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Viola Davis. 'Holy s***, that woman can act!'

Here's Matthew Eng on where we are in the career of one of the great screen actresses... 

“Holy shit, I love watching this woman act!” is what I immediately thought during Viola Davis’s doozy of a “big scene” in Get on Up, which nearly every review of Tate Taylor’s surprisingly strong James Brown biopic has been well-inclined to praise. As Brown’s aged, long-estranged mama, Davis—with the aid of terrific star Chadwick Boseman and some pretty expert makeup artists whose numbers Clint Eastwood should find immediately—manages to reinvigorate a set-up familiar from any number of tortured artist-biopics (i.e. absentee parent comes groveling years later to abandoned child-turned-superstar at the peak of his fame) with the same smart, electrifying clarity of character and tender yet tough-minded emotionalism that should be long-recognizable by now to anyone who has seen Doubt or Antwone Fisher or Solaris or Won’t Back Down, or else FencesKing Hedley II, or Seven Guitars on Broadway, or, more likely, witnessed Davis’ extraordinary, one-woman rescue job on Taylor’s The Help.

Holy shit, I love watching this woman act. It’s not the first time the thought’s run through my head.

Davis is, as usual, great in Get on Up, a superior musical drama that’s prone at times, like all entries in this genre, to some patchy plotting and tacky set-pieces, but which sports the affecting ensemble, sobering insights, and stellar, sweat-stained concert sequences that Eastwood and his animatronic Jersey Boys could only dream about. Davis’ role is also, as usual, brief but crucial to the movie at-hand. [More...]

in a mere matter of minutes, Davis has to convey the fatigue and frustration of a battered, burnt-out backwoods housewife who’s not a timid victim or a walking corpse but a fiery, quivering, living woman whose love for her son must finally come in second to her own survival. That dressing room reunion with Boseman during Brown’s legendary 1963 show at the Apollo is the emotional clincher of Get on Up in the same way that the Aloysius-Mrs. Miller showdown was the dramatic whopper of Doubt—and with the same trickling snot to boot. Davis has a few short but significant scenes preceding this, but nothing else to rival that final failed moment of fence-mending between mother and son. With just another meaty scene or two, she could’ve potentially found her way onto a number of Oscar ballots.

Then again, Davis is probably going to be a bit busy this Oscar season anyway top-lining her new Shonda Rhimes-ABC drama How to Get Away with Murder, in which she’s plays Annalise Keating, an elite but enigmatic criminal defense professor shepherding a flock of eager young law students, while becoming engrossed in a murder amid all the sleek ivory intrigue and smutty, TV-14 bed-hopping, while seemingly giving Davis the opportunity to play the sort of deeply conflicted, morally muddled antihero that have come to define the latter part of Denzel Washington’s career, although, in this case, on a considerably smaller screen.

Lots of us, including some of us here at TFE, are a bit too quick to groan when our most gifted film actresses make the full-time leap to series television, even though ABC, A&E, FX, HBO, Netflix, Showtime, TNT, and the whole lot have easily offered the fullest, most front-and-center roles that Kerry Washington, Vera Farmiga, Glenn Close, Laura Dern, Robin Wright, Laura Linney, Toni Collette, and Holly Hunter have gotten to tackle in the past five years. That’s a pretty superb roster of actresses. And now, Viola Davis.

