Oscar Preview: The New Journeyman – Viola Davis

Every week from now until the critics groups start giving out their prizes for the best of the year, I’m going to be spotlighting the big Oscar players and their chances at Oscar glory this year.

A theater actress in high school, Viola Davis has slowly built a steady career of celebrated performances, box office duds and journeyman work that suggests a long and fruitful career. And if her output in 2011 is any indication, we should expect more Awards-caliber work in the near future.

Her first roles on stage, television and film came in the same year, 1996. In the movie The Substance of Fire she took on a bit part as a nurse; in the TV series NYPD Blue she also took a no-name part; but on the stage she proved a force, picking up Tony Award and Drama Desk Award nominations for her performance in Seven Guitars. As the television and film work showed for the next several years, she, like most New York theater actors, take parts in commercials and one-off television episodes to pay the bills.

On television, she had a number of small parts, but managed to earn a recurring role on the little seen TV series City of Angels in 2000. After that, she took several recurring roles on TV programs such as Century City, Traveler, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and , all over the next decade. Emmy voters didn’t find her work award worthy, but Tony and Drama Desk continued to celebrate her work.

On stage, her post-Seven Guitars work was mostly off Broadway, though one of those shows in 1999, Everybody’s Ruby earned her a second Drama Desk nomination. Two more Broadway productions awaited her: King Hedley II in 2001, for which she won the Tony and Drama Desk awards for her performance as Tonya; and the revival of Fences in 2010 for which she earned her third Tony Award nomination and fifth Drama Desk nod (2004’s off-Broadway Intimate Apparel was her fourth). Earning Tony nominations each of her three eligible performances on Broadway is quite a feat and winning a Tony for her second is even more noteworthy. Oscar’s attention of the middle-aged actress, however, has been slow in recognition.

After her bit role in The Substance of Fire, she appeared in a pair of high profile productions without much attention paid, 1998’s Out of Sight and 2000’s Traffic, both Oscar-nominated films, but both relatively minor parts. It was in 2002 that she really emerged as an up-and-coming actress in both Todd Haynes’ Far from Heaven and Denzel Washington’s Antwone Fisher for which she received a Spirit award nomination for Supporting Actress before the film was roundly ignored by Oscar voters. She would take on more important roles in several of her next few pictures including Solaris and Disturbia, but her Oscar breakthrough came in 2008 as part of the all-nominated ensemble of the stage-to-screen adaptation of the play Doubt which saw her co-stars Philip Seymour Hoffman, Meryl Streep and Amy Adams, all prior Oscar nominees, standing at her side and with hers and Streep’s nominations the ones most talked about as yielding the potential for Oscars. Neither awards materialized, but from neither did a major big screen career for Davis.

She went through a series of seven films over the next two years that would keep her away from the Kodak Theater, trapped in the husks of unpopular or critically maligned films including Madea Goes to Jail, State of Play, Law Abiding Citizen, Knight & Day, Eat Pray Love and It’s Kind of a Funny Story. So how did 2011 become her biggest year yet in terms of quality productions? It’s hard to say, but maybe she took those two years as a kind of break just before Fences. For whatever reason, this year should bring plenty of attention with talk heavily centered on one of her two roles in this year’s Oscar crosshairs.

The Help

This film was a huge success with audiences having made over $165 million so far at the box office. Such a hit was the film, based on the bestseller of the same name, that the film, which was beginning to look like the kind of movie Oscar voters overlooked, began circulating as one of the earliest frontrunners for nominations. The film is almost assured the populist slot in the Best Picture slate, though any number of films releasing later in the year could supplant it, and Davis, who some felt would have fit better in the Supporting Race is being heavily pushed and campaigned for in the lead category. Whether the nomination ultimately materializes depends on how many of the bigger, more Oscar-friendly performances manage to hold on until Oscar season and how many of them pick up precursor awards. At this point, she has a good shot, as does supporting actress Octavia Spencer, but I think the categories I’d be least surprised to see the film in are Adapted Screenplay, Art Direction and Costume Design.

Forecast Categories (where the film is most likely to compete): Picture, Actress (Viola Davis), Supporting Actress (Octavia Spencer), Adapted Screenplay, Art Direction, Costume Design

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Stephen Daldry has a reputation in Oscar watching circles as the only director to receive nominations for himself and at least one of his stars in all of his first three feature films. Matter of fact, he’s also earned Best Picture nominations for his last two films along with acting prizes for those films, in the lead category no less. It would be folly not to consider Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close for Best Picture, Best Director and at least one acting nomination at this point in the game. The film still hasn’t opened and being 9/11-themed may hurt it at the box office (none of the prior such films have done well with audiences), but from the looks of things, Max von Sydow’s being heavily discussed as a possible nominee and if the film’s popular enough, Davis could be pulled along with it. If she were to get nods in both lead and supporting categories, she would be the first black actress in history to do so and an Oscar might well be in the offing in such a situation.

Forecast Categories (where the film is most likely to compete): Picture, Director, Actor (Thomas Horn), Supporting Actor (Tom Hanks, Max von Sydow), Supporting Actress (Viola Davis), Adapted Screenplay, Original Score

Viola Davis’ Oscar History

  • The Substance of Fire (1996)
  • Out of Sight (1998)
  • Traffic (2000)
  • The Shrink Is In (2001)
  • Kate & Leopold (2001)
  • Far From Heaven (2002)
  • Antwone Fisher (2002)
  • Solaris (2002)
  • Get Rich or Die Tryin’ (2005)
  • The Architect (2006)
  • World Trade Center (2006)
  • Disturbia (2007)
  • Nights in Rodanthe (2008)
  • Doubt (2008) – Nominated for Best Supporting Actress
  • Madea Goes to Jail (2009)
  • State of Play (2009)
  • Law Abiding Citizen (2009)
  • Knight and Day (2010)
  • Eat Pray Love (2010)
  • Trust (2010)
  • It’s Kind of a Funny Story (2010)
  • The Help (2011)
  • Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2011)

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