Oscar Preview: Viola Davis

Saturday, February 25, 2012


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In her official Oscar portrait, the very talented Viola Davis. Photo: Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.

When Rhode Island's own Viola Davis hits the red carpet outside the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood this Sunday, she'll bring a small state's big hopes for her as she competes with some of the finest actresses in the country for the coveted Best Actress Award.

Admittedly shy by nature, Davis was born in South Carolina but arrived in Central Falls at the age of two months with her family. She attended Central Falls High School and gives shout outs to CF teachers regularly in interviews. She attended Rhode Island College and graduated in 1988; in 2002 she received  an honorary Doctorate in Fine Arts from the college. She went on to Julliard, and has called her four years there "a hot mess."

After a star-turning 8 minutes in 2008's film, Doubt (which garnered Davis both Supporting Actress Oscar and Golden Globe nominations), Davis has enjoyed a meteoric year for her performance in The Help, with the culminating awards tomorrow night. Take a minute to get to know this remarkable actress and check out her chances for the big award.

First, the Oscar Buzz.

First, let's go to Vegas for the odds. As of Friday, Davis's odds, as defined by the real experts (Vegas Online Sports Betting), were 4/7, with Meryl Streep pulling 7/5, Michelle Williams and Tilda Swinton each at 15/1, Glenn Close 50/1, and Rooney Mara 30/1.

Gold Derby polled 30 "Gold Derby Oscarologists" (columnists and critics and major media outlets), and released its predictions on Wednesday. "An overwhelming majority back Viola Davis ("The Help") for Best Actress," writes Gold Derby's Tom O'Neil, "but there are a few notable dessenters picking Meryl Streep ("The Iron Lady"), including Tariq Khan (Fox News), Kevin Lewin (WENN), Richard Rushfield (Daily Beast), Kevin Polowy (Next Movie) – and me. As of Friday, Gold Derby's odds based on their experts' input gives Davis 3/13 odds (and Streep 10/3).

E! Online names Davis as its prediction for winning the statue on Sunday.  And heralded critic Roger Ebert picks Davis as well, explaining why she's going to win on Sunday night:

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Central Falls High School and RIC grad Viola Davis as Aibileen in The Help.

"In a way, Meryl Streep's many nominations will work against her. She'll get another chance, the voters will figure, and "The Iron Lady" was a cold and distant role (do you know anyone who "loved" the film?). "The Help," however, was enormously popular, and Viola Davis was its moral center. Ever since her nomination for a powerful scene in "Doubt" (2009), she's been circling to land."

Roger Ebert is not the only one seeing this as a Davis-Streep runoff. The Washington Post's Jen Chaney lays it out in this week's Celebritology:

"The tea leaves say: The lead acting categories are the toughest to call in this year’s Academy Awards race; best actress appears to be a neck-and-neck sprint between [Viola] Davis and [Meryl] Streep. The former won the Critics Choice Award and the SAG, while the latter took the Golden Globe and the BAFTA. Gold Derby puts Davis ahead of her “Doubt” co-star; that upcoming EW issue also projects that Davis stands in the lead with 35 percent of the vote, but that Streep’s right behind her with 30 percent."

Even Mark Wahlberg thinks so

In an interview with the Huffington Post UK posted this week, the Contraband star predicted all the big Oscar outcomes. According to the HuffPost, Wahlberg said The Help will "clean up" at the Oscars, with Viola Davis winning Best Actress (and Octavia Spencer winning Best Supporting Actress). How does Wahlberg (who said he'll be "suffering from a food coma" in Paris instead of the sitting in the Kodak Theatre on Sunday), know who's going to win? "I've got a friend at PriceWaterhouse," he cracked.

On Viola's natural new look

Davis wowed the paparazzi this week at the annual Essence Magazine Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon, with a short natural hairdo instead of the sleek, blown out wig she's often photographed in. As Donna McConnell of the UK's Mail Online wrote about Davis' look:

"It was a bold look for the actress, which was first revealed on the cover of the LA Times magazine in a stunning photoshoot. The majority of African American actresses opt for chemically straightened looks or hair extensions with many citing the stresses of constant grooming as the main reason. So it was certainly refreshing to see Viola wear her natural look with pride, and her actress friends Alfre Woodward and Octavia Spencer crowded round her to get a closer look."

According to the Mail, Davis says she told Essence Magazine that she hadn't "felt brave enough to show off her natural do," until now. But that her husband, actor Julius Tennon, "encouraged her to 'step into who I am.' Davis also said her wearing natural hair had given her a newfound sense of power. 'I feel very powerful, I really do. I feel more powerful every day, more secure in who I am and I've waited so long for the feeling. It feels so divine.'"

On her stage career

Before America discovered the talented Davis, theater lovers got to know her on stage. She first appeared in 1996 as Vera, the occasional lover of a struggling blues musician in August Wilson's Seven Guitars. According to LInda Winer, critic with New York Newsday:

"In that 1996 ensemble drama, however, it was impossible to ignore the extraordinary, furious sadness. She was so transparent she actually let us watch the character as she opened and closed with the joys and burdens of life."

It would only grow from there. Davis has notched two Tony's for her work onstage, most recently Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play (Fences, 2010). She was the second African-American woman to win the award, after Phylicia Rashad. Her first Tony was for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Play (King Hedley II, 2001). She also won a Drama Desk Award for her role in King Hedley II, and another in 2004 for her work in Intimate Apparel.

Watch Davis collect her 2010 Tony.

On The Help

Davis has spoken extensively about her role as a maid and what it has meant to her. “I considered it an honor to be able to step into their shoes and to be able to tell their stories," she told USA Today. "I find that their stories are valid. Especially women who gave up their dreams so that I could have mine. Are you kidding me? I think that's fabulous."

About her character, Aibileen, "I saw her going on a journey," she told Fresh Air on National Public Radio. "I saw her having humor and heart and intelligence. I saw her as having duality. And that's what I look for above anything else. Because usually, that is what's missing."

Watch Davis, and cheer for her, Sunday night on ABC.


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