Friday, December 30, 2011

In Character: Viola Davis

Viola Davis, the one scene wonder. She gets in, leaves her indelible mark, and gets out. And that’s pretty much the way it has been for Davis throughout her film career, she pops up for a scene or two, then leaves just as quickly as she arrived. The thing is, once she shows up, regardless of how long she’s around, she is impossible to forget. With such precious seconds of screentime, Viola Davis captivates in each and every one of them. And really, what more can you ask from a character actor?

Five Essential Roles
Law and Order: Criminal Intent - Badge (2002)
Sergeant Terry Randolph
Viola Davis is known for playing quiet, commanding characters, always looking to instill what’s right. Sgt. Terry Randolph is no such character. In her brief, one episode arc on Criminal Intent, Davis played an ex cop who kills people for money. And not just petty drug dealers and low level criminals, Randolph offs entire families just so she can put her adolescent kids through private school.

Two scenes in particular stand out from the episode: one allows Davis to unleash an educated monologue that rips the detective hunting her to shreds. She’s confident yet calm, and one hundred percent correct. The other scene is the moment Davis realizes she’s caught and lunges into a pathetic ploy for understanding. You haven’t witnessed desperation until you’ve observed a pleading Viola Davis.

Far From Heaven (2002)
As Sybil, the head maid of the Whitaker household, Davis isn’t given much to do in Far From Heaven, but when she’s onscreen, she’s effective as all hell.

In one subtly intense moment, Sybil informs Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) that the daughter of the black man Cathy has not-so secretly fallen for, has been brutally victimize. Without thinking, Cathy heads for the door. As she’s about to leave, Sybil asks her if she thinks Cathy is making the right decision. Sybil isn’t that direct (most black women weren’t in the ‘50s), but she gets her point across. The look on Davis’ face as Moore leaves the home is a perfect mixture of respect and foolishness; the rare voice of truth in the film.

World Trade Center (2006)
Mother in Hospital
As I’ve mentioned before in this column, the best part about Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center is the supporting performances. None better than Viola Davis, who in one minute and 50 seconds, achieves an emotional peak unmet by any of the film’s other characters.

While Maria Bello paces anxiously in a hospital waiting room, she begins talking with a woman whose son was an elevator operator in the south tower.  As their conversation develops, the anonymous woman admits that the last conversation she had with her son was a spiteful one, yelling at him for being late to dinner. And then, in a way only Viola Davis seems to know how, she slowly begins to crumble and break down, as if withering away in the middle of the hospital.  She knows she’s never going to see her son again, but she’s there anyway. It’s as authentic a moment as anything you’re likely to find in a film based on 9/11. Utterly devastating.

Doubt (2008)
Mrs. Miller
John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt isn’t a very good movie, but the four core performances all justify their respective Oscar nominations. Meryl Streep, Amy Adams and Philip Seymour Hoffman dominate the majority of the screentime, but again, it’s Viola Davis who steals the show.

In her single scene, Davis portrays the mother of a boy who may have been sexually abused. She’s at first confused, then scared, then angry. She’s not angry at the suspected pedophilic priest, mind you, but rather at the nun relaying the information. She begs and pleads that Sister Aloysius keep her mouth shut about the alleged abuse. If word spreads, the boy may not only fail to graduate, but he may be in physical danger at the hands of his biological father.

So what we have is the mother of a victimized son, begging for silence. She blames her son, she blames the nun, she blames herself, she blames her husband; she blames everyone except who is to blame. It’s a phenomenal emotional arc, achieved in just over seven minutes. Where was her Oscar?

The Help (2011)
Aibileen Clark
I’ve been a rather outspoken critic of The Help since its release. In fact, just recently I called it the most overrated film of 2011. But while the film is directed as nothing more than a glorified Hallmark movie, I’ve given just credit to some of the performances from the get-go, namely Jessica Chastain and Viola Davis. Without those two performances, the film would’ve been a total wash.

I honestly enjoy that way Davis plays Aibileen. She’s stern with strong morals; a woman beyond her time, finally ready to speak out.  Again, while this character could’ve benefited much better from a more fleshed out script, I think you can expect Davis’ name to be called come Oscar night. Credit owed where credit is due.