I have bitterly resigned myself to the fact that Hollywood’s complete ineptitude in knowing what to do with actresses of color who aren’t Zoe Saldana or Halle Berry (and, sadly, even those who are Zoe Saldana and Halle Berry) never boded well for Viola Davis’ cinematic future, despite a string of fierce and fruitful supporting work, as well as one peerless lead performance that seemed destined to leap her off the brink and by all rights should’ve copped her an Oscar, the loss of which is perhaps my unhappiest Academy memory, even taking into account the grace and generosity of the victor herself. We all realize eventually that the same industry which dragged its fucking feet in finding a worthwhile vehicle for Lupita Nyong’o to star in in the months following her Oscar win, while conferring part upon part to someone like the otherwise fine Margot Robbie for playing a talking sex doll for Scorsese in the same year, can only carry the Angela Bassets, Kimberly Elises, Alfre Woodards, Loretta Devines, Mo’Niques, Regina Kings, Octavia Spencers, Kerry Washingtons, Taraji P. Hensons, Gabourey Sidibes, Gabrielle Unions, Nicole Beharies, Emayatzy Corinealdis, Anika Noni Roses, Lorraine Toussaints, Adepero Oduyes, Lupitas, and Violas of modern-day Hollywood (and the glorious Cicely Tysons and Ruby Dees before them) so far on the big screen, at least without the aid of admirably committed if admittedly flawed helmers like Taylor, Rhimes, Tyler Perry, and Ryan Murphy. You can only fool yourself for so long that skill and discipline are all it takes, that being a great actress is all that must matter when it comes to casting.

Viola & Toni Collette in "The United States of Tara"

I still harbor foolish dreams of Hollywood permitting Davis to eventually move outside her wheelhouse. Davis deserves to show larger audiences the unexpectedly spry comic touch she exhibited in a lengthy, second season guest arc on Collette’s United States of Tara, in which Davis played a pot-toking, proto-Boho painter. Isn’t it about time someone allow Viola to laugh on screen (without the coaxing of Emma Stone) or at least let her enjoy herself? It’s true, Viola, like the world, deserves that long-overdue Fences movie, but I think she’s also earned herself Claudine, that seldom-discussed 1974 romcom that features an Oscar-nominated Diahann Carroll and James Earl Jones as, respectively, an exhausted, working-class single mom of six and a zippy garbage man who fall in love in Harlem. Claudine is a sly, sexy, warmhearted good time of a movie that you’d be well-advised to check out ASAP if you have yet to, in addition to being one that deals head-on with race and poverty in a way that refuses to ironize, pander, or pity. If Hollywood still greenlit films as smart, tough, and inclusive as Claudine, I’d love to see Davis take a stab at the sort of rich and rounded comic role afforded here to Carroll. There is undoubtedly a better way to use Viola Davis’ inimitable gifts than applying them to background doctors and nameless lawyers, or else more bland, all-too-familiar vessels of both intrinsic wisdom and boundless support for some white, eat-pray-lovin’ girlfriends.

Davis may be signing up full-time at Shondaland, but she thankfully won’t be completely absent from the big screen next year. I hope that Chris Hemsworth isn’t the only one with something to do in Michael Mann’s upcoming cyber thriller Blackhat, leaving Viola to be “strong” from behind a desk, or stuck taking orders inside a control room. I still have no idea what to make of the mere existence of Lila & Eve, in which Davis and Jennifer Lopez (yep, Jenny from the Block) play Thelma and Louise mothers-turned-vigilantes, except that I hope it’s a ton of fun and that J. Lo can keep up. I hope that Davis’ passion project, a biopic of the groundbreaking politician and civil rights leader Barbara Jordan, finally gets some traction, since we’ve heard nary a word about it since Davis announced its development in March of 2012.

Jennifer Lopez & Viola on the set of "Lila & Eve"

If my worst fears regarding all of these projects eventually come true, then I at least hope that How to Get Away with Murder is the instant hit it needs to be and rides that Scandal lead-in for all it’s worth. I hope that Viola snatches that Emmy statue right out of Claire Danes’ quivering hands and wins every gong she can, Temple Grandin­-style. I hope that Annalise Keating is the dynamic, detailed, full-bodied part that Viola had in mind when she said in a crushing Entertainment Weekly piece, “I’m dark skinned, I’m quirky, I’m shy, I’m strong, I’m guarded, I’m weak at times, I’m sensual, I’m not overtly sexual. I am so many things in so many ways and I will never see myself on screen.”

