In Out of Sight Karen Sisco has come to the Motor City to ascertain the whereabouts of bank robber Jack Foley. To do so she needs to locate a potential accomplice known as Snoopy and/or Mad Dog Miller. She gets his address. She shows up, only to be greeted by Snoopy and/or Mad Dog’s long-suffering wife Moselle. The two of them talk, briefly. “I’d like to know where he goes,” Moselle explains. “Same time, I don’t want to know, you understand?” Karen is played by Jennifer Lopez (i.e. J.Lo) giving – all biases against her incessant appearances in grocery aisle gossip magazines aside – the performance of her life.
Moselle is played by Viola Davis who at the time was making but her second screen appearance ever, preceded only by her turn as “Nurse” in The Substance Of Fire. This, of course, is Viola’s chance to make her “reel”. She’s going toe to freaking toe with an ex-Fly Girl. Make it count! But rather than light it up and act her ass off so casting directors everywhere take notice she plays the role for exactly what the role is – a weary housewife who is verbally (and perhaps physically) abused by her idiot brother.
In Traffic teenage Caroline Wakefield (Erika Christensen) finds herself face to face with a “Social Worker” played by Viola Davis, a “Social Worker” who seems tired from having to deal with this Caroline who so obviously should not be leading her upstanding parents and teachers down the primrose path. She gets all A’s. She’s a National Merit Finalist. She’s in the Spanish Club. She’s Vice President of her class. Yada yada. At this point the actual Traffic screenplay reads: “The social worker pushes the forms she’s filling out away and looks again at Caroline.” Ah, but to see it! To see it is to see a Davis deliver a look of restrained caring annoyance. She says: “You want to tell me what you’re doing here, Caroline?” No affect, no spin on the words, just a “Social Worker” at work pissed off this sixteen year old is pissing her life away.
Two glorified walk-on roles, no more than a couple minutes of screen time, and hardly anyone in the mainstream likely knew Davis had been turning in much complimented work on the stage since 1996 – earning a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress for King Hedley II in 2001 - because as any fast-talking, over-selling talent agent will advise, making it on Broadway doesn’t mean automatically getting to make it in Hollywood which is why the same year she earned that Tony Nomination she also starred in Kate & Leopold as……”Policewoman.”
Her breakout, so to speak, on the silver screen arrived in 2003 when she earned an Independent Spirit Award nomination for her deft turn as the mother of Antwone Fisher. In keeping with the trend it was an exceptionally brief appearance – a single scene, though, again, she made that single count for all it was worth, and she made it count by in so many ways choosing to do nothing. Playing the title character who was abandoned at birth by this very mother he has spent an entire film trying to track down, Derek Luke gives an impassioned monologue about the man he has become and how his mother had absolutely nothing to do with it. And for the duration of this monologue, Davis says absolutely nothing, instead merely re-acting, taking what he says because she knows she deserves it.
And so it would continue for Davis. In Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center she turns up for a single scene, delivering a devastating monologue and arguably the film’s finest moment as a mother whose last conversation with her son who perished at Ground Zero was a pointless argument. In Doubt she would earn, to that point, her biggest blast of movie notoriety by landing an Oscar Best Supporting Actress Nomination for her single wrenching scene as the mother of boy at the center of the whole film who may or may not been sexually abused. To be sure, not every movie Davis has made has only featured her one fleeting moment, but even then it often seems like a series of fleeting moments as opposed to anything substantial.
In Knight and Day she was the “CIA Director” and in Syriana she was a “CIA Chairwoman,” both throwaway bits with bawdy titles. In State of Play she was Dr. Franklin and in It’s Kind Of A Funny Story she was Dr. Minerva, both characters existing simply to aid and abet the characters for whom the screenplay really cared. Sure, sure, her work as the hard-bitten Gordon in Solaris would have made anyone who had never been afforded the opportunity to see her work in the theater sit up and take notice but, nevertheless, that was essentially a one person show and the person was George Clooney.
Yet through it all (“Grandma” in Get Rich or Die Tryin’) she was never of the Take The Paycheck And Run variety, never the “Here’s My Mark! See It?! That’s MY Mark On THIS Movie!” sort. No, irregardless of screen time, depth or even quality of the production into which she had been dropped she strove to serve the whole film and nothing but the film. In the deed the glory.
I’ll be honest, I’m not a fan of The Help, a simplistic bit of weepie cinema that purports to boldly tell the tale of two black maids deep in the heart of Jim Crow from their perspective……only to then not really, uh, tell the tale of two black maids deep in the heart of Jim Crow from their perspective so that they can tell it from EVERYONE’S (!!!) perspective to ensure EVERYONE (!!!) watching has someone to lean on so they can go home happy and satisfied. Those means things said, Viola Davis’s performance as Abilene, the maid who Emma Stone’s Skeeter first enlists for the story that never really gets told, is several weight classes above what this featherweight bit of nansy-pansiness deserves.
I fervently, openly adored Rooney Mara’s work in The Girl Dragon With The Dragon Tattoo (and I will still be rooting for it come Sunday evening), which, much like The Help is a very flawed film with an absurdly fine leading performance as its calling card. Yet……Ms. Mara doesn’t necessarily hold together the flimsiness of her film’s painfully routine and uninteresting murder mystery leftovers. Davis, on the other hand, like she always does, like she’s done in film after film after film, stands out but not above and does her nearly incomprehensible damnedest to not only hold together Tate Taylor’s apple pie on a window sill but to inject it with some vim and vigor without requesting acclaim. In a way, the moment near the end when Abilene is asked to step to the front of her church to bask in the congregation’s applause and she waves it off and tries to recede is an almost Meta moment, indicative of the attitude of the supremely talented lady playing the part.
Viola Davis has not really been snubbed in the past, as some have suggested, which means it would almost be nice to see this leading role in The Help turn into more and better leading roles in the future so she could win an Oscar for one of those as opposed to winning for a role so beneath her talent. Yet, to win for a role so beneath her talent would be just about perfect for Viola Davis, wouldn’t it?
DO YOU THINK VIOLA DAVIS WILL WIN BEST ACTRESS? WHO DO YOU THINK DESERVES THE AWARD?