins, I want it for the performance not the narrative. Oscars should be called "who has the best narrative this year....and also made a film.... And made US feel good about US". Sorry...

January 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJamie

I live for Viola's acceptance speeches, she really makes you feel because she genuinely believes. That speech made me well up and as someone who is 36 and trying to make it late in life (for this business) as an actor, it is downright inspiring.

January 30, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterramification

Her speeches have been amazing!

January 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJamie

No, after what I saw last night, I'm thinking Viola takes this one and Octavia Spencer seems unstoppable right now (even though I think it's the strongest of the four acting categories this year and should be more of a fight to the finish). I think I've mentioned before that I have a lot of problems with The Help, but I love the performances and Viola is mesmerizing (I also recently re-watched the scene where Celie hires Minny, and Spencer and Chastain are fantastic in this film!). I really do think these are hard characters to resist which is why these ladies are winning. I think Meryl winning the Globe was just the Globes being so in love with the stars, but Viola already won this and the BFCA, so she's looking really good for an Oscar.

January 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRichter Scale

@Jamie - I don't think anyone's buying into the race narrative, or the emotional narrative, because they think Viola's win will knock down barriers or end racism. I think it comes down to a simple recognition that is harder for black women to succeed in this arena. It's possible to hold more than one idea in your head at once: Viola deserves this, and how amazing is it that she's transcending--even for a moment--barriers that have kept so many deserving winners out of the winner's circle (e.g., Tyson, Goldberg, Sidibe, and that's just nominees off the top of my head--never mind all the women who didn't even make it that far).

January 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

Very well put Steve.

January 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJamie

Viola Davis is a formidable actress and she deserves to win this year's Best Actress award. She is truly remarkable in The Help. Fingers crossed.

As much as I love Meryl Streep, I just don't think her performance in The Iron Lady can match that of Viola's. Oh Meryl, you will win your 3rd Oscar. But not this year. At least I hope. I want Meryl to win for a performance that will people remember for its greatness.

This is a beautifully written article, Nat!

January 30, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterthomasclear

When Viola, Cicely, Jessica, and Octavia cry, I cry.

January 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMeshi

OK, flash news: The Cold Light of Day trailer out. Sigourney kicking ass in it.
(I know it's totally unrelated, but 'cmmon ... IT?S SIGOURNEY KICKING ASS).

January 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKokolo

@David-Oh my god, yes. I would LOVE to see her do something really gritty and dark.

January 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew R.

I think I would've cried harder if Tilda's name had been called and it had been a big "fuck you" to the Oscars for not nominating her THREE YEARS RUNNING! Yes, I am still very bitter about her snub this year! LOL

January 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAaron

God, and your side note on Charlize's Mavis Gary is perfect! LMAO! Ugh, but it hurts...another great performance that was robbed! You're now twisting the knife in my side!

January 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAaron

If Davis wins Best Lead Actress Oscar it will be because she is in a popular 'message' movie and not because of her performance (similar to Bullock). Of the nominees, Streep gave the standout performance by miles and miles. It's a no-brainer.

January 30, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterbrandz

fantastic article Nathaniel.

Viola should win for he very simple reason that she rocked my world as a viewer. The Help delivers on all ounts. It is an old fashioned story that is moving, parts funny and prts emotional, full of characters that you care about and others that you hate. Ad Viola is there, growing and finding her voice as Abileen. Every scene she's in is so much more because of her presence. The scene where she talks about her son - that's why she is going to win.

The speeches are great and moving - but just icing on a very rich cake after that performance.

January 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMurtada

Beautifully written, Nathaniel. I didn't get to watch the show (I'll have to look up her speech on YouTube) but those faces in the photos say it all. Isn't that a large part of why Bullock won - it had nothing to do with race, of course, but the fact that she is very well-liked in the industry. It's obvious Viola commands respect and affection. I think those intangibles you talk about are very true, and very real. James Cameron supposedly lost BP two years ago because he "dissed" Meryl; Nicole's statue can be attributed in part to the "you go girl" support she received after her divorce, and etc etc for every year.

January 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJanice

I love Viola Davis. I've seen her live on stage and she's amazing. I'm pretty sure Streep got a standing ovation when she won for Doubt, though. There was certainly a lot of appreciation for her.

January 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGabriel Oak

I guess Streep will always have an upward battle for osar because she does not have a narrative the hollywood community can empathize with..a sad reality this awards season and for future seasons. Is not some other person's narrative always going to pull the heart strings of the voting public against Streep?