I hope that Viola amazes the living, actress-loving daylights out of us on How to Get Away with Murder, so that somewhere, some producer or casting director or studio head will tune in and see her—really, fully see her. And I hope they think to themselves, with regret but also, maybe even possibility, what plenty of us have known all along: “Holy shit, that woman can act!”


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Reader Comments (39)

Viola Davis is a beast!! A beast!! Maybe the best we have today

August 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJosh

Thanks for depressing me with this piece. Hollywood is a patriarchal white supremacy. When they say they have nothing to offer it is because they choose not to commission material that is racially neutral for women. Only men are granted the agency of racially neutral material. Eddie Murray was offered Who Framed Roger Rabbit? - Denzel Washington was offered Michael Clayton - Will Smith was offered The Matrix. None of these examples will ever mirror the experience of a black actress with the exception of Whoopi Goldberg. Since every major followup film to The Color Purple she had was initially a white vehicle for someone else. Jumpin' Jack Flash was a Shelley Long movie, Burglar was a Bruce Willis movie, Fatal Beauty was a Cher movie.

August 22, 2014 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

" I hope that Annalise Keating is the dynamic, detailed, full-bodied part that Viola had in mind when she said in a crushing Entertainment Weekly piece, “I’m dark skinned, I’m quirky, I’m shy, I’m strong, I’m guarded, I’m weak at times, I’m sensual, I’m not overtly sexual. I am so many things in so many ways and I will never see myself on screen.”

I hope that Viola amazes the living, actress-loving daylights out of us on How to Get Away with Murder, so that somewhere, some producer or casting director or studio head will tune in and see her—really, fully see her. And I hope they think to themselves, with regret but also, maybe even possibility, what plenty of us have known all along: “Holy shit, that woman can act!”"

Beautifully put, Matthew.
Amazing write-up.

It is a serious problem. Not only this, but also the ageism. We laugh when someone reminds us in a ceremony like when Tina says at the Globes "showing us there are still great parts for Meryl Streeps over 50", but the reality is very dire; there aren't many roles for women of a certain age and there are even fewer roles for women who don't fit the 'commercial standard'.

Everybody wants a ScarJo, or a Hathaway or a JLaw. And the Margo Robbie point of view you mention is accurate. Everybody wants a piece of the new 'bombshell'.

Part of this is also the directors' fault. I love Jennifer Lawrence, I truly do, but did she really need both her David O. Russell roles? The first one I can deal with, but the second one in American Hustle? She was both way too young and way too wrong for the character! Instead of Chris Tucker, maybe that role could've been played by an actress of color who could use the attention and exposure. Not that Jennifer didn't kick ass in the role.

Maybe all actresses of a certain age should all move to Europe. Look at Binoche. In Europe, she keeps getting offered great roles. Hollywood gives her Godzilla. For shame.

August 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJorge Rodrigues

3rtful -- never say never. This wasn't always true for the black men in Hollywood. Things change. They just take forever.

Josh - agreed. just a miracle of an actress.

Matthew - thanks for writing this. If this were read aloud in church i would shouting "Amen" over and over again.

August 22, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

The whole notion of bankability (usually the excuse for the perennial indifference towards many of the actresses you mention) confuses me.

It's 2014. The Help and The Butler were box office hits. "The world is round, people!". And for some Hollywood execs to get the memo, we still need a Meryl Streep to shout out Adepero Oduye's name in a ceremony, or for Cate Blanchett to remind the Spirits that there is an actress working her ass off named Greta Gerwig that could use the consideration (especially since she doesn't fit the common standards of beauty/celebrity/actress in Hollywood).

It sucks.

August 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJorge Rodrigues

The first thing I thought when I initially saw the preview for "How to Get Away with Murder" was, "At least she'll get to play hip and sexy." I can only hope -- and I do hope with every fiber of my being -- that at least it provides her a showcase that makes Hollywood realize that downtrodden 1960s matriarchs don't have to be her only specialty. She is far too talented to be pigeonholed in such a manner.

August 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTroy H.

