Monday, January 30, 2012

Viola Davis in The Help

Viola Davis made history and became only the second black actress to receive two Oscar nominations. She received the honor for playing Aibileen Clark, a maid who helps out an aspiring young writer with some of her stories about her life as a domestic. At the beginning of the award season, Viola Davis was the absolute front-runner to win the Oscar and if I can be honest, I was really surprised that she didn't win the Golden Globe because this is really a performance that they usually love (I guess they love Meryl more). I guess the SAG love for Viola meant that she's clearly the front-runner once again (I wonder about how the BAFTA will influence the race). 

Although The Help is not an amazing piece of filmmaking, it's a very entertaining and moving film with a cheesy story. Naturally, it's sentimental but it just adds to its charm. However, the film's strength lies in the almost all-female cast. Each and every actress gives a wonderful performance. Octavia Spencer and Jessica Chastain are both wonderful and deserving of the Academy Award but I'm going to root for Octavia because I think Jessica will have a better shot at winning in the future (and she will win as a leading actress, just a matter of time). I should also mention Allison Janney and Cicely Tyson who do wonders with their roles and provided some of the most moving moments of the film. I wish they had received more recognition for their work. 

Four years ago, Viola Davis was a Tony-winning stage actress who got supporting parts in movies occasionally. However, along came Doubt, in which she outshone Meryl Streep with a six-minute-long, heartbreaking scene, where she gave a terrific performance and for which she should have won the Oscar. In the following year, her situation and parts did not seem to change: all she got was bit parts in action flicks and romantic comedies. Being aware of her talent, it's kind of shocking that she had to make do with those bit parts. No wonder Meryl Streep pleaded at the SAG awards to get Viola a movie. We all know how much Hollywood listents to Meryl and she got Viola that movie, but also got her main rival for the Oscar. 

Gone with the Wind showed us the idealistic, happy house slave, Mammy who would sacrifice herself to help the family she's working for and her beloved Miss Scarlett. Some criticised Hattie McDaniel for playing these very clichéd images of a black woman but she said 'I'd rather play a maid than be one'. Seventy-two years later, we get to see a new and deeper (?) image of domestics in The Help. In a way, the characters of The Help are also clichés and maybe the products of white guilt, but somehow Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer solved this problem: Octavia with her wonderful comic skills and Viola with her dignified and gracious personality.

It's so interesting that The Help wants to be about social equality and yet it didn't have the courage to make a black character the real lead of the picture. In a way, the character of Aibileen is forced to the back of the bus to give the longer storyline to Skeeter's character. That's the reason why it's almost impossible to decide if Viola is leading or supporting character. She's co-lead at best and a sidekick despite the fact that she's far and away the most interesting and layered character of the film. I started to wonder if Aibileen is the most intriguing and heartbreaking character because of the writing or Viola Davis' enormous talent. Let's get this straight: if Viola Davis was a white woman, she would just flow in great parts and Oscars. I am not necessarily saying that Hollywood people are still as racist as the 1960 Mississippi but they still don't have the courage to make a black woman the real lead. They still think in white. But an actress of Viola's calibre would deserve to play all the great parts you could ever imagine.

I guess the fact that Viola is mainly a stage actress still helps her a great deal in her film acting. Her face is so expressive and her whole personality bursts with energy and emotionality. I think she's used to showing her emotions in a very big way and that's why we often get to see a huge amount of tears coming from her. I'm not suggesting at all by this that she's theatrical, far from it: she converts all the necessary stage "tricks" to the big screen, and the results are just wonderful. The reason why I love her so much is probably due to the fact that she reminds me of the greatest Hungarian actors/actresses. Here, it's stage first and then comes the movie and they clearly know the characters more than the film actresses. It's just that they would be able to play the whole thing at once and be just as great.

What we see about Aibileen is that she has a story. In every movement of hers, Viola is revealing something about her, tells a new story and reveals a new layer and depth. Viola wonderfully tells the background of Aibileen: the scene where she talks about her sons death is as heartbreaking as a scene can get (Oscar clip, watch out). What I was amazed at was Viola's ability to create something so natural and wonderful from such cheesy lines. Everything is pure and clean about her, she's free of fake behaviour and sentimentality. 