January 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJamie

A great actress who turns out to be black and at the peek of her career, a movie with message that you can watch over and over again and more than 160 millions of dollars at the box office. Sounds like Oscar to me!

January 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

@brandz - Why, if Viola wins, wouldn't it be for the performance? Alternatively: why, if Meryl wins, would it necessarily be for the performance?

I mean, let's be honest. The "Meryl is due" sentiment seems to be running a lot stronger than any "The Help has got such a great message" sentiment. But both women definitely have a lot of outside-the-performance "intangibles" in their favor.

Calling it "no-brainer" seems silly when where are the plenty of people who were utterly underwhelmed by The Help itself, but were really impressed by what Davis did. Similar to The Iron Lady's reception. (Although I think The Help is a significantly stronger film than the Iron Lady, which couldn't muster any kind of viewpoint about Thatcher--artistically, politically, positively, negatively, or whatever.)

January 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

I love her so very much. Honestly, no matter what you feel about her performance, you can't deny that she is beautiful, intelligent, eloquent, and inspiring.

I truly believe that her win would mean so much more than Halle Berry's because she could actually change things. She has the determination to, and clearly people love her. Plus, this is about talent and respect, where Halle is extremely beautiful and young (when she won), Viola isn't mixed or considered a babe, and is in her 40s already. And I know Viola WANTS to change things. So it makes me feel very happy. She's a beautiful actress.

January 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip

Jamie -- as i've said over and over, Streep is narrative enough. I am entirely convinced that Hollywood wants her to win a third time. They're just waiting for a film they love. It's a guess sure but i believe it. I mean, i think Julie & Julia was a way better movie than The Blind Side but which one had a best picture nomination?

January 30, 2012 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

What is the point of being obsessed with awards if phrases like ''award narratives'' are talked about rather than individual performances? I mean, isn't that cynical? This entire article is cynical in that it reduces everything to whether someones ''narrative'' captures the collective hearts of voting members. Isn't that an indication that this is all political? Shouldn't movie lovers pause when we come to this realization? This article to me is an embarrassing example that campaigns, award narratives and the blatant politicization of it all is what really matters and it has little to do with performances. It's just superficial. Glenda Jackson's quote sums it up:“[on her Oscars] My mother polishes them to within an inch of their lives until the metal shows. That sums up the Academy Awards - all glitter on the outside and base metal coming through. Nice presents for a day. But they don't make you any better.”

January 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEll

I know Nathaniel! But I am in my mourning phase.....:)
The phase that continues again and again and again....every Streep nomination!!!
I need a drink .....Yes, a very strong drink and watch Sophie's choice...and cry myself to sleep.

January 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJamie

Ell -- I've done plenty of talking about Viola Davis's performance which I think is completely deserving of awards. You can read my review or see my own awards (which aren't at all political as they're only my ballot of "best") if you want to talk performance.

You can call it cynical if you like but I think it's more basic honesty I think. A great performance might get you into the mix (and certainly Viola wouldn't have gotten this far if her performance wasn't sensational and her career would never have gotten this far if she herself weren't a phenomenal actress) but once it comes to awards shows and thousands of people voting in a insular industry, yes, there will always be politics.

If we're talking best performances we'll have to hit the reset button because almost everyboyd ignored Vanessa Redgrave i Coriolanus which basically obliterates the work thats nominated in most categories (though not Viola's)

January 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R


if you go head-to-head based on performance, Davis vs Streep, for the films they have been nominated for this year, Streep easily gives the standout performance (that is my opinion). I never suggested either actress was in a superior film. I'm talking about acting. Streep dances circles around any of her competitors this year. Streep is in nearly every scene of he Iron Lady and essentially plays two roles, a middle-aged Thatcher in power and an old lady Thatcher. The old lady acting is what does it for me. A complete transformation. Simply astonishing, on a different plane from any other actor. Davis does a redux of Mrs. Miller from Doubt. She appears in The Help for maybe one-third of the film. She happens to be in a popular message movie that resonates well with AMPAS (they will feel good about themselves if they vote for her). I personally would rate Streep's performance in The Iron Lady in her Top 5 of all time. Head-to-head this year, no one comes close to Streep. It's a no-brainer.

January 30, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterbrandz

brandz -- well then i have no brain because i think Viola is better this year :) Can we agree that ideas of "best" are subjective?

I love Streep but The Iron Lady performance, while technically brilliant, doesn't even come close to Streep's top five for me. I like Streep best when she's mixing her impeccable technique with astonishing creativity, inspiration and soulfulness. And I can't say that The Iron Lady met all of that for me. And I also think it has some taste issues -- why is Streep granting so much warmth to such a cold character? It feels almost like an apologia at times. But that said i do think it's her best technical performance in quite a long time. I was pretty shocked at the transformation into the old lady Thatcher too.

