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Is Viola in "Fences" a lead? Or is her "Rose" a supporting player by choice? 

Scarlett & Viola won the supporting & lead actress Tonys in 2010. Now Viola is headed for a supporting trophy (for the same role) by Lynn Lee

If it’s Oscar season, there must be category fraud lurking somewhere.  This year most of the debate has centered around Viola Davis, whose barn-burner of a performance opposite Denzel Washington in Fences is a virtual lock ...for supporting actress gold.  There’s little doubt the decision to go supporting was driven by the perception that lead actress would be a much tougher road in an especially competitive year.  Still, it’s such a powerhouse turn that many Viola fans are justifiably frustrated by what looks like a cynical lack of faith in both her and the Academy.

And yet, having previously read the play and seen it performed on stage – though not the production that starred Viola and Denzel – I can’t help wondering if this is as open-and-shut a case of category fraud as it appears.  In terms of the weight and magnetism of Viola’s performance, it feels like a lead role.  But the way the role is written, as August Wilson conceived it, I think is a closer call...

[spoilers ahead]

For the first two-thirds of Fences, Viola’s Rose is a quiet, steadying presence, alternately laughing at, chiding, and submitting to the attentions of her larger-than-life husband, Troy (Denzel).  It’s not just her, either.  Troy’s the kind of guy who likes to talk and hear himself talk, and neither Rose, nor their son Cory (Jovan Adepo), nor Troy’s friend and co-worker Bono (Stephen Henderson), can get much of a word in edgewise once he gets going.  And for the most part, they don’t try particularly hard.  But the dynamic shifts radically when Troy finds himself in a moral bind and in the uncomfortable and uncharacteristic position of supplicant.  He throws himself onto Rose’s mercy, knowing he’s in the wrong, but being Troy, he can’t help casting himself as the victim of a greater wrong—if he cheated on her, it was because society cheated him.  Weighed down by his responsibilities and his lack of advancement, he cheated because it helped him forget temporarily that he’s “been standing in the same place for eighteen years.”  That’s when Rose explodes:

I been standing with you!  I been right here with you, Troy … I gave eighteen years of my life to stand in the same spot with you. 

Don’t you think I ever wanted other things?  Don’t you think I had dreams and hopes?

Despite her own doubts and disappointments, she stayed with him, she kept her faith in and with him, she gave everything of herself to him, while he took it all for granted.  It’s a riveting come-to-Jesus moment in the play.  In the movie, as delivered by Viola, it’s volcanic; if she doesn’t literally breathe fire, she all but does emotionally.  She also does what seemed impossible: she completely eclipses Denzel.  Even though his Troy, momentarily stunned into silence, lashes back (catching young Cory in the cross-fire), it’s too late for him to reclaim the spotlight entirely.  He now shares it with Rose.

Ultimately, though, Rose allows Troy’s choices to continue to dictate hers, partly because she’s a better person than he is, partly because her choices are realistically even more limited than his.  She stays with him and raises his daughter as her own, even as she watches him drive away their son.  And even after Troy passes on, she compels the estranged son to honor him.  Her final monologue serves as an elegy for Troy, but also for the life she might have lived:

When your daddy walked through the house he was so big he filled it up.  That was my first mistake.  Not to make him leave some room for me.  For my part in the matter.  But at that time I wanted that...

I didn’t know to keep up his strength I had to give up little pieces of mine.  I did that.  I took on his life as mine and mixed up the pieces so that you couldn’t hardly tell which was which anymore.  It was my choice.  It was my life and I didn’t have to live it like that.  But that’s what life offered me in the way of being a woman and I took it.

This speech doesn’t conclusively establish that Rose is “only” a supporting character.  If anything, it simply underscores how much Troy depended on Rose for his own identity and self-worth, and how being an African American woman in the 1950s added an extra handicap that Troy never had to deal with.  There’s a fair argument to be made that Rose is the unsung hero of his story.  But it’s hard to deny that it is still his story, with all of the other characters’ arcs defined by Troy’s effect on them.