I agree with everything in this post, with the exception of " I hope that Viola snatches that Emmy statue right out of Claire Danes’ quivering hands". Danes deserved that second Emmy for Homeland (not so much for #3) but I believe it's unnecessary to highlight Viola Davis' acting genius by taking down the work of another performer, even in jest. Don't think Viola would like it either. She's too classy for that...

August 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPam

Pam: Mmm, it's Shonda Rhimes. Though I'm half tempted to say netting Davis will get Emmy interested in Rhimes world, they didn't even toss a token nod at Heigl for the 06-07 season as a reaction to Knocked Up, so I doubt they're at all interested in that stable.

August 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

This woman should be getting some great starring roles. The way Hollywood works really pisses me off.

August 22, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Repeat after me: Hollywood is a patriarchal white supremacy. That answers your questions about sexism, ageism, and racism. Knowing what Hollywood is is the first step in not being surprised in them not changing despite the outside political climate.

Brad Pitt is doing his part to make sure Lupita and Steve McQueen have followup projects being produced through Plan B.

Tarantino is writes black characters into his stories whether we think of them being appropriate or not: Inglourious Basterds.

Much respect to John Sayles who writes fully realized black characters and hires black women to fill out those fully realized characters.

Special shout out to Paul Thomas Anderson for making sure that whenever he can have diversity in the casting of his ensembles he ceases the opportunity to do so.

August 22, 2014 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

Volvalgia: Huh? The Emmys love Shonda Rhimes. SCANDAL has won two Emmys (Guest Actors) two years in a row and Kerry Washington has been nominated for Lead Actress both years as well. Grey's Anatomy has a handful of Emmy wins INCLUDING one for Heigl in 2007. So? Huh?

August 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRyan T.

What I hope Viola Davis can escape or curtail with her talents is Rhimes's tendency to go wildly off the rails into soap opera histrionics in the latter half of the second season or somewhere in the third.

I'm so, so happy for Viola though. She sounds excited with this TV project and who can blame her, as it gives her the chance to carve a character who looks to be flawed in the most interesting ways, to be sexual and sexually attractive, to escape the various cliches that come with being a dark skinned black woman with a mellifluous voice and a sense of austerity. Blow the roof off, Viola, and show the movies what they're missing.

August 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterF

no matter what the role i am always glad to see her.

August 22, 2014 | Unregistered Commenteranne

Re: black women of a certain age appearing sexy onscreen, how can we not mention Lorraine Toussant's fearless and captivating work on Orange is the New Black?

August 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHayden W.

Thanks for sharing this lovely piece with us...I'm probably one of those who don't exactly bemoan her Oscar loss but it doesn't make me think less of her sheer talent and hard work. Watch this space - Viola will be celebrated over and over for her screen output, both big and small, regardless of whether she wins an Oscar or Emmy. She will be celebrated in all of our hearts because we know what a gifted actress she really is.

August 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJans

Hayden W: Do a search for Nathan's evaluation of Orange's season two. I bring it up in the comments section.

August 22, 2014 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

@ Hayden W. -- Lorraine Toussaint's taut, frisky, and totally fearless work on Orange is one of the prime arguments for our favorite actresses making the switch from cinema to the smaller screen. (Even though, yes, Toussaint's been a TV fixture for most of her career.) No film producer - commercial or, sadly, indie - is creating anything nearly as meaty, central, and all-around good for actresses of Toussaint and Davis' age, color, or redoubtable and totally involving acting abilities.

@ Jans -- Such a lovely sentiment! Always nice to be reminded that Viola Appreciation isn't as much of a rarity as it can occasionally seem.

August 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Eng

Let's be honest, women of color are constantly ignored by the directors that many of us drool over, Nolan, Coppola, Fincher, P.T. Anderson (despite his partner being a woman of color) and Woody Allen. Don't get me wrong I love some of their work too, but this article will be long forgotten when Gone Girl, Inherent Vice, Interstellar and The Little Mermaid are released.