But if I only cared about technique then Cate Blanchett would be my favorite actress. But she is not.

and calling The Help a redux of Doubt is????!!!??? That is just incredibly reductive. To me those characters aren't a thing alike except that Viola plays them.

January 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

"[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.]"

That may be true but it points out a larger flaw and gaping hole in this years nominations- the complete lack of challenging and daring performances with an exception of Swinton.

January 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJonesie

Ell, I think you're taking all this too seriously. At the end of the day, movie lovers will love movies regardless of who wins and who doesn't. The outcome of these awards shows will be entered into statistical figures and that is that. Beyond this point, I think it's all fun. I hope we can be aware that this is a human game. These are not awards given to scientific excellence, these are awards given to a community of people who portray the human experience and, as such, they will reflect variability and subjectivity. Added to this is the factor that this community also represents an industry with financial interest. So, of course, marketing-like campaigns come into play as well as relationships and emotions.

Sure we may get pissed when our favourites don't get nominated or win the bloody thing, but this is a horserace and it would be silly to just bet on the horse that we think is the prettier. At the beginning we may do that, but hopefully we get to realize that the smart thing to do is to bet on the horse that has been power-trained, that has been well fed, and that overall has the built-in machinery to take the big prize. In this type of awards, where human is the operating factor, personal narratives are not to be ignored and we must not pretend they should not exist. Now, betting with all these factors ... that is why blogs like this and the love of award shows continue. Humans like to predict and this makes it fun (unless the big winners get locked two months before the Oscars.)

January 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJones


The clip of Davis previewed at SAG when they were announcing Best Actress nominations screamed Mrs Miller at me. The Davis performance was no different than Doubt, nothing earth shattering. Yes, it was good but I didn't see anything different from Davis. Old Lady Thatcher was something new for Streep, IMO, to be 86yo and fading. And for Streep to be in the entire film playing two different roles, essentially, brings the overall performance to a different level. The opening scene where Thatcher buys milk is jaw-dropping. I couldn't believe my eyes and I was transfixed from that moment on. That is my opinion and I guess we just disagree.

January 30, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterbrandz

brandz -- I think we are in 100% agreement that the old lady fading half of the performance is very very impressive.

January 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

Jonesie and Jones -- great points (are you the same person?)

January 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

Jamie: Don't start mourning yet! I never would have guessed when I started reading movie blogs a few years ago the level of intensity that Streep fans have, but I guess it makes sense. She's like the Red Sox or something, streak-wise, always putting something prestige-y out there, and only getting the nomination. But she just lost a game, not the whole series. It's still a race (which is exciting!) (And like the Red Sox, she will one day win.)

Ell: Maybe it is cynical to discuss other factors beyond the performance, but if I needed the Oscars to always go to the best performance available, I would have stopped watching a long time go. I like the awards narratives, the odd choices, even the mistakes. I have a history with the Oscars, been watching them a long time, and it's an obsession that led to an obsession with movies (not the other way around.) I like the weird perfect storm of timing, hype, personal narrative, public interest and other factors, including performance that have to come together to put a winner in each category every year. If that's cynical, I'd like to think it keeps me positive when Michael Shannon and Michael Fassbender miss out on nominations for the two best male performances of the year.

Brandz: I know you're getting Streep fever, but saying that Aibileen is Mrs. Miller-redux is kind of insensitive. What on earth do these two women have in common beyond being black women?

January 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMike in Canada

Since I'm a known trouble making here I'm going to say to the Meryl Stans who won't let up on the women of The Help--your racisim is showing.

Two black actors have won on the same night in three Oscar seasons: Denzel & Halle -- Morgan & Jamie -- Jennifer & Forest

In the name of Hattie McDaniel -- the first time two black women will win on the same night for playing maids -- who cares -- these are deserving performances is what matters.

January 30, 2012 | Unregistered Commenter//3|RT

I believe Viola is one of our most brilliant actresses - and she was terrific in The Help (which was kind of a supporting role). As for Streep, I just feel sad that it looks like she's not going to get the Oscar again. I'm still in shock that Sandra Bullock won two years ago for The Blind Side when Streep was brilliant in Doubt. Bullock's performance was as good as any actress in an above average rom/com. Anyway, I'm just glad that if Meryl doesn't win this year, at least she lost to a worthy actress in a great performance!