Notably, when the play premiered on Broadway in 1987 (with James Earl Jones as Troy, Mary Alice as Rose, and Courtney B. Vance as Cory), Mary Alice was awarded the Tony for best featured actress.  For the 2010 Broadway revival, however, Viola won the Tony for best (lead) actress.  Little change was made to the play’s text in the revival.  The only thing that changed was the actress.  If Viola seems like a lead, it’s a tribute to the singular power of her performance.  And perhaps that’s all we need for Oscar to recognize her as such; it would certainly be deserved.  But in a way, a nomination for best supporting actress would be oddly fitting, thematically, for a character who played supporting when she should have been the lead.

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Reader Comments (60)

I felt supporting but I didn't care for her in it or Washington but happy she'll have an Oscar.

January 17, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMARKGORDONUK

Category placements I don't agree with: Viola Davis as Supporting, Hugh Grant as Supportting, Sunny Pawar as Lead. I hate to use the word "fraud" because it reeks of deep dark conspiracies and backroom wheeling and dealing. If they're nominated in the "wrong" categories I'll consider them in light of their competition, regardless of where I think they should have been. Last year, I would have still voted for Rooney Mara, even though the idea she was Supporting was ludicrous.

January 17, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterken s

ken s: I'd guess I'd disagree with: Hugh Grant (to such an extent that I think STREEP would be a more honest supporting contender) as supporting, Jeff Bridges as supporting, Dev Patel as supporting (there is such a thing as "leading a half", and that's what Pawar and Patel are, see also: Eisenberg and Garfield in The Social Network), Lucas Hedges as supporting, if he happens, and Viola Davis as Supporting. SupporTIVE and supporTING are similar, yes, but they are not the same. Aaron Taylor Johnson winning that Globe (if he moves on to Oscar over Hedges) could be great from an honesty standpoint (that is an ACTUAL supporting role and not a co-lead turn), even if it's probably not from a quality standpoint.

January 17, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Agree strongly with this. I hadn't seen the play, and had already heard all sorts of kvetching about Viola's 'supporting' campaign, but after seeing the movie for myself it began to make more sense. Denzel is the Sun of the solar system that is Fences, with every other player orbiting him. Only in that one scene does it become a binary star system.

January 17, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterN8

I agree with "ken s" when it comes to the usage of "fraud" when describing category placement. Unlike the Screen Actors Guild's awards, Academy voters can actually nominate a performance in whichever Lead/Supporting category they see fit. In the past, they've outright rejected campaigns for a Supporting nomination when a performer was clearly a lead (Keisha Castle-Hughes nod for "Whale Rider" being the most obvious example.)... Which is what makes some Supporting nominations so head-scratchingly oblivious to a performer's/character's function in a film to the point where I'm not sure voters are actually watching these films.

Last year's Supporting Actress race had two lead performances, Rooney Mara in a clearly lead role for Carol and Alicia Vikander who is given the arc, focus and screen time of a co-lead in The Danish Girl. (Vikander won, arguably for the wrong film, especially if she was going to win the SUPPORTING Oscar, but that's last year's news.)

Unlike "ken s," I would flat out reject a nomination in the wrong category. Last year, I loved Mara and Vikander in those films, but I wouldn't have voted for either on the principle of the matter. (Which would leave me with voting for Jennifer Jason Leigh among the remaining nominees.)

I love Viola Davis in Fences and I love her as an actress, but while a Supporting nomination wouldn't be as ridiculous as Mara or Vikander's nominations last year, I still wouldn't categorize her work as Supporting when taking the entire weight of the film into account. Performers like Michelle Williams and Naomie Harris give strong performances that serve to illuminate the work of a lead character and have more limited screen time, giving tremendous textbook supporting performances.

January 17, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterGraham Greenlee

Cases like Mara/Vikander last year totally merit the fraud furore

But I feel like getting all outraged over ambiguous-at-best cases like Hedges or Bridges just totally dilutes the issue and helps those ludicrous actual-fraud campaigns get away with it.

