'SHOULD WIN' VIDEO ESSAY SERIES: Best Actress Viola Davis, THE HELP

Video
by Aaron Aradillas & Kevin B. Lee
February 8, 2012 6:54 AM
14 Comments
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[EDITOR'S NOTE: Press Play presents "Should Win," a series of video essays advocating winners in seven Academy Awards categories: supporting actor and actress, best actor and actress, best director and best picture. These are consensus choices hashed out by a pool of Press Play contributors. We'll roll out the rest of the series between now and Friday. Follow along HERE as Press Play picks the rest of the categories including Best PictureBest Director, Best ActorBest Supporting ActressBest Supporting Actor and Best Documentary. Important notice: Press Play is aware that our videos can not be played on Apple mobile devices. We are, therefore, making this and every video in this series available on Vimeo for these Press Play readers. If you own an Apple mobile device, click here.]

Narration:

Four out the five performances nominated for Best Actress are in part based on fulfilling audiences’ preconceived notions of what they should be. Both Meryl Streep and Michelle Williams do impersonations on the level of genius. Streep dares to make Margaret Thatcher seem all too human; Williams lets us look beyond Marilyn Monroe’s wiggle and teasing smile and see the insecurity, sadness and natural born talent that is required to be a star. Rooney Mara becomes a star by bringing to life one of popular literature’s most revered heroines in recent history. She allows us to feel the heat of Lisbeth Salander’s rage and burgeoning soul. Glenn Close pulls off a stunt that some actors believe is the ultimate test of their talent, be it Dustin Hoffman, Linda Hunt or Hilary Swank.

But it’s Viola Davis as Aibileen Clark in The Help who creates a character from scratch. She makes us feel the anger and unbearable sadness that comes from raising and caring for 17 white kids over the years only to have some of them grow up and see their affection turn to indifference and casual cruelty, all the while enduring the pain of burying her only son.

The power of the performance is in Davis’ eyes. They take in everything – tossed-off racist remarks, a child’s need to be comforted. And her voice, which never rises above a formal submissiveness, quivers with a boiling anger that stands for generations of women whose hard work goes unnoticed. It’s a voice that needs to be heard.

The character could be seen as an example of Hollywood condescension: the quietly suffering noble black domestic. But Davis makes Aibileen unforgettable by cueing us into her quiet defiance. She knows a change is coming but worries if it’s too late. Aibileen may not possess the recklessness of youth, but in her own way she takes a stand. Davis may not raise her voice but we hear her loud and clear.

Kevin B. Lee is Editor in Chief of Press Play. He is also a film critic and award-winning filmmaker. San Antonio-based film critic Aaron Aradillas is a contributor to The House Next Door, a contributor to Moving Image Source, and the host of “Back at Midnight,” an Internet radio program about film and television.

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14 Comments

  • coult44 | February 21, 2012 11:28 PMReply

    If Mara Rooney doesn't win, they need to stop giving out the award. There has NEVER been a role acted better!!!EVER!!!!

  • Gaspar Marino | February 21, 2012 6:18 PMReply

    Brava Viola....Hand Down Winner!

  • spanishfan | February 9, 2012 1:11 PMReply

    This is getting odd and rare. We all know that Meryl Streep should win this year... but we also know that is precisely Viola Davis who is going to win :-(

  • Matt | February 12, 2012 8:42 AM

    I agree. Streep's character study, her visible dissection, deconstruction and re-assembly of Thatcher is heads and shoulders above any other single female lead this year, I think however she is now suffering in the eyes of the Academy simply because she has 'won too often thus far'. The Help, by the way, is a terrible film for many reasons and Viola did I fine job with what she was given but there just is not enough to compare her with Meryl's performance by far.

  • Genius GARBAGE | February 9, 2012 4:20 AMReply

    On what PLANET would anyone consider Michelle Williams Marilyn Monroe FAILURE to be that of a genius nature? Not this planet thank you. I have found many credible sources that convinced me to stay away from My Week With Marilyn however the trailer clips are enough to do that because she is just plain awful trying to be Marilyn. She can't even master the slightest hint of Marilyn's personality and glamour. I felt as if some little guy dressed up as Marilyn in this movie. There is nothing feminine about the character except for makeup and hairstyle and really the hair is just as awful as the acting. This movie is a TRUE DISAPPOINTMENT.

  • The Letters Project | February 8, 2012 4:56 PMReply

    I am a huge fan of Viola Davis, but I don't think she gave the best performance of the year. I didn't see "Albert Nobbs" or "My Week with Marilyn," but based on what I did see, I think Meryl Streep gave the best performance of the year. I didn't care for "The Help" or "Iron Lady," but I thought Meryl Streep rose above the material and gave the kind of performance that only she could give. www.thelettersproject.org

  • Tess | February 8, 2012 4:38 PMReply

    Nik Grape, if you believe Ms. Davis is somebody who followed character descriptors from the original source material (in this case Kathryn Stockett's book, The Help) on how to infuse a character with heartbreaking vulnerability, quiet nobility and an authentic glimpse into a women we've all come to care about, you know very little about how talented actors bring life to a character. And you certainly know very little about Viola Davis' incredible ability. As much as I admire and support Ms. Streep's talent, this time around she did no more than transform, and failed to transcend. Viola Davis should win the Oscar.