The Best of the Best
Antwone Fisher (2002)
Eva May
I’ve talked a lot about how Davis has made a career out of achieving greatness in just one scene, a notion that is epitomized in her performance as the mother of the titular character in Denzel Washington’s Antwone Fisher.

Antwone Fisher, for reasons I will explain fully a couple of days from now, is a truly great film. It’s a film about the hardships of remembering, and the catharsis of forgiving. It’s also, more or less, about a search, and how what you’re looking for is usually great, until you actually find it.

So when Antwone Fisher (played flawlessly by Derek Luke) finally meets his birth mother, Eva May, he’s given a reaction that is heartbreakingly unexpected.  When he introduces himself to Eva, she takes off down a hallway, running into the living room. Running, as she has her entire life.

What follows is a perfectly timed, immaculately articulated, and faultlessly played scene between Luke and Davis. Luke goes into a brief, inspired monologue about how proud he is of the man he’s become, and how she deserves none of the credit. Davis, very wisely, says nothing. Her words are exchanged in her shifting shoulders, her grimaced face, and her slow, harden tears.

In his director’s commentary for the film, Washington says that they filmed that scene in just one day. Davis stayed in character the whole time, and when the scene was done, she went to her trailer, changed, then left the set without telling anyone. That’s interesting. I’d be curious to know more. But, for now, I’m fine with letting Davis’ face do the talking.

Other Notable Roles
In Solaris
Traffic (2000)
Solaris (2002)
Syriana (2005)
Disturbia (2007)
State of Play (2009)
United States of Tara (2010)
Eat Pray Love (2010)
Trust (2011)
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2011)

Previous installments of In Character include:
Gary Oldman
David Morse
Michael Shannon
Emily Mortimer
John Hawkes
Jeffrey Wright
Elias Koteas
David Strathairn


  1. I was originally going to say that once you know her, it is impossible to miss her however small her role is. But then I saw your list at the end of post. She is in Traffic?? Syriana?? Disturbia?? and State of Play?? I am almost sure that I saw them all after Doubt. So, I knew Viola Devis. But I DO NOT remember her in any of these movies. How ignorant of me!!

  2. @SDG I think part of the reason people may not remember her is, for whatever reason, she always seems to weigh more in movies. I don't know if she purposefully puts on weight and added makeup, but it always seems like directors are "making her ugly," for lack of a better term.

    In Traffic she's a jail worker that does Erika Christensen's intake

    In Syriana she's a high-level CIA operative

    In Disturbia she's one of Shia LaBeouf's case managers

    In State of Play she is a friend of Russell Crowe's

    You should see Doubt, not a great movie, but she's great in it!

  3. I must say I haven't seen Davis in much, but I do remember her in DOUBT and TRUST. Another great edition of In Character, my friend! Keep 'em coming!

  4. @Tyler Thanks buddy! Hope you had a good holiday!

  5. To this day I'm just mesmerized by what she managed to do with just one scene in Doubt. She had so much more screen time in The Help, but for me Doubt is her greatest work.

    1. Oh I agree that she is far superior in Doubt than in The Help. No question. She did wonders in those 10 minutes.

  6. I can only agree with your best of the best choice here. I've seen Doubt as well and she is riveting but her role in Antwone Fisher is tops because she only has like four lines...its what she does with silence. You want to hate this mother who gave her child away while incarcerated but you can't because Viola Davis turns her into a real.person in less than five minutes and with fewer than 50 words. Watch that film you won't regret it! I've been on the lookout for her ever since that role.

    1. I love finding other people that film and Davis' work in it. Thanks so much for the comment, I haven't relooked at this post in years!

  7. I keep coming back to that Criminal Intent episode again and again. She is just so brilliant in it. She makes me want to see the beginning, middle and end of that character's decent into that cold killer. I can't help feeling something for Randolph, regardless of what she did.

    1. Couldn't agree more! A great performance will leave you wanting to know everything about that character. Davis is so good at doing that.

  8. This wonderful lady's role in Antwone Fisher, will always stay with me. You FEEL her pain, and that's an amazing skill to have 💖

    1. Completely agree. That will always be my favorite performance of hers.