August 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNikki

holy shit, that man can got me all fired up, matthew, and i'm trying to have a relaxing saturday...

August 22, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterpar

Nikki: Maya is in Inherent Vice. And I suspect Paul will also include their children. Since he was unable to for The Master due to it being period inaccurate to include biracial children in a sequence that clearly is taking place in a segregated setting.

August 23, 2014 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

@3rtful :Is she the female lead though? Probably not.

August 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNikki

And for the record, it's not as if Lorraine Toussaint is getting hounded for co-leads with Jennifer Lopez. We lament how "beneath" her Viola Davis' career is but let's not forget that none of her peers have it so great. At least Viola Davis has first dibs on Viola Davis parts.

August 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHayden W.

I don't care what the Oscars decree: there is not one moment of Meryl Streep's performance in "The Iron Lady" that rivals what Viola Davis does in the last five minutes of "The Help"--hell, nothing Streep does in "The Iron Lady" matches what Viola Davis does in one LINE, when she gets in Bryce Dallas Howard's face and hisses, "You...are...a...GODLESS...woman." That poor white gal is going to wander the Earth, cursed for all eternity with the mark of Cain upon her, smote by Davis' wrath.

August 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDback

Dback, preach. It's not just the fact that she lost, it's the fact that she lost to a hammy performance in a horrendous movie that was made just to win Meryl Streep awards. It sucks. It made me think of Whoopi Goldberg lost to Geraldine Page. You can't tell me nothing about race had to do with it. Halle Berry won because she gave a great performance, but is also a sex symbol and widely accepted by both blacks and whites. The old white men of the Academy are not sexually attracted to Viola or Whoopi. Why do we think young white women always win? Meryl isn't someone they may want to have sex with, but they respect her on another level as "the greatest actress that ever lived" or whatever. Cool that Meryl has 3 finally, but the fact that it came at the expense of Viola Davis winning a Best Actress Oscar, which would've meant so much more and done a lot for film, is what really stinks.

Anywho... I just hope Viola is happy. I know she really thought she would win that Oscar (watch the Oprah special and tell me she doesn't know in her mind that she already won it). Obviously an oscar isn't everything but it can mean a lot especially for a black woman winning Lead Actress, and to get so close without getting it...must feel like a one time opportunity. And her film career hasn't exactly been the gold mine it should be post-Help. I feel like even Octavia is doing better.

It's just sad to me that year after year Lead Actress is the one category where there isn't ONE black woman (or woman of color for that matter) EVEN IN CONVERSATION. Where are the roles???????

August 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip H.

Beautiful piece

August 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJulien

I saw this promotional video with Shonda Rhimes, Ellen Pompeo, Kerry Washington and Viola discussing their shows. At the end there was this clip of Viola's show and it looked so conventional. We're going to get bored.

August 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

peggy sue -- i fear this too. Everyone who loves Viola... and there are a lot of us is looking forward to this show as the Big Opportunity To See Her Sink Her Teeth Into a Big Role. But what if it's not a big role. What if it's conventional? I mean I love Kerry Washington but I don't really think her part on Scandal is that multi-faceted. It's just a huge role is all (which can be its own pleasure with an underutilized actress)

but i am happy to watch a handful of episodes and see if it gives me what i need with Viola.

August 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNathanielR

This show is Shonda-produced, but not Shonda-created, which could be a good thing. Time will tell.

August 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

I can't wait to see how "Lila and Eve" turns out. I'm hoping it's a return to form for Lopez (who, while underrated throughout the first half of the aughts, was one of the better actresses of the 90s, in my humble opinion). Davis looks intense in that still.

August 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Reese

Philip H -
1) geraldine page was an acting legend at the time and her performance in 'the trip to bountiful' was considered masterful. To simplify her win with 'you can't tell me nothing about race had to do with it it' and 'the old white men of the academy are not sexually attracted to viola or whoopi' is just a weak argument.
2) please write grammatically correct

August 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterEllsworth

I take back Fincher, due to Benjamin Button and The Social Network, but the rest uh no.