January 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMatt

@brandz. That's fine, but it's not my point. It wasn't even your point. You said Viola winning was about the message, not the performance. In the same vein, Streep winning would be about the Streep factor. But that ain't no thang: every Oscar win has some outside baggage that helps it along.

Again, it's perfectly fine that you prefer Streep. But to suggest that only a Streep victory would be purely about the performance seems silly to me (about as silly as saying "The Help" adds nothing new to the "Doubt" performance... er, she cries in both of them, I guess?).

January 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

@Mike in Canada

It's not the the Davis roles have anything in common. It's that Davis gives us the exact same performance, nothing different.

Ailbilen = Mrs Miller acting-wise (same thing).

January 30, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterbrandz

Davis is in a 'message' movie that AMPAS voters probably like. I'm not judging that. If Davis wins Oscar, that is what will carry her, not the performance but the message movie. It's a rather simple concept as it happens often at Oscar (aka Bullock). I wish it were about the performance. Sigh.

January 30, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterbrandz

The thing I'm having a tough time swallowing about this Streep mania that's brewing is that she's already the most celebrated actress in film history. And apparently, that's not enough.

Look, I LOVE Streep, but I'm not terribly concerned about her third Oscar. She's got two, more nominations than any actor working today will be able to receive in their lifetimes, and boatloads of other critical/industry awards. At this stage of the game, Streep is her own reward. There's no reason for outrage (it's not like she's in the same position as Julianne Moore, Liv Ullmann, Mia Farrow, or Glenn Close, for instance).

She'd have made a worthy winner '83, '87, '90, '95, '02, and '06. Not that she was necessarily my top pick in those years (though she definitely was in at least '83). But even as a fan, I can say to myself: "It's not a big deal if she loses this year." Perspective, people!

January 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

Right, brandz. But what you're refusing to acknowledge is that a Streep win WOULD NOT be only about the performance. There's the Streep Factor.

January 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

brandz is also refusing to acknowledge that for a lot of people, Davis winning is entirely about the performance. It turns out that people have different reactions to things. You don't just get to decide that everyone who thinks Davis is giving the best performance has been duped into an awards narrative or a "message" for its own sake.

I really think you've overstepped with the Doubt Performance = Help Performance thing. Do you really think Mrs. Miller in Doubt, who never lets go of her handbag and never physically advances on Sister Aloysius even while she emotionally confesses to her deep rationalizations - do you really think she would ever drop those grocery bags and come right up within a millimeter of Hilly Holbrook's face like that? Since you're reducing Aibileen entirely to that one clip, I'll leave my examples there, but The Help is full of scenes where Aibileen's reflexes and emotional cues would make no sense from Mrs. Miller. I'm surprised I'm even engaging such a fallacious position, but you undercut your own position so profoundly by drawing the others in such broad strokes.

January 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNick Davis

"It's not the the Davis roles have anything in common. It's that Davis gives us the exact same performance, nothing different.

Ailbilen = Mrs Miller acting-wise (same thing)."

I feel like that's one of the most ignorant things I've ever heard.

January 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip

Well, you all have your own opinions and I have mine. I've been following Oscar and movies for over 40 years. For me, Davis does nothing new. Same ole, same ole. Streep's old lady Thatcher is new for Streep, she really stretches, and the performance is jaw-dropping. Please don't pretend you know more than me when all of this is subjective. It's insulting. If Davis wins it is because she happens to be in a 'message' movie and AMPAS likes that.

January 30, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterbrandz

I don't think the Aibileen/ Mrs. Miller similarity has to be confined to the blackness...both are women who haven't been allowed to have a voice, finding themselves in scary situations where they have to stand up for themselves in order to triumph... the difference is that one works through the fear while the other is tragically wed to the fear...

January 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterIan C.

In my mind, there should be no other factors, only best performance. No Streep factor, no over due factor, no race factor, no maid factor. Only Best Performance factor. And to me, Streep wins it, hands down, by miles, way ahead of the field. I know it doesn't work that way though, sadly.

January 30, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterbrandz

Brandz, you're completely missing the point. If it's just about the performance, I think Davis deserves it handily. But I am aware that other factors go into an Oscar win. Why can't you do the same with Streep? As Nathaniel said above, she's her own narrative. THAT is the point I'm trying to make.

And I don't think I'm being insulting. I've acknowledged that I'm a Streep fan, I get why people who love the performance love it, but it's not my personal favorite. Why aren't you capable of the same recognition?

You talk about this being subjective, but act like yours is the only opinion that matters.

January 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSteve
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