No Doubt About Viola Davis

by Anne Thompson
December 29, 2008 9:51 AM
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Davis_violaPowerhouse theater dynamo Viola Davis, 43, keeps showing up in tiny movie roles--the crackhead in Antwone Fisher, the mother in the hospital in World Trade Center, the anxious Mrs. Miller in Doubt--and each time blows them out of the park. While filming Doubt, Davis was so worried about holding her own in her one 11-minute confrontation with Meryl Streep that she completely failed to recognize that her nose was running. Although writer-director John Patrick Shanley convinced the studio to let him reshoot the scene in order to slow down the pacing, the snot remained. The pivotal confrontation comes as Sister Aloysious tries to find out what Mrs. Miller knows about her son's relationship with Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman).

As the two women walk quickly down a windy street, the nun presses and the mother, always politely deferential, clearly reveals her fleeting emotions: love for her son, gratitude to the priest for looking after him, fear that his homosexuality will be discovered or punished, not just by his peers, but his father. "My boy came to your school because they were going to kill him in the public school," she says. "His father don't like him. One man is good to him, this priest. Do I ask the man why he's good to my son? No."

Davis is one of those chameleons who disappears into each role. In person she is diminutive, glam, and not surprisingly, intense. She wowed my Sneak Previews group with her story: she grew up in "abject poverty" near Providence, Rhode Island, where her father groomed horses at the race track. She and her sisters play-acted as escape, pretending to be Zsa Zsa Gabor and Sophia Loren, and inspired by Cecily Tyson's Miss Jane Pittman, Davis eventually worked her way through Juilliard, where she performed the same range of Shakespearean and classic roles as everyone else. Her attitude: having survived "finding your weakness" at Juilliard, she can do anything.

Still, it's hard to believe that this skilled actress, whose Hollywood champion Steven Soderbergh has cast her in four films, is out looking for a job like every other working actor. Good roles for African-American women are hard to find, though, so Davis jumped at the role of Mrs. Miller. So did many other black actresses. But Davis got the part and is sure to nab a supporting actress nomination on January 22. And she could win.

To learn more, check out this podcast by Oscar blogger Scott Feinberg; David Cohen featured her here and here.

[Originally appeared on Variety.com]

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More: Genres, Awards, Oscars, Drama, Period

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