August 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNikki

Ellsworth: I once pissed off Guy Lodge by suggesting that Glenn Close never won an Oscar because the men of the Academy see her as unfuckable. Laughs. The Unfuckake Glenn Close: A Life -- I should so write a musical on this very subject. I would have bitchy songs directed at all the women who beat her in Best Actress.

August 23, 2014 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

Nikki: Nicole Ari Parker was in Boogie Nights and April Grace and Cleo King were in Magnolia. Don't give up on Paul Thomas Anderson.

August 23, 2014 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

@3rtful, I guess my point is we want more substantial roles for women of color, yet when we drool over some of our favorite directors it's like they're exempt from these criticisms. I love Sofia Coppola, but other than the Bling Ring most of her films focus on White females. I mean The Little Mermaid could be a race neutral role, but how much you want to bet that it will star a White female.

Like Boyhood is the most critically acclaimed film of the year so far...but where is the lack of diversity criticism? Unless you want to count that cringe worthy scene where the Hispanic waiter is praising the White Savior. It's ok to use our music in the film, but giving a substantial role to someone of color is asking too much.

August 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNikki

Nikki: Sofia Coppola wants to be Nordic white instead of Ethnic white. Hence she'll always preoccupy herself with white people visually different from herself who had the same affluent upbringing. I rather she not attempt adding people of color as her primary focus because she'll just get it wrong.

And what we really need are more female filmmakers from non-white / non-heterosexual backgrounds making movies affirming their identities and revolving around characters that look like them. Of course Hollywood is a patriarchy as much as it is a white supremacy. Hence the dying out of the old guard in order for slight change at the Academy.

I'm hoping Selma works miracles in the career of the director. Kasi Lemmons has Eve's Bayou -- yet she could never match its quality with a followup.

August 23, 2014 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

As I have said before, where is that Barbara Jordan biopic? I am just so over filmmakers feeling the need to age Viola Davis and having the need to dowdy her up so much. De-glamming is great but is it really de-glamming if the powers at be continues to blind their eyes in the process and failing see how stunning and beautiful and talented the woman is to start out with? Also though I am so glad to be seeing Viola Davis on my television screen every week , but I just hope How To Get Away With Murder is more along the lines of "The Awesome Viola Davis Show" rather than "Alot of Young Pretty the Awesome Viola Davis".

August 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterKai Lor

Ellsworth - Ohp, you sound like another butthurt white person (I'm white btw just to put that out there). If telling me to type grammatically correct is the most relevant thing you can take from my post, then that says more about you than me.

Yes, Geraldine Page was an acting legend. But I've heard mixed things about that movie/performance. Whereas I've heard nothing but amazing things about Whoopi and The Color Purple in general. I never said that's all there was to it, I'm just saying it's pretty clear that race was involved in the voting process. And I think sex appeal has a lot to do with it, Viola and Whoopi had an advantage but they went with the acting legend instead.

You called my argument weak, but yours seemed much weaker to me ;(

August 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip H.

"Whereas I've heard nothing but amazing things about Whoopi and The Color Purple in general."

Well, don't get me started. ;-) But for starters...

Hit Me With Your Best Shot

August 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

Viola Davis in a damn Shonda Rhimes series. Oh God the overacting that we're about to suffer through. It's bad enough this woman has RUINED Kerry Washington for me forever, but now she's about to do it for my gurl Viola too? Just shameful. Shameful to Hollywood for not utilizing her properly (the offers should have been flooding after "The Help," and those racists damn well know it), and shame on her for accepting what's so clearly beneath her talents and worth in this network drivel. Can't say I won't watch it, b/c I'd rather see Viola slumming than not working at all, but I won't be happy about it. I think she's given up on Oscar glory. :-*( Where is that damn Barbara Jordan biopic???

August 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDorian

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