Hedges in particular is totally supporting. Because Lonergan structures his scripts in such an unconventional way (and god I love him for that) I can see the ambiguity a little bit. But Affleck's is the single character arc that shapes the entire film. All the other arcs are (sometimes extensively developed) offshoots or contrasts to his, ie. in support of his. Hedges like Winslet in Steve Jobs last year has a proportionally larger screentime than many leads. But screentime doesn't equal a centrally shaping force in a given narrative.

Significant subplots in both Manchester and Jobs involve the film's actual protagonist's relationships to other characters, and even if Hedges and Winslet are present in some of these scenes - said scenes are not ABOUT their arc.

Mara and Vikander on the other hand were very much the narrative-shaping (co-)protagonists of their films last year. That this even needs to be pointed out is silly.

Sometimes antagonists can be leads - or at least feel like leads (eg. Hopkins in Lambs, Streep in Prada) - but even in those cases I feel like it's the actor's star status that 'elevates' the performance to the lead category, and not the role or the extent to which it shapes the narrative.

I've not seen Fences yet. So I can't comment on that one.

January 17, 2017 | Unregistered Commentergoran

The short version of a longer discussion in another comments thread:
Supportive character does not equal supporting role.
Especially not in this case.

January 17, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

Agree with categorization: Viola Davis (went in fully expecting fraud, but it's just a very large role)
Disagree with categorization: Jeff Bridges, Dev Patel, and Hugh Grant, so a rough year for Supporting Actor.

January 17, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMike

A black woman will triple crown this year. More important than whether or not she won her bloody Oscar in lead or supporting.

January 17, 2017 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

I agree, the role is supporting.

January 17, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDGA

When Julia agreed to go supporting for August: Osage County, I knew we would never get rid of this curse. All we needed was a previous winner with a big name saying: "I'm not doing this." I did not happen. Won't happen any time soon. I have zero confidence in voters. Besides, there's always someone ready to justify the fraud.

January 17, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Yeah Peggy Sue, I agree.

When the Academy rejected Kate Winslet's egregious category fraud campaign for The Reader, I was slightly optimistic they were coming around to nominating ACTUAL supporting performances (and this came a few years after their Keisha Castle-Hughes switch)...but after Julia Roberts in August: Osage County and Christoph Waltz in Django Unchained (not to mention the head-scratching ridiculousness of Rooney Mara and Alicia Vikander last year), I don't think it's going to get better anytime soon.

January 17, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAaron

very well argued Lynn!

January 17, 2017 | Registered CommenterMurtada Elfadl

When Julia agreed to go supporting for August: Osage County, I knew we would never get rid of this curse. All we needed was a previous winner with a big name saying: "I'm not doing this." It did not happen. Won't happen any time soon. I have zero confidence in voters. Besides, there's always someone ready to justify the fraud.

It happened with Denzel for Philadelphia. He refused a supporting campaign to get joint nominations with his costar. Though not a previous winner at the time Julianne Moore refused to go supporting for The Kids Are All Right.

January 17, 2017 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

I think she's supporting.

January 17, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterRoger

i thank you Paul for bringing up "Supportive ≠ Supporting" -- this is always the excuse with female characters being considered supporting in marital dramas. But marital dramas are, with extremely limited exceptions, two lead films.

I appreciate what Lynn is saying here but i think the play/movie argues that Rose is a TOTAL lead and it is wrong for her to subsume herself in the first half of the movie (and by extension the last 18 years of her life).

and saying she is supporting because the story revolves around Troy. Well, what about the last half hour when everything shifts to being about her?

January 17, 2017 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

This may be really reductive, like something David Bordwell would do, but one could always count lines and close ups, etc. and decide the issue numerically.