But honestly, for me the most amazing thing about Viola was how well she showed the love and faith inside Aibileen. She's an embodiment and representation of everything that faith should be about: telling the truth and loving. Her face in the church scene is just wonderful, we just see how touched she's by the message and how she's trying to live according to it.

Another very touching aspect of Viola's performance is the way she shows Aibileen's relationship with her baby girl, Mae Mobley. She shows a very intimate and beautiful relationship between the to of them and I just refuse to believe there's anyone who can keep dry eyes during the last scene where she's saying 'You is kind. You is smart. You is important.' Again, a very cheesy, sentimental line that Viola makes wonderfully moving and wonderful. 

However, Viola's performance is not only moving and loveable, it's also full of humor and gentle irony once she's in the company of Octavia Spencer. Their wonderful scenes cover a wide range of emotions: they are fooling around in the kitchen during the bridge party or comforting each other after Aibileen's character was running from the scene of a terrible murder (Viola portrays Aibileen's fear so heartbreakingly, she made her so vulnerable there). But honestly, it's their scene in the church in the end is the most moving of all: again, it's very sentimental, but somehow so loveable (that perfectly sums up the movie as well). When I first saw the movie and really got under its effect, I felt they were applauded for their future Oscar wins (silly, I know, but it felt like such a moment).

In the end, in a secondary part, Viola Davis is able to give the most layered and heartbreaking performance as Aibileen in The Help. In each and every moment of the film, she's endlessly loveable, showing so many emotions and faces of this character. Her incredible talent shines through this somewhat thin material and is able to be wonderfully moving, natural and funny at the same time. Beautiful, wonderful work for which Viola would deservedly win the Oscar. 

What do you think? 


Fritz said...

I haven't seen her yet but she is the nominee I mostly want to see this year.

dinasztie said...

As you see, I love her. :) She has a really strong emotional impact and I believe it's a performance you will also love.

joe burns said...

I agree! She is such a professional, a real idol of mine! I'm so glad she's the frontrunner!

I hope to do this year soon!

dinasztie said...

Yeah, she's a real pro and very, very gracious though I admit I would also love her in this movie if she was a stupid, rude bitch. :) Above all, I love the actual performance. :)

mrripley said...

Maybe she should do a 100 per cent turn and be horrid in a film,liked your shout out for janney,really overlooked for her supporting role,i wanted to mention emma stone's reading of the line "you broke her heart" gets me everytime!!!

Louis Morgan said...

I was not as impressed by the supporting ladies but I agree she was great.

Hey if the applause at the end works for Davis and Spencer maybe it will work for Oldman....probably not, but I have a feeling it will work for Dujardin.

Cole said...

I love The Help, I love Viola but I think she's a supporting rôle, I mean even Octavia Spencer has more screentime!! and Emma Stone clearly is the lead.

To be fair (and to not encourage the category fraud), I prefer to see Meryl or even Michelle winning the best actress trophy, and Octavia or Jessica ('cause she's a great in a tiny part) winning.
I mean Meryl, Michelle, Rooney and Glenn carry a whole movie on their shoulders! and for me it's represent what a women had to do to win the best actress award. Without them, no movies.

Some may argue about Kidman in the hours and the category fraud, but Kidman is on screen 30 min on a 1h40 long movie and in thoses scenes, she's clearly the main protagonist. In the hours, there a three leads.
In the Help, Viola is not even in 30min on a 2h30 long movie, and sometimes she's just there to be there, so I'm a little perplex.

mrripley said...

Agree about the screen time that is why i choose olivia coleman as best actress.

dinasztie said...

Cole: 30 minutes. Really? Did you count it? I know it's a cliché, but for me it's about quality, not quantity. And her category placement would be criticised anyhow. When she started in supporting, people were saying that she was forced to "the back of the bus" and it was a racist thing because she was clearly leading. Now that she's in the leading category and they say it's a white guilt move and she's really supporting. What's the truth then? I guess it's very much like the tale with the rabbit and the hat. If he has a hat on, that's the problem, if he doesn't, that's a problem as well.

For me, the character is clearly leading. The movie starts with her, ends with her and we see things from her point of view. And for me the definition of leading is that the story cannot exist at all without that character. It could exist without Minny or Celia (they just make it better), but not Aibileen.