  • Nik Grape | February 9, 2012 10:43 PM

    Did you see this youtube clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=089eLfZpp_c ?

    Meryl Streep is a class act. We all know this. She loves Viola Davis and of course, if Davis wins, Meryl is going to be overjoyed because she loves her and knows this will bring her more opportunities etc. something she herself certainly doesn't need. But if you think Meryl Streep doesn't want to win then .. watch that clip again. I don't think Kathy Bates was talking nonesence. And socio-politlca/historical reasons does not equate to African-American issues only. She loses to the trendy, usually younger actress who is more often than not inferior in performance but superior in momentum because of a,b,c or d reasons. I'm not saying Streep deserved to win every single time she was nominated, that would be ludicrous, I think she shouldn't have been nominated for certain films, but this year and the last two times for example...she was the best, and she either lost or most likely will lose this year. That's all I'm saying.

  • Jurawi435 | February 9, 2012 5:57 PM

    Nik- okay first off, most of Meryl Streep's losses were not because of socio-political/historical reasons. You act as if Meryl Streep has lost the Oscar to an African American countless times. And secondly, I very highly doubt that Meryl Streep would describe her losses as something she has to "endure" because of socio-political/historical reasons. I am willing to bet that Mrs. Streep doesn't give two hoots if she wins or not. Actually, she wants Viola Davis to win, so I would stop feeling sorry for her and lamenting how Meryl has to "endure" these losses. Meryl Streep is already considered the best actor, male or female, ever. She doesn't need awards. And besides. The oscars are silly. Sandra Bullock won for pete's sake! But as far as Ms. Davis, I do think if she wins, she deserves it. She was amazing in The Help, an otherwise flawed movie.

  • Nik Grape | February 9, 2012 5:26 PM

    OK Tess, you seem blinded by the fact that you just want Viola to win and nothing else matters. I didn't say she had assistance from other actors for her performance, i said the film was elevated not only by Ms. Davis, but by the whole ensemble, together (and yes, The Help is an ensemble piece with no clear lead). While Meryl was the only one who managed to elevate her film to something great. So yeah, the clear winner should be Ms. Streep but the winner to bet on right now is Ms. Davis: unfortunately not because of her great performance but because it will be another historic moment for the Academy. All of these losses Ms. Streep has to endure because of socio-political/historical reasons is getting very old.

  • Tess | February 8, 2012 11:35 PM

    To imply that Ms. Davis had the assistance of two of her colleagues for her performance is not only condescending, but a misnomer. And per your logic, you can say the same about Ms. Streep, irrespective of whether her colleagues were nominated or not. And you're right, it is clear who the winner should be -- Ms. Viola Davis.

  • Nik Grape | February 8, 2012 6:52 PM

    I am not trying to underestimate Viola Davis' abilities here. The reason I quoted that line was because the authors here made it seem like her character was original and Davis built her "from scratch" which just isn't the case. Davis was the heart and soul of The Help, but she didn't do anything that different than what she did with her role in Doubt (which I actually found more powerful than Abileen) while Streep proved, yet again, what the power of acting can bring. Streep brought heart and soul to a historical figure that has a legion of haters who believe she has no soul/heart. Davis' power of vulnerability pitted against the 80 year old Thatcher's vulnerability in The Iron Lady: there is no contest. Streep should win by elevating her film by a single "one woman show" performance while Davis had help from all the other actresses to do that (two of them nominated) in an ensemble piece. It's clear who the winner should be.

  • Nik Grape | February 8, 2012 1:55 PMReply

    "But it’s Viola Davis as Aibileen Clark in The Help who creates a character from scratch." ... you mean from the book right?

    What Meryl Streep does with Margaret Thatcher, no other actress could do. She not only acts with her eyes and voice as well, but with her whole body/demeanor/gestures etc. And does it at various stages of a woman's life. The fact that "this was expected" from such a talent should not impede her chances. On performance alone, Streep deserves it without a shadow of a doubt. Looking at the way the characters resonate with the audience, Davis should win. But that's script and/or book, not acting.

    Meryl Streep should win the Oscar.

  • Brian | February 9, 2012 6:03 PM

    I personally thought Streep performance was atrocious. First of all, all I saw was makeup (not very good BTW).. Thatcher looked like the actor Paul Ford--a rooster head. Streep simply doesn't have the forehead nor the teeth that Margaret had. When I see MS in a role all I see is calculation and "acting". She's the least spontaneous of performers and I'd rather watch a somewhat bad actress on the screen (like Crawford in Rain, or Liz Taylor in anything) than sit through another of Streep incarnations of every accent on the globe.

    IE-- Streep is a bore, no fun to watch at all. And in The Iron Lady she's at her most boring.

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