January 17, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDanno

Danno -- there's no need to do that. We only need a time machine. HAHA. much more practical. If we all go back to like the early 90s very few people would ever make excuses for the egregious category fraud that goes on today. Now everyone's ideas of what it is to lead a movie have been hopelessly warped by years of conditioning to think that movie stars are somehow not starring in their own movies ;)

January 17, 2017 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Does anyone here think the academy might The Reader her into Leading? As I recall, Oscar was the first big-name awards body to nominate Kate in lead (where that performance belonged).

January 17, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterCharles O

I strongly disagree. As Nathaniel says, it is actually far more thematically apt to categorize her as lead, considering the story works to assert Rose's centrality by rejecting the idea that she was ever marginal or subordinate in the relationship, and by extension in the narrative. We see her presence and authority surface more and more emphatically as the film progresses, and by the end there is no denying that this allegedly "supporting" wife is actually the real heart and backbone of the family.

January 17, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan

Beautifully written, Lynn, but while this is not nearly as egregious as Mara and Vikander last year, I agree with Nathaniel: She's a Lead. I was okay with the "supporting" designation until that last act/epilogue where she takes center stage all by herself and the fact that her role only seems to grow after her big outburst at the center of the film. This isn't like a Lady Macbeth or Linda Loman situation, where a wife character has one or two big moments but otherwise is mostly in the background or disappears completely for long stretches. Rose has just as much of an arc as Troy does (and possibly even more so), and the film gives her the screentime and central focus in the back half to match his.

I'm not mad at the supporting campaign, I'm just disappointed. She's a lead. Give the woman her damn due.

January 17, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDancin' Dan

Honestly my dream scenario would be the Academy to "promote" Viola to lead knocking out Meryl (she'll understand) and have her win there. Get that opening for Gerwig to get her first nomination and Williams her first win. Wrapped all in a pretty bow.

January 17, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterRyan T.

Thanks, all. Funnily enough, on my TFE ballot I treated Viola as a lead (voted her #2 behind the Bening). But I did have to think about it a while, which was in part the genesis of this post.

January 18, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterlylee

a good movie... Return on Investment

January 18, 2017 | Unregistered Commentersaurabh samaddar

I still believe in that Winslet/KCH scenario. And she wins in lead if they do that.

January 18, 2017 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

Viola is a lead in Fences. End of story.

January 18, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMichael R

I think she's a co-lead, but if I were a studio head, I'd campaign her as supporting too. She's a clear win in that category whereas she would have tough competition in lead.

January 18, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterBrittani

Interesting aside - while Viola did campaign to get considered as a Leading Actress for the Tony Awards, the Drama Desk Awards (where the nominations determine the category and there is no opportunity for producers to argue for different category placement) had her slotted as a supporting actress. In any case, it's certainly a very close call and, to my mind at least, a far cry from the egregious category fraud of someone like Rooney Mara in Carol.

January 18, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJ.B.

It feels too big for Supporting but just not quite big enough tocompare to the other candidates in Lead, so I'm a little torn. Like others, I don't think this is quite as bad as Mara or Roberts.

January 18, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDJDeeJay

cal -- if anything i think it would have made Denzel a fiercer competitor too, to sell it as his & hers Oscars. but ah well...

January 18, 2017 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke (twice), Jake Gyllenhaal...

January 18, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

Washington wanted her to stay in the leading category. He felt like she was selling herself short. He feels she's enough of a name to stay in lead regardless of the reasons she'd be a vulnerable competitor in Best Actress.

January 18, 2017 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

Maybe they considered that "Best Actress" is impenetrable for non-white women. And it's also becoming impenetrable for women over 40. She could campaign in Lead, be nominate in Lead, and she would still loose to a Nordic Looking skinny white girl who is nearly 20 years younger than her.

January 18, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAmanda

I will never deny how precious an Oscar is, but this calculated pandering just reeks of desperation. If Viola lost in lead, she was still nominated in lead, and that's pretty damn great. I just don't get this attitude that you need to get an Oscar, at any cost. It's silly and undignified. I love Alicia, and I wish she hadn't gone that route last year.

January 18, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Multiple Oscar nominee Judy Davis or Oscar winner Marisa Tomei with multiple nominations.

