By David Raether
If you’re an actor and you’re looking for a career to emulate, you could do a lot worse than Viola Davis. In fact, if you’re a person and looking for a life to admire, you could do a lot worse than Viola Davis. Davis is the first African-American woman nominated for three Academy Awards, and is one of only 23 actors to have the Triple Crown of Acting (Oscar, Emmy, and Tony Awards).
Beyond the awards, however, Davis brings an unspoken seriousness and quiet intensity to every role. She is, for me at least, the very model of a serious working actor. Stand back, ladies and gentlemen, this is how the job is done. Not a lot of flash or ‘look-at-me’ going on in a Viola Davis performance. Just a deep and carefully-crafted portrayal of the character from the script in front of her. She brings characters alive and makes the audience feel like they are watching real human beings.
That may be because the story of her own life is so real and relatable. Born to a horse trainer and maid in St. Matthews, South Carolina, Davis had a bumpy ride growing up. As a very young child, she moved with her parents and some of her siblings to Central Falls, Rhode Island—a desperately poor New England town. In an interview with NPR in 1998, Davis described her childhood as one filled with “abject poverty and dysfunction.”
While at Central Falls High School, she became interested in theater. (So let that be a lesson to all you people out there who want to eliminate “frills” like band, orchestra, and theater from the public schools.) She attended and graduated from Rhode Island College, and then moved on to the ultra-prestigious drama program at the Juilliard School in New York City.
After Juilliard she became a stage actor in New York, winning both a Tony and an Obie for her performances. Her film career started in the late ‘90s, and she has turned in some outstanding performances. These are my favorites.
This was one of those ‘Hello, who was that actor?’ performances. Davis managed to stand out in a cast that included Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams. John Patrick Shanley directs his own screenplay (based on his play) about sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. Davis plays Mrs. Miller, the mother of the only African-American student at St. Nicholas School. Her son is the object of unwanted and suspicious attention from the priest of the adjoining parish. It is a steely and moving performance by Davis in a deeply troubling and compassionate film. Highly recommended.
This is probably Davis’ most well-known performance. She plays Aibileen Clark, a maid in Jackson, Mississippi, in the early 1960s. The film tells the story of “the help,” a group of African-American women who work for upper middle class white families during the Civil Rights movement. Great performances throughout the film, which was directed by Jackson, Mississippi native Tate Taylor.
You know what? I am always up for a revenge drama. And that’s what you have here. Viola Davis and Jennifer Lopez play a couple of mothers whose sons were murdered on the same day, probably by the same killer. They meet in a support group for bereaved mothers, and get frustrated with the slow pace of solving the case. You won’t believe what happens next: they become vigilantes! Pretty standard stuff, actually, but definitely elevated by Davis’ performance as a heartbroken mother out for justice. Worth a watch.
This is your classic Prestige Project, one of those movies that brings together A-List talent to a serious movie. Another perfect example is Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012), starring Daniel Day-Lewis. In Fences we have Denzel Washington starring and directing August Wilson’s adaptation of his own Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Davis plays Rose, the wife of Washington’s Troy. It’s a marvelously well-done film and the performances are all outstanding. Davis won an Academy Award for her supporting role performance.
I’m just gonna flat out say this: I loathe this movie. However, I am probably alone in this view because many people adore this movie. Julia Roberts plays a self-absorbed woman who ploughs through a series of world-wandering adventures combined with a series of relationships with hot guys, but who can never seem to find what she wants. Viola Davis plays her best friend, whose role is to question Julia Roberts’ character’s decisions. In this case, Viola Davis was playing me, because that’s what I was doing the whole time I was watching this movie. The movie was a huge success, but my main memory of it was cheering for Viola Davis and her questions.
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and the BBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times, is awaiting publication.