But you know, as I said, I totally understand you. :) It might be more fair to give the trophy to someone who carries a movie on her shoulders and has a bigger role.

Anonymous said...

She's the clear choice in my opinion, and I hope you choose her as well.

Don't let the flashiness of Rooney, Meryl, Glenn, and Michelle fool you (Viola's got the only non-flashy role haha). ;)

Cole said...


Viola - 41 minutes 05
( first hour : 25min25, second hour: 10min40, the last half:9min)

Octavia - 45 minutes 20
( first hour : 17min40, second hour: 20min40, the last half:7min)

Emma - 1 hours 05
( first hour : 34min40, second hour: 24min, the last half:6min20)

Jessica - 19 minutes 30
( first hour : 4min10, second hour: 13min40, the last half:1min40)

Well, it's an estimation, it's not easy to count. it's the third time that I watch The Help, it's not a perfect but what a feeling good movie with such talented people!

Cole said...

*it's not a perfect movie but what a feel good movie with such talented people!

mrripley said...

Janney is the best supp actress of the film Tyson best cameo,Davis best lead.

dinasztie said...

Wow, Cole, that was informative! :) I still think that she's leading for the reasons mentioned above. :) But honestly, I'm very annoyed with this Viola subject (thanks to awardsdaily), which is why I might have come off as a bit rude.

mrripley: I probably agree though if Octavia is supporting, I have to make it a tie between her an Janney. :)

Anonymous said...

I was so unimpressed with her performance, I expected so much more and I think Jessica Chastain gave the most layered and brilliant performance in the film!

Sasha said...

I hear the love you have for that performance and I respect it but I don't know how you can put her performance on the same level of the one from Streep in Sophie's choice ans the one from jessica lange in Frances. It's surreal for me.

for me, none of the actual nominees deserve a 5. Last year Portman, Williams deserved it but this year , in my opinion, nothing came close.

dinasztie said...

Sasha, I'll give you that one. OK, 5 might be a bit much for sure but I'm just terrible at grading. I'm always trying to compare them to others in the ranking and she was ahead of many whom I have 5s. I might change it, though.

You guys should check out the part about Viola being supporting or leading. It's very interesting:

Cole said...

I thought again about the category fraud and everything, and finally I think I might consider that there is not 2 but 3 co-lead in the Help. I mean Viola and Octovia are 40 minutes on the screen, it's a lot compared to Melissa Mccarthy, Janet Mcteer and jessica Chastain who I think are truly supporting, so after much considerations, I reverse my opinion!

Cole said...

Anyway, there will always be debate! Julianne Moore in the Hours, Supporting? certainly not, Amy Adams in Doubt, Supporting? too much screen-times! Judi Dench in Shakespeare in love? Not enough screen-times, Patricia Neal in Hud, Lead? maybe.
I think the academy should instaure some rules to regulate and forbid the category fraud.

Sorry, I go too far... but the Oscars mean a lot to me, and I can't Stand when they made bad decisions, at least in my opinion.

PS: Still love your blog so much, it's a pleasure to keep reading your reviews! I'm not always agree with you, but always a pleasure!

dinasztie said...

Cole don't worry. I'm also a very passionate about arguing (I'm Hungarian, after all :D ) so don't worry. There's no official "truth" about the Oscars, it's all subjective and that's why it's so good.

In many way, it's like soccer games. One mostly likes it because one can tell the referee to go f@ck himself after a bad decision.

JC said...

Just saw The Help. It blew me away!

Davis was fantastic, and she is LEADING. I watched twice, the second one for me to count her time, and she clocks in 42 minutes and 47 seconds (close estimation, Cole), making her screentime 29.28% of the film's running time.

There are a lot of scenes where you just see a part of her, of maybe she is just walking around, serving the whites, but with smart lensing (you see a lot of her hair and arms), it makes her screentime a bit longer.

She may be brief, and Emma Stone's time is definitely longer, but Davis is the powerful force that pushes the movie forward and makes this film a lot lot better.

Heartbreaking at all times, but never one-dimensional.

Very satisfying and wonderful.

I am really thinking of 1968 (the Best Actress tie). THIS YEAR WAS THE PERFECT TIME TO GIVE ANOTHER TIE.

Sorry, my comment just went too long,. Just got to share my feelings and enthusiasm to this passionate work of the ever-talented Davis.