January 18, 2017 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

Saw Fences in a local cineplex and thought Viola Davis' character is lead. It was a quiet first third of the film for Rose. Then that cathartic outburst in the second third and suddenly she majestically commands the screen. Then the last third put her back in the center where she belongs. Troy is a titanic presence for sure, but Rose registered an equally seismic presence in a different economies of scale.

It would indeed stir Oscar punditry if and when she is nominated as lead because of the dynamics that nomination can cause to the lead actress line-up. She might be the upset winner too.

I think Viola's performance is one of 2016's very best and although I am aware of the category fraud that miffs a lot of people, one should not overlook that bright gem of a performance. I hope that her overall performance will not be overshadowed by negative backlashes. But we live in an imperfect world, so my crystal ball is most likely flawed.

Still rooting for Isabelle Huppert's lead actress nomination which I will consider already a win. If Isabelle wins the whole thing, delirious happiness/glorious pandemonium in my world. But that won't probably happen either.

January 18, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterOwl

Regardless of the role, the ads and posters all say, in HUGE letters:



They want her to be the star to sell tickets and the featured actress to win awards. That makes it intended category fraud even if logistical arguments can be made for the other side.

January 18, 2017 | Unregistered Commentervladdy

I know this was a million years ago, but supposedly Paramount promoted Susan Sarandon as Supporting Actress in "Atlantic City" and the Academy ignored that and nominated her in lead. An early example of category fraud thwarted. I, too, hope something like that happens now. I DO think Davis would win, and pretty easily, in the lead category. I'll bet there are people really second guessing the decision to play it safe right now.

January 18, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDanno

Found this post on Goldderby, supporting!! I will stand by that sentiment until the end lol:

Matt says:
January 18, 2017 at 3:17 pm
Davis’ part was considered featured when “Fences” first ran on Broadway. The only reason she was nominated as lead actress in play for the revival was due to changes in the rules regarding top billing. The part can certainly be considered a supporting role.

January 22, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDGA


Since it seems everyone's been taking the Broadway placement of the role in Featured as gospel, let's take a closer look at it:

In 1987, when Mary Alice was nominated for playing Rose, no black actress had ever won the Tony for Best Leading Actress in a Play and only three had ever been nominated (one of them twice). One had previously won in the Featured category (from a total of eight nominations by 1987).

Had Mary Alice competed in Leading, she would have had an uphill battle—just to get a nomination— given the above stats. The eventual winner (Linda Lavin) was a first-time nominee who would go on to garner three subsequent nominations; the other three (Lindsay Duncan, Geraldine Page and Amanda Plummer) need no introduction at this blog.

For these reasons, I'm calling category fraud at the 1987 Tonys, the same one Viola is perpetrating this Oscar season. It clearly worked for Mary Alice, as she and her co-star James Earl Jones both won their Tonys, even though they were not his-and-hers Leading awards. (Jones was a safer bet in Leading: he had already won once and two black actors—albeit from the same play in a tie—had won since his first win.)

Incidentally, Mary Alice's competition in the Featured category: Annette Bening, Phyllis Newman Blanche Morton and Carole Shelley. (And there were a number of other potential nominees from productions like Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Blithe Spirit, All My Sons, Coastal Disturbances and You Never Can Tell.)

(I'm sure this won't be the last time we'll be getting into this, assuming Viola is nominated in either category.)

January 22, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

@Paul Outlaw

To be frank, I couldn't care less what category she's placed, as long as she is nominated and wins, she deserves it. Yes, I think the role is supporting, as I always will, but that doesn't not negate the fact that Viola Davis, arguably, gave the best performance of 2016 on the big screen; imo.

January 23, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDGA

To be frank, I couldn't care less what category she's placed, as long as she is nominated and wins,

Well, she and Paramount are completely on your side. ;-)

January 23, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

@Paul Outlaw

In a time when accepting and appreciating diversity in all forms is "paramount", I'd say I'm in great company ;-)

January 23, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDGA

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